Country Report on Terrorism 2015 - Chapter 2 - Phillipines

Overview: The Philippines, in cooperation with the United States and other international partners, continued to make progress against international terrorism in 2015. Terrorist groups, including U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Jemaah Islamiya (JI), and the Communist People’s Party/New People’s Army (CPP/NPA), as well as other militant groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), were unable to conduct major attacks on civilian targets in metropolitan areas due to sustained pressure from Philippine counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts, although sporadic fighting did displace locals.

Members of these groups were suspected, however, to have carried out attacks against government, public, and private facilities, primarily in the central and western areas of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, while others were linked to extortion operations in other parts of the country. In addition, terrorist and rebel groups in the southern Philippines retained the capability and intent to conduct bomb-making training, small-scale shootings, and ambushes.

The Philippine government’s Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which creates a new Bangsamoro autonomous government in Mindanao, is aimed at providing a peaceful resolution to the 40-year-old conflict in Mindanao. The peace plan, negotiated between the Philippine government and Moro political leaders dominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is intended to reduce tensions in the South and diminish the attraction of violent extremist groups by providing greater political and economic autonomy for Muslim-majority areas of Mindanao.

Since the March 2014 signing of the CAB, clashes with the BIFF and other Moro splinter groups have continued in central Mindanao, indicating that violent opposition to the peace process remains. At the same time, continued heavy military and police presence, including active ongoing operations against the ASG, JI, the NPA, and other violent extremist groups with ties to terrorists such as the BIFF, resulted in the displacement of local populations and disruption of civilian livelihoods.

The Government of the Philippines continued to make modest progress in implementing its 2011–2016 Internal Peace and Security Plan, which calls for the transition of internal security functions from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to the Philippine National Police (PNP). The increasing role and capability of the police in maintaining internal security in conflict-affected areas will permit the AFP to shift its focus to enhance the country’s maritime security and territorial defense capabilities. This transition continued to be slow, in part due to uncertainty over the implementation of the CAB, lack of capacity in the police force, and shifting priorities ahead of a national election in May 2016. Continued violent extremist activity, as well as counterterrorism capability gaps between the AFP and PNP, meant that the AFP continued to lead counterterrorism efforts in the Philippines.

The Philippine government submitted to Congress draft legislation known as the “Bangsamoro Basic Law” (BBL) in 2014 to establish the new autonomous government entity in the Southern Philippines, as stipulated by the CAB. The BBL was expected to pass Congress in 2015, but progress was largely derailed by the fallout over a counterterrorism operation in Mindanao that resulted in the death of 44 PNP Special Action Force troops in January. In the backlash against the peace process resulting from that clash, two additional separate versions of the BBL have been authored, one by each house of Congress, that vary significantly from the originally negotiated law. To date, none of those bills have progressed in the Congress and the law has missed several key implementation deadlines. Both the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leadership confirmed their intent to press forward with a peaceful settlement at numerous points throughout the year.

The Government of the Philippines recognizes the potential threat posed by radicalized Philippine citizens supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the risk of ISIL elements traveling to the Philippines to promote violent extremism in the country or seek safe haven. Members of numerous groups – including ASG, the Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP), and BIFF – have publicly pledged allegiance to ISIL. In 2015, these groups displayed ISIL-affiliated images and conducted some of ISIL’s most reprehensible practices – including the beheading of hostages. Reports continued to emerge that ISIL was attempting to recruit Filipinos, but there was no strong evidence of any significant number of Filipinos traveling to the Middle East to join their ranks.

The government increased efforts to monitor the possibility of ISIL-affiliated terrorists seeking safe haven in the Southern Philippines. The President’s Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) heads an interagency technical working group on persons of interest in conflict areas. That group meets regularly and has taken steps to tighten passport issuance, increase Bureau of Immigration screening at major departure points, and enhance monitoring of online extremist-related activity through the intelligence services and the PNP. At year’s end, the ATC was reportedly preparing an Executive Order or other administrative policy document to formalize this process.

