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Has ISIS reached Southeast Asia? Philippine Terrorist Group Abu Sayyaf Pledges Allegiance

Has ISIS reached Southeast Asia? Philippine Terrorist Group Abu Sayyaf Pledges Allegiance

The conquest of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria by ISIS has seen the group become a household name, as the international community organizes to counter the terrorist group. ISIS has attracted thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, as well as foreign jihadis, to its cause. The group has garnered international sympathy from radical Islamists, with governments fearing the emergence of a global terrorist network which utterly dwarfs Al-Qaeda's power and reach circa 2001. Many fear the rise of satellite groups aligned with ISIS in various hotspots around the globe. Such concerns would initially appear to be justified in part by the recent declaration of allegiance by Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf to ISIS.

The Philippine group is a radical Islamist group which has been active since the early 1990s, based in the southern province of Basilan and Sulu. The group's ultimate aim is the secession of these regions from the Philippines and the creations of an Islamic theocracy. Abu Sayyaf is one of the smaller terrorist groups in the southern Philippines - estimates as to the group's size range from some three hundred individuals to under a hundred. Until recently Abu Sayyaf along with the larger and better known Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were fighting the Philippine government, yet on January 25 2014 both sides agreed to a peace deal. This deal will see the creation of a Muslim autonomous region (Bangsamoro) in the southern Philippines in return for the disarming of MILF, reduction of local militias, removal of heavy government troop presence and creation of common police force.

This peace deal was opposed by the more radical Abu Sayyaf, which did not attend the peace negotiations, nor ceased their campaign of violence. During the summer the group raided a Malaysian fish farm and ambushed civilians celebrating Eid Al-Fitr in late July. The group also claims responsibility for the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing which killed 116 people. Last week's announcement of ISIS allegiance came in a video which also included a ransom demand for two German tourists. Abu Sayyaf has demanded a ransom of $5.6 million as well as the end of Germany's support for the American led campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Germany's foreign ministry spokesperson refused to concede to these demands, stating that such acts were “not an appropriate way to influence [Germany's] policy in Syria and Iraq.” Hostage taking is a common tactic employed by Abu Sayyaf which over the years has been involved in the prominent kidnappings of around 100 people; some of whom have been beheaded.

In response to this latest act by Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine government has firmly denied that ISIS is operating by proxy in the country. Speaking for the government, Lt. Col. Roman Zagala acknowledged that there are certainly ISIS sympathizers within the group, yet there exists no concrete connection between the two groups. In contrast to ISIS's unity of vision and ideological commitment, Abu Sayyaf has in recent years become more of a for-profit criminal organization than an ideologically Islamic group. Terrorism expert Joseph Franco has described Abu Sayyaf's pledge to join ISIS as “a publicity stunt. [Abu Sayyaf] is known for its clever use of media and propaganda. Latching unto the ISIS brand is an attempt to prop up its flagging reputation.” With the conclusion of the aforementioned peace deal, continuing to fight risks a loss of legitimacy, and Abu Sayyaf is seen by many as a withering organization. The diminished status of Abu Sayyaf is driven home by the de-escalation of American anti-terrorism efforts in the country. Since 1992 the United States has stationed 500 commandos in the Philippines to aid the government in its fight against Muslim separatists. Despite Abu Sayyaf's posturing, Washington announced in July that it is disbanding the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines.

The frivolous connotations of the term 'publicity stunt' seems at first anachronistic when associated with terrorists, yet it is a very important point. Many people are misled by the '-ism' in 'terrorism' into viewing it akin to other -isms i.e. ideologies. Terrorism is a tactic and many groups have used it for a myriad of reasons. These disparate groups have also been keenly aware of branding. The same phenomenon behind disparate groups rallying behind the ISIS banner was behind groups claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. The ISIS brand is the latest viral sensation sweeping our interconnected world, fully embodying its dual meanings: murderous and memetic.

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