Overview: The Philippine government placed significant resources toward countering threats from terrorist groups that operate primarily in the country’s South. Philippine military forces remained engaged in counterterrorism operations. The Philippine military, law enforcement, and judicial authorities participated in numerous U.S. capacity-building programs and used the training and equipment they received to prevent and respond to terrorist incidents. ISIS-East Asia remained the deadliest terrorist threat in the Philippines, continuing to recruit, fundraise, and stage attacks on security forces and civilians alike. ISIS-East Asia factions active in 2021 included Daulah Islamiya-Lanao (aka Maute Group), Daulah Islamiya-Maguindanao, Daulah Islamiya-Socsargen in South Cotabato, Sarangani, and General Santos City, ISIS-aligned elements of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Basilan and Sulu, ISIS-aligned elements of, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and rogue elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The Philippines remained a destination for FTFs from Indonesia and Malaysia. The Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army (CPP/NPA) continued attacks on both security forces and civilians.
The government intensified actions against CPP/NPA and ISIS-East Asia through military operations and legal actions to cut off financing. Human rights organizations continued to raise concerns over security forces’ “red tagging” of civil society advocates and human rights defenders as communists or terrorists or both, which has led to threats, harassment, and killings of so-called red-tagged individuals. The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including strict travel regulations, limited the ability of terrorist groups to travel and conduct The government intensified actions against CPP/NPA and ISIS East Asia through military operations and legal actions to cut off financing. Human rights organizations continued to raise concerns over security forces’ “red tagging” of civil society advocates and human rights defenders as communists or terrorists or both, which has led to threats, harassment, and killings of so-called red-tagged individuals. The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including strict travel regulations, limited the ability of terrorist groups to travel and conduct operations.
The Philippine government continued a peace process with the MILF and transitioning to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a semi-autonomous region established in 2019 after decades of conflict with Islamic extremist groups. The government postponed the first BARMM regional elections, originally scheduled for 2022, until 2025.
Members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, the region’s transitional government, welcomed the decision, saying that the authority needed more time to establish legislative and parliamentary processes. The decision drew approval from peace advocates and human rights organizations. However, some rogue MILF elements and breakaway groups — including BIFF and ISIS-East Asia— continued to oppose the peace process and continue attacks in the region.
2021 Terrorist Incidents: Terrorist attacks using, IEDs and small arms continued to target civilians and security forces:
- In June, two North Cotabato buses were bombed and torched, killing four persons. Authorities arrested Ali Akbar, a bomb maker for ISIS Affiliate Daulah Islamiya, in connection with the event. IEDs, blasting caps, and an ISIS flag were found in his possession.
- In September, eight persons were wounded by an explosion at a volleyball court in Datu Piang, Maguindanao. One victim was a 13-year-old boy; many others were members of the LGBTQI+ community. Authorities were unable to identify the perpetrators but believed BIFF to be behind the attack, as the group had sent death threats to local LGBTQI+ members days before.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: The Antiterrorism Act (ATA), signed into law in 2020 and developed with assistance from the United States, faced 37 petitions challenging its constitutionality in the Supreme Court, making it the most contested piece of legislation in Philippine history. Opponents of the ATA worried the law could be used against political rivals and human rights defenders. The government maintained that while the ATA expands the government’s authority to investigate and prosecute terrorists, it will not use such powers against human rights defenders. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled the ATA constitutional except for two provisions. One stricken provision allowed the government to arrest protesters if they endanger the public; the court ruled the provision to be overly broad and too easily abused. The second allowed the government to consider one a terrorist based solely on determinations by the UN Security Council, without the need for the government to make its own determination.
Government forces made several significant enforcement actions against terrorists and terrorist groups, including disruptions and arrests.
In February, security forces arrested nine Abu Sayyaf members alleged to have been plotting attacks on military targets in Jolo. Security forces seized IEDs and other explosives after a raid on the suspects’ homes. The members were widows of Abu Sayyaf fighters killed in combat six months earlier, Abu Sayyaf insurgents detonated two bombs in Jolo province, killing 14 people and wounding 75 others.
In October, security forces killed Salahuddin Hassan, leader of ISIS-Near East and one of the government’s most wanted militants, during a raid in Maguindanao. Hassan was alleged to have planned dozens of bombings across Mindanao, most prominently orchestrating the 2016 bombing of a Davao night market that resulted in the deaths of 15 people. He allegedly led other bombings, extortion, and kidnappings across the region as well as constructed bombs for other regional militant groups — including Abu Sayyaf.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: In June, FATF placed the Philippines on its “gray list,” a registry of countries subjected to increased monitoring, to prove its progress against terrorist financing. In response to the FATF finding, the Philippines made high-level commitments to resolve strategic deficiencies outlined by FATF. Despite remaining on the gray list, FATF praised the Philippines in October for its efforts to respond to the FATF finding; FATF gave the Philippines until 2023 to resolve all strategic deficiencies. The Philippines is a member of the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering. Its Financial Intelligence Unit, the Anti-Money Laundering Council, is a member of the Egmont Group.
Countering Violent Extremism: The government has a National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and has developed and implemented CVE training for security forces and civil servants. Local governments, NGOs, and the private sector partnered on CVE programs. The Armed Forces of the Philippines worked with local stakeholders to encourage defections from the ASG, BIFF, and ISIS-Near East and to rehabilitate former terrorist fighters. The government also supported strategic communications efforts to counter terrorist messaging. The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund provides funds for local implementers across the Philippines for programs to prevent and counter violent extremism.
International and Regional Cooperation: The Philippines continued to support CT efforts in several regional and multilateral organizations, including the UN, ASEAN, ARF, ADMM, and APEC. The Philippine Navy continued joint patrols with its Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts under a 2017 trilateral arrangement to combat piracy, terrorism, and the illegal drug trade. Further, the Philippines and the United States in February co-hosted with Australia the second virtual workshop in a three-workshop series for ARF members on watchlisting, aviation security, and information sharing. The Philippines is a member of the Defeat-ISIS Coalition and participates in the organization’s Counter-ISIS Financing and Communications working groups.