2015 Terrorist Incidents: There were dozens of small arms and IED attacks, kidnappings for ransom, and extortion efforts by suspected members of terrorist groups in the Philippines in 2015. Representative examples of specific incidents included:

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: The 2007 Human Security Act (HSA) remained the principal counterterrorism legislation of the Philippines. The law defines terrorism and provides methods for law enforcement to conduct investigations of terrorist suspects. Many aspects of the law have not been used due to a number of strict procedural requirements in the law. These limitations include notification to subjects of surveillance before activities can begin and damages of approximately US $12,000 for every day of detention if an individual accused of terrorism is ultimately acquitted. In 2015, the Philippines Department of Justice obtained its first ever conviction under the HSA. Most convictions are made under other criminal legislation. In September, the Isabela City Regional Trial Court in Basilan designated ASG as a terrorist organization under the HSA. This is the first designation of a terrorist group in the Philippines under the HSA.

Philippine units with a specialized counterterrorism focus, including the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the PNP Special Action Force (SAF), have improved their investigative, crisis response, and border security capacity. However, multiple agencies have jurisdiction over counterterrorism efforts, creating duplication and inefficiency in leading investigations and in response to terrorism incidents. Roles and responsibilities between law enforcement and military units that have a counterterrorism mission were often not well-delineated, and command and control arrangements were often dependent on interpersonal relationships between incident commanders. Specialized law enforcement units possessed some necessary equipment, but numerous unfulfilled needs remained, and sustainment and maintenance of complex equipment often exceeded fiscal and human resources. Law enforcement units had a mixed record of accountability and respect for human rights. The ATC provided guidance to agencies responsible for enforcing terrorism laws, but its capacity to enforce cooperation and coordination between agencies was limited.

The approximately 150,000-strong PNP maintained legal responsibility for ensuring peace and security throughout the county, which included arresting terrorists and conducting terrorism investigations. In conflict-affected areas, the PNP often relied upon the AFP to conduct counterterrorism operations, and coordination between the two services improved, but more work remained to be done. The PNP SAF is the national operational support unit for law enforcement counterterrorism efforts.

The Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) program in the Philippines assisted the PNP’s SAF, Anti-Kidnapping Group, Anti-Cybercrime Group, Explosive Ordnance Disposal/K9 units and other law enforcement units in Mindanao by providing counterterrorism-related training and specialized equipment and explosive detector K-9 dogs. This assistance strengthened the PNP’s capacity to respond to terrorism-related incidents. In 2015, the ATA Program conducted 35 courses with 897 participants from the Philippines.

The Philippines issues “e-passports”, which make up more than 65 percent of all valid passports in circulation. At the main international airport in Manila, the Philippines participated in the INTERPOL Border Management Program.

The first phase of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) was completed in 2014, which included the build-out of the physical AFIS facility at NBI headquarters and the digitization of 850,000 fingerprint records. No funding was available from either the Philippine government budget or U.S. assistance funding to complete the second phase of the AFIS program in 2015.

In 2015, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) partnered with State’s ATA program to deliver an Airport Security Managers course to several Philippine government agencies that focused on implementation and oversight of international aviation security standards.

The Philippine government has also successfully procured advanced screening technologies such as body imagers to mitigate the evolving threat of non- or low-metallic IEDs.

With assistance from the United States, security in the Sulu Archipelago Tri-Border area of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia was being improved through efforts to enhance the capacity of the PNP Maritime Group, Maritime Special Operations Units (MSOU). MSOU and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) operational and training capacity has been upgraded through provision of varied courses of instruction by the DOJ International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), using the Global Security Contingency Fund; this training enhanced the capacity of the MSOUs and the PCG to integrate operations in the border region.

In addition to its cooperation with the United States, the Philippines received counterterrorism assistance from Australia, the UK, Canada, and Japan. This work focuses generally on capacity building for investigation, detection and removal of explosive ordnance and demolition, forensics, case management, intelligence, and special operations training with the PNP and the AFP.

