Information from the suspects in the September 2016 Davao bombing sheds important light on the radicalization and recruitment processes that led a pro-ISIS coalition to take over the city of Marawi in May 2017. Understanding those processes is critical to ongoing prevention efforts. ISIS succeeded in expanding support for violent Islamist extremism in the Philippines. While defeats in the Middle East may lead to diminished support for the ISIS “brand”, there is every reason to believe that the various regional components of the coalition can use some of the same narratives and tactics to regroup and find new sources of support. There is an urgent need for the Philippines government to organize and analyse the data it has from all those in custody in connection with pro-ISIS activities so that more effective strategies for countering extremism can be formulated.
This report shows how much can be learned from just seven individuals, all arrested in Cotabato for suspected involvement in the Davao bombing. Custodial debriefings, made available to IPAC, show how the Cotabato cell of the pro-ISIS coalition came together. It shows the ease with which a group of friends can be transformed into a radical cell if one extremist with a claim to religious knowledge is involved. It shows how well integrated at least three parts of the coalition – Cotabato, Lanao del Sur and Sultan Kudarat -- were by 2015 in terms of training. Detainees from Basilan and Zamboanga could help fill out the picture of how radicalisation, recruitment and training worked there.
University students were an important part of the Cotabato cell; it is clear that universities and technical institutes need to be a part of prevention efforts. The involvement of Muslim converts (Balik Islam) is striking, as is the speed between conversion and recruitment. If the networking described for Cotabato is even partly indicative of cells in other cities, then the Philippines needs to worry not just about what happens in Marawi in the next eighteen months: it needs to worry about sleeper cells in Cagayan, General Santos City and Zamboanga, not to mention Manila.
The debriefings are also interesting for what the investigators apparently did not explore: the narratives used by radical preachers in discussion sessions; the use of social media; and the role of women, to name three. Detainees could fill these gaps in a way that could help target prevention programs more effectively.
The Philippines as of November 2017 had 47 suspects connected to pro-ISIS activities in detention, a surprisingly low figure given the fact that President Duterte imposed martial law throughout Mindanao on 23 May 2017 as Marawi erupted. Seventeen of the 47 are women. More than 300 individuals reportedly have been named in arrest orders, but in most cases, their whereabouts are unknown. Many may have been killed in Marawi but it is critical to assessing the risk of violence to try to determine who may be still alive and at large. The use of multiple nicknames, spellings and aliases does not make the task easy. All the data from the 44 ISIS-linked detainees need to be thoroughly analysed to get a composite picture, as detailed as possible, of how the pro-ISIS structure worked in terms of recruitment, training, financing, decision-making, governance and application of Islamic law both before the Marawi siege began and while it was underway.
Using interrogation depositions as source material is obviously problematic. The conditions under which those arrested gave testimony is not clear, and they may have had good reason for hiding or altering facts. When they are telling the truth, they may not remember details accurately. The value of having seven at once, however, is that the information in any one deposition can be cross-checked against the others; it can also be cross-checked with outside sources.
In the end, this report is an effort to show how much needs to be done to understand what happened in Marawi and to prevent violent extremism from re-emerging in virulent new forms in the future.