Three years after Marawi Siege: Coming to Terms with a Horrific, Unimaginable Ordeal

by Fr. Teresito L. Soganub

24 May 2020

I am Fr. Chito, survivor of the Marawi siege in 2017. This is my recollection of that fateful day three years ago, when war broke out in the city and I was taken hostage by local followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

It was around 10:30 in the morning when we heard gunfires. We knew later these were in Barangay Basak Malotlot, when ISIS warriors resisted a team of government troops sent to arrest their top Asian leader.

While the war had already started, I prayed and asked for God’s enlightenment on the most prudent action to take to protect myself, and the church, and the people.

The prayerful reflections and discernment led me to a decision that I have to witness the unfolding of events. My experience in the last 23 years reminded me that we were spared from harm as I simply trust and put our fate, as always, in the hands of God.

Soon, the sounds of war reached the road just near our church compound. But amid the continuing rattle of gunfires in the streets, we promptly had our lunch at 12 noon, and by 3:30 in the afternoon, celebrated Holy Mass in preparation for the next day’s Santa Maria Auxiliadora Cathedral parish fiesta.

A climate of fear engulfed the entire city at 5:30 of that sad afternoon. The usual hustle and bustle of the city was gone, replaced with the eerie silence akin to a ghost town as the continued ringing of gunfires sent and kept people within the safety of their homes.

Not a single vehicle was moving in the streets. Lights in the houses were turned off. A deafening silence reigned over the city, broken only by the intermittent burst of indiscriminate gunfires.

Sensing the deep climate of fear captivating the entire city, me and my five lay companions in the Bishop’s house gathered in the chapel and prayed for 30 minutes.

At six o’clock of that sad afternoon, after the prayers, we saw in one direction, about 500 meters away from us, the city’s police station and jail burning. The Bureau of Fire Protection station was unable to respond as they were already occupied and controlled by the armed men.

About 30 minutes later, we saw from another direction one of the buildings inside the Dansalan College compound, some 500 meters away from us, go up in flames.

While witnessing the two big fires not so far from us, which we were helpless to do anything about, we resorted to prayer to control our fears.

At seven o’clock of that fearful evening, several armed men in full combat gear showed up at our compound’s gate. They introduced themselves as warriors of ISIS dawla, and ordered the six of us to submit to their commands so they won’t shoot.

We were instructed to get into a van. Inside, we met seven teachers of the Dansalan College. Together, we comprised the first group of hostages. Our horde would reach 120 as the war wore on.

As captives, we were living with unexplainable fears, surrounded by around 60 young and war-capable men brandishing Armalite rifles and other high-powered guns, with bandoleers of bullets strewn on their bodies.

“Lord, keep me in your hands.” These were the words I constantly intoned, fully entrusting myself to Him amid that very devastating situation. In my intense and fervent prayers, I told myself before God that my life will never be the same again with this experience. That is, if the Lord wills into my fate and destiny to survive from the ordeal, I thought then.

I and several male hostages were transferred to a location where the top ISIS leaders hold fort, dispensing orders to their fighters. There, we got a daily feel of the war’s nerve center.

When government forces soon discovered it was the main headquarters of the militants, our location became center stage of the offensives, and we were right in the middle of all the strife.

During days of intense assault by government forces, we have to constantly dodge from devastating air strikes. For those of us who survived every blast, we suffered the deadly sound unleashed at every explosion. In due time, our ears have grown deaf to the blare. We also have to be alert to immediately seek cover when a barrage of artillery fires and bullets start to rain on our location.

In a given day, I can count at least ten times that I escaped death from a bullet or a bomb shrapnel. Most of the time, I was just an inch away from being hit.

Seeing ISIS fighters and our fellow hostages hit, struggle with serious wounds and eventually die was also daily fare. The daily sight of buildings brought to their knees by bombs was a grim reminder of the devastating way we could meet death.

That ordeal I endured for 93 days! Horrific. Unimaginable. A tale that still shocks me to this day.

Having seen death face to face, I was no longer afraid to die. Instead, I prepared myself to meet it at any moment. I was just afraid of being hit by a bullet and agonize for too long before dying. Hence, in my intense prayers to the Lord, I implored, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and all the angels and Saints, that if I have to die, it should not be in such situation.