The U.S. Coast Guard's (USCG’s) International Port Security (IPS) Program has been actively engaged in the Philippines since 2004 to assist with and assess the country's implementation of counterterrorism measures at international port facilities. In 2015, the USCG continued its capacity building and assessment efforts to stimulate and enhance the country’s implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code by conducting four training seminars and numerous port facility assessments. The Philippine government is making incremental but steady improvement in terms of implementing counterterrorism measures.

In 2015, the United States continued to work with the Government of the Philippines to monitor and investigate groups engaged in or supporting terrorist activities in the Philippines. The Joint Special Operations Task Force–Philippines, under Operation Enduring Freedom, was successfully concluded in June 2015 after more than a decade. The government launched numerous operations, particularly in the Southern Philippines, to make arrests and disrupt organizations like the ASG, JI, BIFF, and NPA, with the ultimate goal of prosecuting terrorist suspects and organizations. Specific examples of counterterrorism operations included:

In 2015, the Philippines continued coordinating with U.S. law enforcement authorities, especially regarding wanted U.S. fugitives and suspected terrorists. On November 18, three men were convicted in Regional Trial Court 15 of kidnapping and sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with the 2011 abduction of American Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her son Kevin, and cousin Romnick Jakaria (other suspects remained at-large). Additionally, hearings continued in Cebu in the prosecution of four defendants accused of murdering two U.S. soldiers and one Philippine Marine in an IED attack in Kagay, Jolo, in September 2009.

On November 16, 2015, ASG financier Khair Mundos and three others were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by Zamboanga City Regional Trial Court Branch 87 for abducting nurse Preciosa Feliciano in Zamboanga City in 2008. The suspects held Feliciano captive for four months after allegedly receiving a ransom payment.

Although these successes were important, an under-resourced and understaffed law enforcement and judicial system, coupled with widespread official corruption, continued to limit domestic investigations and resulted in a small number of prosecutions and lengthy trials of terrorism cases. Philippine investigators and prosecutors lacked necessary tools to build strong cases, including clear processes for requesting judicially-authorized interception of terrorist communications, entering into plea bargains with key witnesses, and seizing assets of those suspected of benefiting from terrorism. The Philippines, with the assistance of the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), has developed a Training Manual for collaboration among the intelligence, investigation, and prosecution sectors.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: The Philippines is a member of the Asia/Pacific Group (APG) on Money Laundering, a Financial Action Task Force-style regional body, and its Anti-Money Laundering Council is a member of the Egmont Group. In recent years, the Philippines significantly improved its financial regulatory regime and remained focused on effective implementation of international standards.

The U.S. government works directly with the Joint Terrorist Financing Investigation Group (JTFIG), a joint interagency taskforce with members from the ATC; the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC); and the PNP’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI), Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG), and SAF to pursue terrorism finance cases in 2015. The JTFIG acts as an “intelligence fusion center” to complement the other intelligence groups tasked with investigating terrorism and terrorism financing. In 2015, Philippine agencies participating in the JTFIG pursued several investigations into suspected terrorism financing. In March, a bank account of an arrested ASG member was frozen by the AMLC after six months of investigation. This is the first financial account frozen under the Financial Terrorism Law.

In implementation of UNSCR 2199 and the UN 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida sanctions regime, the AMLC has frozen the assets of six members of ISIL and al-Nusrah Front. Under Section 8 of the Terrorist Financing Prevention and Suppression Act, all transactions with the named individuals designated by AMLC are prohibited. The AMLC freezes assets of those listed at the UN 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and al-Qa’ida, and 1988 (Taliban) sanctions regimes through AMLC Resolution TF-01.

For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes: http://www.state.gov/j/inl/rls/nrcrpt/index.htm.

Countering Violent Extremism: In 2015, the Philippine government continued its counter-radicalization efforts through the Resilient Communities in Conflict Affected Communities program. During the year, the Philippines worked with the Global Counterterrorism Forum to apply the Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders. Government offices, including the President’s Law Enforcement and Security Integration Office and the Philippine Center for Transnational Crime, led interagency collaboration on countering violent extremism (CVE) through counter-radicalization and de-radicalization initiatives.

