The Philippines: The Bastion of Southeast Asian Jihadism

By María Carmen Martín Palacios

Unfortunately, terrorism has become one of the major transnational threats of our times. The rise and expansion of groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, and the international scope of their attacks have harmed multiple societies, regardless of their location. However, Southeast Asia has emerged as a significant bastion for terrorists, and most specifically jihadists. Today, their safest haven in the region has become The Philippines, a country whose recent history has been marked by the attacks of different terrorist groups. However, what is the reason behind this geostrategic choice of Asian jihadists? What role does terrorism play in the Philippines today?

The origin of Philippine terrorism

Most of the current operative terrorist groups in the Philippines share a jihadist ideology. This is a consequence of the feeling of resentment among the Muslim population, a minority in a country whose catholic population amounts to 92% of its total inhabitants. The religious clash between Philippine communities is rooted in the formation of the modern state of Philippines, which resulted from the annexation of the Northern Spanish catholic colonies to the Mindanao islands, a territory which was never controlled by the Spaniards and governed by an independent Muslim Sultanate.

Even though the initial mélange of cultures was relatively successful in terms of convivence, the enactment of resettlement policies to diminish the population pressure at the northern provinces resulted in a massive migration of Catholic Philippines to the province of Mindanao. This migration flow altered the religious status quo of Mindanao, as the Muslim population was rapidly surpassed by the number of recently arrived Catholics.

In addition, Mindanao Muslims progressively witnessed how the new policies of the Central Government were not sufficiently addressing their community demands, and this feeling of discrimination gave rise to new terrorist organizations, which sought to achieve by force more favorable conditions for their communities. 

These initially political groups soon evolved to armed organizations, and their ideologies became aligned with the beliefs of Jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda. Consequently, these terrorist organizations started to vindicate the creation of a new Southeast Asian Caliphate, and have carried their attacks in accordance to that vow.  

The birth of ISIS:  the new momentum for Philippine terrorists

The apparent weakening of Al-Qaeda´s international presence following the year 2010 seemed to diminish the performance of regional terrorist groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or the Abbu Sayyaf group. However, the rise of ISIS as the new referent for Jihadists resulted in the increase of Philippine terrorist attacks, mainly conducted by a new organization called “The Maute group”.

This terrorist group has been responsible for last year´s Malawi siege, which lasted for over five months and resulted in one of the bloodiest and largest urban jihadist battles of the country´s recent history. (Cripps, 2016)

This conflict begun following the attempt of the central government to capture the leader of Abbu Sayyaf, who was thought to hold a secret meeting with a group of Maute terrorists in the city. As a response, terrorists from both organizations were called in arms to take control of Marawi, which was captured on the 23rd of May 2017 and proclaimed as the capital of the new Caliphate of Lanao del Sur. Ever since, the Philippine Army has fought against terrorists to recover the control of the area, passing the Martial Law in the Mindanao province until December of 2017. The battle lasted for over 5 months, and the city was not liberated until the announcing of the assassination of the leaders of the Abbu Sayyaf and Matute group, which led to the surrender of the remaining terrorist combatants on the 23 of October 2017. (Prasad Routray, 2017) The conflict has not only left behind over 1.100 people killed and 1.400 wounded, but it has also served as a warning for other regional countries that are also struggling against similar terrorist groups.


The siege of Malawi has raised international awareness about the magnitude of the Southeast Asian Jihadist problem and its potential consequences if it is not urgently tackled. Despite the liberation of the city, and the elimination of two of the main commanders of these terrorist groups, there is still a lot to do until the Jihadist problem in The Philippines is finally resolved. The central government needs to foster the healthy convivence between religions in the country, especially in the regions in which the religious clash is more evident. Thus, the development of integrational policies is a must to address this security problem.

However, the dimensions of the problem also demand regional support not only to suffocate tensions in the Philippines but also to build a shared ASEAN policy that may prevent the rise of similar terrorist groups. The transnational scope of modern Jihadism makes the cooperation of neighboring countries indispensable, and drawing a common counter-terrorist plan has become a security priority not only for Southeast Asia, but for any given region in the world.


María Carmen Martín Palacios is a fifth year student at the University Pontificia de Comillas, where she studies Business Administration and International Relations.


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