In a hopeless situation, simply praying covered me with the cloth of hope, especially when I forced myself to entrust everything to God, even asking Him to give me strength to accept His will.

After three years, the deep psychological wounds inflicted on me still linger, although these are within my capacity to manage, through the professional help of psychologists, psychiatrists, and health coaches. I hope that with the passage of time, and with the blessing of God, I can be healed completely.

I thank all the individuals and institutions in government, civil society, inter-religious and inter-faith communities, and the Church for accompanying me and other survivors and hostages, in our journey of healing. After three years, many among us still find it hard to return to our work or professions as the trauma would disturb our thoughts. This can be compounded by current worries of the coronavirus pandemic.

Please continue to pray for our recovery from that tragedy in Marawi. We also pray for strength in maintaining our forgiving hearts to our captors.

I am still awed at why God let me undergo such a unique and privileged faith experience three years ago. It was the greatest test of my faith.

And today, I have yet to comprehend the miracles of God.

*The author escaped from his captors amid intense fighting near Marawi’s Bato Ali mosque on September 16, 2017 and was immediately brought to safety by government troops who saw him. At the time of his kidnapping, Soganub was chaplain of the Mindanao State University.

This article is originally published in Minda News. It is reproduced here to reach wider audience.

About the Photo: At the same spot where it happened, Fr. Teresito Soganub reenacts on Wednesday, 17 October 2018, how he echoed on video the demand of the ISIS-inspired Maute group to President Duterte to stop the military offensive in Marawi City on May 30 last year. The militants took the priest and dozens of other civilians as hostages during the siege. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

Marawi Three Years After the Siege

23 May 2017 – 23 May 2020

23 May 2020 marks the third year of Marawi Siege. To commemorate this event, we are pleased to share the following knowledge products to continue raising our awareness and understanding of many issues associated with it:

Photo Credit: Marawi City during one of the airstrikes carried out by the Philippine Air Force. Photo screenshot from a video file of ORCPA

Three Years After Marawi Siege: Terrorism In The Philippines Persists Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic. Read more.

COVID-19 adds to frustration of displaced families in battle-scarred Marawi. Read more.

Three Years after Marawi Siege: Coming to Terms with a Horrific, Unimaginable Ordeal. Read more.

Three years after militants laid waste to Marawi City, ISIS operatives are using the virus crisis to recruit new fighters. Read more.

Fallen heroes of Marawi siege honored on war’s 3rd anniversary, Read more.

3 years after the siege, displaced Marawi residents go online to demand their  return home. Read more.

Three years after Marawi siege, children face new battle against COVID-19. Read more.

Marawi residents still hope to return home after 3-year wait. Read more.

3 years on, Marawi bakwits face another danger – the coronavirus. Read more.

Marawi, 3 years on: 120,000 still displaced, now vulnerable to COVID-19. Read more.

The Battle of Marawi: From the Eyes of the Former Joint Task Force Commander. Read more.

COVID-19 Hampers Rebuilding Efforts in Marawi City | Video

Sample Chapter..  Purchase.
Free download.
Free download.

China’s Economic Reopening in the Pandemic Era

by Commercial Section, Chinese Embassy in Manila

Foreword: At present, the improved situation of COVID-19 prevention and control in China has been further consolidated, as we have changed from the emergency respond mode to the normalized prevention and control mode, while accelerating restoration of normal daily life and actively promoting resumption of work and production. As the community quarantine measures are eased in many parts of the country as MECQ or MGCQ, the Philippines is facing new challenges in coordinating epidemic prevention and control with resuming work and production. Under this new normality, China is willing to share pragmatic and effective experience and practices in this regard with the Philippines so as to support the Filipinos overcome the epidemic and resume normal production and life as soon as possible.

At present, the COVID-19 is still spreading around the world. It will be some time before we can completely defeat the pandemic.

How to adapt to the new normal? How to balance the pandemic prevention and control with the economic and social development?

This is a new challenge.

China has worked very hard to bring the pandemic under control. Under the new normal of day-to-day prevention and control, China is now making all-out efforts towards economic reopening, which will greatly ease the pressure of global medical supplies’ shortage, effectively stabilize the international industrial chain and supply chain, and make positive contributions to the global anti-pandemic battle and economic stability.