The PNP’s Directorate for Police Community Relations (DPCR), through the Salaam Police Center (SPC) and Salaam Police personnel in regional, provincial, and city police offices, regularly conducted peacebuilding and counter-radicalization efforts in respective areas of responsibilities targeting students, youth, women, Muslim elders, and religious and community leaders to foster dialogue and clear up misconceptions that could lead to violent extremism. The DPCR, through its Information Operation and Research Center (IORC), is strengthening its information operation strategies to weaken the narratives of violent extremism.

Philippine officials participated in several CVE initiatives throughout the year. In February, members of the ATC and civil society representatives attended the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in Washington, D.C. In April, Philippine government and civil society members attended a Regional CVE seminar hosted by Singapore. In May, the Philippine government, in cooperation with the U.S. Pacific Command’s Military Information Support Team (MIST), inaugurated the Combined Special Outreach Group, a joint AFP-PNP community engagement group to share best practices and combine strategies for public messaging on peace and order and CVE outreach. The group meets roughly every two weeks and has coordinated several efforts to increase community and educational CVE engagement in support of the peace process. On July 29, Philippine officials from the ATC attended the Rome CVE Summit Process Senior Officials Meeting.

In February, Philippine officials facilitated the 3rd Multi-Lateral CVE Conference “Youth and Terrorism: Countering the Narrative” in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, and a Seminar Workshop on CVE Narratives in Zamboanga City in October.

Training on rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremist offenders, implemented by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism-The Hague, continued and included Philippine experts from different agencies and the private sector. The Philippine government also continued to support a counter-radicalization program in the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) facilities housing ASG or other terrorist suspects pending trial. The PNP DPCR SPC coordinated with the BJMP to conduct visitation of inmates relating to violent extremism. In 2015, the government also launched a policy to expand the Special Intensive Care Areas of the BJMP in the Manila region and to introduce a modernized Inmate Counseling and Classification Unit (ICCU) to improve identification of inmates vulnerable to further radicalization while on trial – a large number of alleged ASG, BIFF, and MNLF fighters are incarcerated as their trials proceed in Manila courts.

International and Regional Cooperation: The Philippines views counterterrorism as a regional challenge and participated in numerous regional CT coordination activities. In 2015, Philippine government representatives were involved in trainings, workshops, dialogues, and working group meetings through the ASEAN-Japan Counterterrorism Dialogue, Australian-ASEANAPOL, INTERPOL, UNODC, UNICRI, and the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

Philippine counterterrorism, intelligence, and CVE officials participated in several international conferences throughout the year focused on stemming the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. These included the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Conference in Indonesia (March), the UNODC-sponsored Regional Conference on Effective Responses to the Phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Thailand (June), and the Regional Technical Workshop on Responding to the Threat of Returning Foreign Fighters in Manila (August), which was co-sponsored by UNICRI and the Philippines.

A representative from the ATC serves as the 2015-2016 Chair of the APEC Counter-Terrorism Working Group (CTWG) and has been supportive of U.S. efforts to sponsor self-funded counterterrorism capacity-building workshops under the auspices of APEC, particular initiatives designed to help implement the APEC Consolidated Counter-Terrorism and Secure Trade Strategy. In January 2015 in Subic Bay, the Philippines hosted an APEC CTWG Secure Finance Workshop on Countering the Financing of Terrorism with New Payment Systems (NPS), which provided working-level financial crimes policy and operational representatives from APEC member economies’ regulatory, investigative, and enforcement units the opportunity to develop and reinforce capacities to counter the illicit use of new payment systems, or NPS, especially in financing terrorism. In August 2015 in Cebu, they hosted an APEC CTWG Secure Travel Workshop on Countering Foreign Terrorist Fighter Travel, which highlighted the threat that foreign terrorist fighter travel poses to the Asia-Pacific region and explained why advance passenger information systems are effective at helping mitigate that threat. The Philippines also participated in a series of INTERPOL Integrated Border Management Task Force projects sponsored by Canada.

On May 26-27, the Philippines hosted a conference on kidnapping for ransom that was attended by representatives from INTERPOL, Colombia, Australia, and the U.S. FBI. The event was funded by the Australian Embassy.