Terrorism in the Southern Philippines and Sabah During COVID-19 Pandemic

by Rommel C. Banlaoi

1 May 2020

When the Philippine government declared on 16 March 2020 the entire Luzon of Northern Philippines under “enhanced community quarantine”, a subtle term for a total lockdown, in order to deal with the COVID-19 infection, terrorist activities in Mindanao of the Southern Philippines  remained unabated.  Though local governments extended quarantine measures in Mindanao,   the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a pro-Islamic State (IS) terrorist group operating in the Southern Philippines (with support networks in Luzon, the Visayas and even Sabah), continued their kidnap-for-ransom operations, ambuscades, bomb-making, and other violent extremist activities.

On 17 April 2020, the ASG killed eleven  and wounded fourteen soldiers  of the 21st Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in a firefight in Patikul, Sulu.   The ASG ambushed the Philippine soldiers while conducting their hot pursuit operations against followers of Radullan Sahiron and Hatib Sawadjaan, most wanted terrorist leaders in Sulu.

Most Devastating Attack Since the Jolo Cathedral Bombings

The aforementioned violent incident was the deadliest attack of the ASG since the Jolo Cathedral suicide bombings in January 2018.   The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said that the attack  was “the most devastating encounter for the military in a long while.” The encounter occurred a month after Mindanao was placed under quarantine due to COVID-19 threats.   The Office of the President of the Philippines released a statement exclaiming, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the latest incident in Patikul, Sulu, where members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) believed to be under ASG leader Radullan Sahiron and Hatib Hadjan Sawadjaan attacked government troops resulting in a firefight, which left 11 soldiers killed and 14 wounded.” 

The following day, 18 April 2020, the Philippine military resumed its military operations against the ASG.  The operations resulted in a firefight between the military and the ASG in Talipao, Sulu where a certain Vikram, the grandson of Sahiron, was killed.   Vikram was on the military’s wanted list because of his involvement in the Jolo Cathedral suicide bombings.  Vikram was an expert on the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

On 23 April 2020, another encounter took place between the ASG and the  45th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in Patikul.  Six ASG members died during the encounter but only three of the ASG members were identified namely Guro Khalid, Udal Muhamadar Said, and a certain “Budah”.  Eight soldiers suffered wounds in this incident.

Sabah on Security Alert

While implementing security measures against COVID-19, the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) placed Sabah on high alert by beefing up its land and sea patrols in order to prevent the spillover of  recent violent activities from Sulu. In fact,  amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the ASG in Sulu planned  to conduct kidnapping operations in Sabah.  On 30 March 2020, the Malaysian intelligence alerted the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre about the intention of the ASG to carry out kidnapping activities in Felda Sahabat and Tambisan areas.

Combating Multiple Threats

With combined threats of terrorism and COVID-19 pandemic in the Southern Philippines and Sabah,  the Philippines and Malaysia need a rethinking of its existing strategies to combat security threats.  Terrorists worldwide are now exploiting the COVID-19 situation to further justify their violent extremist activities. Terrorists have adapted to the pandemic to persist in propagating violent extremism.  Thus, the world is bound to face multiple virulent threats.  

With this new situation, it is paramount for the Philippines and Malaysia to lead other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to formulate a coordinated regional response to combat multiple threats posed by terrorism, the pandemic, and others associated with them.  Without a coordinated regional response, Southeast Asian countries will find it difficult to combat these threats not only in the region but most importantly at home.

Updated version of this piece is published here: and here.

Photo credits: Malaysiakini and Google Images.

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