In April, China ’s Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index and Non-Manufacturing Business Activity Index were both above the 50-point mark. Up until April 25th, according to the survey of the national purchasing managers, the resumption rate of large and medium-sized enterprises was 98.5%. Among them, 99.7% of manufacturing enterprises had returned to work, 80% of which had worked with an 80% normal capacity.

There is no definite answer as to how to contain the pandemic as well as promote the resumption of work. Every nation and region needs to review the situation constantly and look for a fitting solution. China, as the first country in the world which has contained the pandemic and started to reopen its economy, has explored many ways and gained some useful experience. 

1. Take steady and orderly approach. The key to contain the pandemic and resume work at the same time is to keep a good balance. As President Xi Jinping noted, “we should remain committed to the underlying principle of making progress while keeping performance stable.

Stability is the key. We must ensure that the number of cases will not bounce back, and must take strict, solid, and precise measures to prevent the virus from being imported from overseas or spreading again in the local community. We should take active steps on a stable basis, and promote the overall resumption of work and production together with the normalized work of pandemic prevention and control.”

Therefore, the Chinese governments at all levels issued relevant guidelines and work notices, adopted orderly and differentiated approaches over various regions and sectors according to the severity of the pandemic, and asked the enterprises to reopen zone by zone, and group by group. In the low-risk regions, they asked all the enterprises to reopen and resume as soon as possible. In the middle-risk and high-risk regions, they required the enterprises to take steady steps to reopen on the basis of containing the pandemic, and launched special inspections to ensure that policies are effectively implemented.

Recently, over the management of transportation vehicles and stations, the Ministry of Transportation issued the third edition of the prevention and control guidelines based on the pandemic zoning, which focused on improving the disinfection and ventilation of the station and the vehicle, the setting of inspection areas on the vehicle, the protection of personnel, etc.

2. Intensify macro-policy management. China continues to step up the macroeconomic policy adjustments. In order to promote reproduction and help enterprises solve problems, various ministries around the country have precisely and timely launched 90 policies in 8 areas, including raising the local government’s special debt limit, reducing taxes and fees, providing special credits, expanding the scale of re-lengding and re-discounting, targeted requirement reserve ratio cuts,promoting consumption, and other fiscal, taxation, financial, social security measures to help the enterprises, especially the small and medium-sized enterprises, to reopen.

Since the beginning of this year, the taxes and fees have been further cut down by 318.2 billion yuan. The financial sector have provided 3.55 trillion yuan of low-cost funds to financial institutions through three times of RRR cuts, re-lending and re-discounting measures, which in turn benefited more than 2.5 million small and medium-sized enterprises.

In response to such problems as the shortage of labor in enterprises, the retention of migrant workers, and the difficulty in graduates obtaining jobs, the relevant ministries and local administrations have issued a number of policies and measures to reduce burden, stabilize jobs, and expand employment. Some actions include increasing employees’ guarantee and unemployment insurance, online recruiting, online training, and so forth. They strengthened the connection between supply and demand sides in the labor market, and injected a string of guarantee into the enterprises and the people.

Beijing launched “customized buses” to provide commuters with the customized public transportation. Shanghai launched “point-to-point” inter-provincial special vehicles to take the workers back to the construction site. Heilongjiang, Hebei, Qinghai and other places have implemented the “One code pass”, a code scan service invented by Tencent company, and facilitated the workers to travel across different regions. At present, the labor market continues to warm up. The labor force of manufacturing enterprises has increased for two consecutive months. More than 100 million migrant workers have returned to work.

3. Secure the industrial and supply chains. The Chinese government asked the large companies to help the small ones, the upstream business to coordinate with the downstream ones, the domestic enterprises to interact with the foreign ones. China focused on the key industrial chains, and guided the leading companies to improve the resumption of the entire industrial chain.

Some industries like automobiles and electronics share the feature of a long, highly refined, and deeply inter-dependent supply chain system, and have a positive influence over the manufacturing sectors. Some industries like the agricultural machinery are the basic industries. Some industries are relevant to the people’s livelihood, such as the agricultural and sideline food processing, etc. Some industries have a direct impact over the stability of the global supply chain, such as the active pharmaceutical ingredients industries. For those industries listed above, the Chinese government keeps on sorting out a list of leading enterprises and their core supporting enterprises, dynamically adjusts and promotes their resumption, helps them solve the practical problems and overcome difficulties, and finally pushes forward the effective execution of the whole industry chain.

