Duterte’s drug war blinding PH from rising ISIS threat, analysts say

NEW YORK, USA (UPDATED) – After 3 months in captivity, 70-year-old German national Jurgen Kantner was beheaded on February 26, the latest in a long line of kidnappings and killings conducted by Filipino terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf.

Footage of the ordeal made the rounds online, reminiscent of the public execution of American journalist James Foley in 2014 at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Unlike the highly-produced, propaganda-fueled videos of ISIS, however, Kantner’s final moments were captured by a shaky camera phone. He sits on the jungle floor, a curved blade tucked beneath his beard. His captor works the blade like a saw and it isn’t over quickly. One imagines a bullet might have been more merciful.

Kantner’s execution marks a recent surge in terrorist operations by the Abu Sayyaf, following the two dozen splinter groups pledging themselves to ISIS under Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the self-appointed IS Philippines.

Despite this, public attention both local and international remains fixed on the country’s ongoing war on drugs. In a flag-raising ceremony held in Camp Crame on March 7 – not two weeks after Kantner’s murder – PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa promised to redouble efforts in cracking down on the country’s illicit drug trade.

As the drug war death toll continues to climb, the rising threat of ISIS command moving into the country remains largely unchecked. Experts believe that not only is this fixation on the largely Manila-based drug war allowing these terrorist groups room to operate, but may also be the reason the situation has gotten so out of hand.

“Without a question, I would say the president’s not only commitment but obsession with the war on drugs has consumed a significant amount of his political capital,” said Richard Heydarian, a security expert and political science professor.

“Not only has that created a public relations nightmare for the Philippines, but has taken away necessary focus and attention that should have been dedicated to other sources of stress in this country,” he said.

Tensions in the Muslim south center on a decades-old, armed struggle for autonomy, with major groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its progenitor the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leading the charge in negotiations with the Philippine government. While the Bangsamoro Basic Law – the country’s key piece of legislation on the matter – entered into its third year of deliberation, hopes were high that Duterte would be the leader to finally broker peace in the region.

According to Heydarian, Duterte, who claims Muslim heritage and spoke during his campaign of putting to bed harmful stereotypes about the Islamic faith, raised a lot of expectations as the first president to hail from Mindanao.

“But I think that’s worked against him, because the expectations were so high,” Heydarian said. “First, it made the president a little complacent. And second, it made the other side more impatient.”

It was from these long brewing frustrations that the extremist factions in power today were born. In 1991, the Abu Sayyaf was formed out of rank-and-file MILF and MNLF defectors who turned to radical extremism as a response to the government’s perceived indifference to their struggle.

Today, the Philippine government’s focus on its war on drugs has relegated peace negotiations with the south to the backseat, once again threatening massive defections to an already strengthening terrorist collective. For analysts like Heydarian, this is the nightmare scenario.

Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, believes the group poses a larger threat today than ever before, not only to the Philippines, but to the East Asian region as a whole.

Receiving instruction from ISIS central, Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon is now attempting to unify the ISIS-inspired groups in the area and establish a wilayat, a controlled-territory to serve as the new base of operations for ISIS.

“With IS steadfastly creating a base in Mindanao, the Philippines is the most likely country where the foreign fighters from our region will return,” he said.

While many admonish the government’s poor handling of this rise in terrorism, Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, believes that the Duterte administration has already made moves to address the threat.

“The current military plan, Oplan Kapayapaan (or Operation Plan Peace) regards the war on drugs and the war on terrorism as two sides of the same coin,” he said. “The war on drugs will be pursued more vigorously in tandem with the war on terror.”

But with so much on the table, the question now is if the president’s divided attention would be enough to address this pressing issue. Gunaratna believes that with Islamic State influence and structures growing in mainland Mindanao, the international terrorist group is likely to declare a wilayat in the country before the end of the year.

As ISIS grows in power by the day in the nation’s south, the Philippine government is quickly running out of time to respond. – Rappler.com