Taking Jiangsu Province as an example, the relevant ministries pooled a list of 491 leading enterprises, and helped resume the work of more than 1,400 enterprises in the supply chain, through the coordination of ministries, provinces, cities and the Yangtze River Delta region.

Some foreign trade companies faced problems like cancellation or extension of orders, difficulties in signing new orders, poor logistics and transportation, etc. Therefore, the government launched policies to ensure the smooth operation of their supply chain, including the support for the China-Europe trains, the setting of the comprehensive free trade zones and so forth.

The supporting policies are equally applicable to domestic and foreign enterprises. The government continues to lower the threshold of the foreign investment and improve the business environment for the foreign companies. According to the survey of more than 8200 foreign companies in China, up until April 28th, 76.7% of them had resumed work with a 70% normal capacity. 

4. Encourage innovation and the development of new economy. China gives full play to its own advantages, cultivates the emergence of the new consumption types during the pandemic, and explores compatible institutional mechanism and policy environments for them. China also encourages the development of the new business models such as “Internet +”, which helps accelerate the speed of work resumption, and inject a new momentum into the economic and social development.

China has recently issued a plan to promote the digital service and foster the development of the new economy, for example, new forms of retail business, online shopping, contactless distribution, online medical service, online education, one-stop travel, shared employees, remote working, etc. On top of the existing 59 cross-border e-commerce pilot zones, China recently announced the establishment of 46 new ones, supporting and guiding enterprises to open up new businesses and new markets through online platforms and digital marketing.

Next, China will take pilot studies on the practices like mutual recognition and sharing of electronic medical cases, online training for vocational education, online diagnosis and treatment, and the application of online education. In the first 4 months this year, the online retail sales of physical goods in China have increased by 8.6%.

During the pandemic, there were an emergence of more than 11,000 new internet medical companies, and a total of more than 300 million users of remote workspace applications. Live streaming sales, online “Canton Fair”, and AI travel became new trends. China further promoted the construction of new infrastructure such as 5G networks, Internet of Things, big data, artificial intelligence, industrial Internet, and smart cities.

In the first 4 months this year, the added value of China’s high-tech manufacturing and equipment manufacturing has increased by 10.5% and 9.3% respectively. China used the emerging technologies such as drones and the Internet of Things to help accelerate the development of “smart agriculture”. For example, pig farms in Sihong, Jiangsu Province implemented “pig face recognition” and “infrared temperature measurement” techniques to record the characteristics, growth experience, and disease history of each pig, which helped to realize the digitalization of pig farming.

With various policies in place to help stabilize employment and promote production, the progress of resuming work and production has significantly accelerated, while the economic vitality has gradually been released. However, we are well aware that the global pandemic situation is still grim, and that the risk of a rebound or even a second wave could be coming in the future.

Therefore, an economic restart can never be achieved overnight. Different countries have different national conditions. Each has their own questions as to how to contain the pandemic and resume work. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. For a long period of time in the future, for countries around the world, they need to explore how to grasp the balance of pandemic prevention and control and economic development on their own. There is yet a long way to go.

The unprecedented challenges require unprecedented solidarity. China is willing to continuously and sincerely unite with the international community including the Philippines, help each other to safeguard the global public health security, and promote the prosperity and development of the world economy.

*This article represents the view of Chinese Embassy in Manila and not the official position of PIPVTR.

Photo Credit: Three predictions of China and world economies in post-COVID-19 era by CGTN.

Terrorism Financing Continues Unabated During the Covid 19 Pandemic

by Amparo Pamela Fabe*

20 May 2020

While the COVID-19 situation unfolded, globally resulting in overwhelmed health systems and imposing a heavy drain in economic resources of developing countries, terrorism financing has increased among pro-Islamic State (IS) terror groups in Southeast Asia.

In the Philippines, IS-linked terror groups have conducted first transactions in cryptocurrencies. This development poses a stronger security threat with the presence of Foreign-Trained-Fighters (FTF) from regional terrorist organizations like the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and the Mujahideen Eastern Timur (MIT) in Mindanao.

Money laundering apply to cryptocurrencies being undertaken in two major phases.

Phase one consists of assets of suspicious origins which are fed into the Bitcoin’s financial system through exchanges, where the possibility of tracing such transactions is deliberately obfuscated.

The second phase refers to an exchange of these crypto assets into fiat money which, then, returns the funds to the legal money cycle. In crypto-only exchanges, cryptocurrencies can be exchanged with one another.

Hence, the relative ease with which terror groups in Southeast Asia trade in cryptocurrencies can be done outside the purview of regulatory institutions in the financial sector. The Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism measures are easiest to carry out at the point where money is converted into cryptocurrencies and vice versa.

During the history of the development of cryptocurrencies, there were instances of hacked crypto exchanges. Criminals were able to exploit security gaps and divert significant amounts of cryptocurrencies from customer accounts.

In August 2016, criminals stole almost 120,000 Bitcoins, worth US$60 million from the Hong Kong-based Bitfinex exchange.  Up to this day, the perpetrators remain unknown.

In addition, Elliptic reported in September 2019 that Bitcoins worth US$829 million (constituting 0.5 percent of all Bitcoin transactions in 2019) is used on the dark web. Increasingly, there are more cryptocurrencies that offer users the greatest possible anonymity such as the “anonymous crypto assets”, namely, Monero, which are accepted in the darknet.

Given the growth of cryptocurrencies, governments face the risk losing control of financial flows worldwide. This has opened up massive opportunities for tax evasion. Financial sanctions are more difficult to enforce due to a lack of jurisdiction over the specific targeted accounts.

Thus, in a bid to prevent future terrorist attacks, the Philippines has to ramp up efforts to implement Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism in cryptocurrencies. This remains a serious challenge since the Philippines has yet to pull the plug in countering the financing of terrorism in regular transactions like private remittances.

During the Marawi Siege, reports of private remittances and cash couriers financing terrorism by this analyst and Drei Toledo was largely ignored by regulatory authorities. The financiers of terrorism, which remain unknown to this day, were responsible for 1,009 casualties of Philippine security troops in 2017 alone. This begs the question whether a greater number of casualties were needed to earn their attention.

President Rodrigo Duterte has set a high bar in waging an all-out war against terrorist organizations. Sadly, the Philippine financial regulatory authorities are still lagging behind.

In countering terrorism, it is very essential to also strengthen capabilities of authorities to counter the financing of terrorism.  Otherwise, terrorist threats can persist and can even wreak more havoc in the time of the pandemic.

*The author, a sociologist and economist, is countering the financing of terrorism expert and an anti-money laundering analyst. An author of various studies on the subject, she is also a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR).

Also published by Eurasia Review.

Photo by Coin Info News as used in Eurasia Review.

A New Era of Partnership –The Chinese Enterprises Join Hands with the Filipino People in Fighting the Pandemic*

by Huang Xilian*

19 May 2020

China and the Philippines are friendly neighbors. There are many Chinese enterprises operating in the Philippines. In the face of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Philippines, the Chinese enterprises have worked vigorously to fulfill their social responsibilities and contributed to the Philippine’s fight against the pandemic. They have become part of the partnership between China and the Philippines in tackling the common challenge of the pandemic.

The Chinese enterprises in the Philippines have given their top priority to ensure their employees’ health and well-being. They have strictly followed the government’s instructions and developed emergency action plans, improved prevention and control measures and strengthened their own protection. So far, there has been no confirmed case of infections, or any cluster of suspected cases in the Chinese enterprises in the Philippines. Ensuring the safety of the employees, including local employees, is a contribution per se to the overall prevention and control of the pandemic in the Philippines.

The Chinese enterprises in the Philippines have overcome their own difficulties and extended much needed humanitarian support to their employees during times of trying. In response to the government’s call, relevant companies paid the thirteenth-month wages to the Philippine employees in advance. They continued to pay basic wages and necessary subsidies to their local employees to ensure their livelihood even after they have suspended working and stayed at home.

The Chinese enterprises in the Philippines have extended their helping hands to the Philippines to the best of their abilities. Since the outbreak, the Chinese enterprises have donated nearly three million medical items to the Philippines, including 2.65 million medical masks and 250,000 pieces of protective suits, gloves, and goggles, along with daily necessities and cash worth nearly ten million pesos. Major donators include but not limited to State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), Bank of China, Panhua Group, China Information Communication Technology Group, Power Construction Corporation of China, China Road and Bridge Corporation, China Railway Design Corporation, China Geo-Engineering Corporation, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, China Energy Engineering Corporation, and Qingjian Group.

Moreover, the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines, co-owned by SGCC, donated one billion pesos to the Philippine government. The Dito Telecommunity, co-owned by China Telecom, provided 375,000 kg of rice to the local governments. Zhejiang Dahua Technology offered a thermal temperature monitoring solution. Huawei provided technical support for diagnosis and treatment system using remote CT scans in Baguio General Hospital Medical Center.

Some Chinese multinationals based in China have joined the humanitarian campaign as well. The Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation donated 107,000 test kits and 500,000 medical masks. The TikTok contributed 1 million US dollars to the Philippine General Hospital Medical Foundation. The 51talk sent medical supplies worth 5.25 million pesos to the Philippines.

The Chinese reagents and testing equipment manufacturers, such as Sansure Biotech and Beijing Genomics Institute Group, responded timely to the demand of the Philippines and ensured sufficient supplies. They dispatched professional teams to the Philippines to provide personnel training and technical support and helped the Philippines to expand the testing capabilities.

In light of the urgent need of medical supplies in the Philippines, Chinese manufacturers have prioritized the requests and orders from the Philippines and exported huge amount of medicines and medical equipment to the Philippines, overcoming a lot of unexpected difficulties.

During the quarantine, the Chinese enterprises in the basic services such as telecommunications, power, banking, etc. have responded responsibly to the government’s call and overcome huge operational difficulties to provide unimpeded essential service to the general public. The Chinese and Filipino employees of those enterprises are part of the heroic frontliners in our war against the pandemic.

The pandemic is a common enemy of mankind. Solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapons. China and the Philippines have worked together to forge a new partnership for collective response. China will stand firmly with the Philippine people till the day of final victory. In this process, Chinese enterprises will continue to contribute to the new era partnership evolving between the two countries.

*The author is currently the Chinese Ambassador to Manila. Thus far, he worked with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for 30 years. He also served as China’s Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  Read more.

*This article was obtained from the Chinese Embassy in Manila. Read here for related article. Also published by Eurasia Review with permission of PIPVTR.

About the Photo: China’s medical expert team arrives at Manila, Philippines. Photo Credit: Chinese Embassy in Manila

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.

COVID-19 Threat and Terrorism: How Pandemics Can Change Our Counterterrorism Narrative

by Rommel C. Banlaoi

30 April 2020

COVID-19 has claimed more lives than the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks.  As of 30 April 2020,  COVID-19 has caused the death of around 220,000 individuals worldwide with a global infection of more than three million persons affecting at least 100 countries and territories.  The Philippine government has reported around 8,500 confirmed cases to date with more than 560 deaths. 

COVID-19 threat is compelling the Philippine government to pursue stronger and more humane actions than the 2000 Rizal Day bombings, 2004 Superferry 14 bombing, 2005 Valentines Day bombing, the 2011 Makati bus bombing, the 2012 and 2013 Cagayan de Oro bombings, the 2016 Davao City bombing, and even the 2017 Marawi Siege, among others. 

COVID-19 is now even viewed as a threat to Philippine national security because of the extent of massive terror it is causing to the Filipino people emotionally, economically, socially, and politically.

Indeed, World Health Organization (WHO) Chief, Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, makes sense in stressing that COVID-19 is “more powerful in creating political, economic, and social upheaval then any terrorist attack.”  He further exclaimed that COVID-19 is a virus that can have “more powerful consequences than any terrorist action.”

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 is causing fear, panic, and terror all over the world at present.  There is even a bizarre speculation from conspiracy theorists arguing that the COVID-19 is a weapon for bioterrorism.  Though this conspiracy theory is really hard to prove and may even sound preposterous, biologists strongly admit, however, that nature is the ultimate bioterrorist of all time.  The use of bioterrorism has a long history that dates back to 600 BC.

While international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State can use bioterrorism as a weapon of mass destruction, the international scientific community agrees that nature is the world’s most bioterrorist.

How really prepared are we for possible intentional or natural bioterrorist attacks?  Do we have a national plan to counter bioterrorism caused by humans or nature? What lessons can we learn from our current responses to COVID-19 threat? How is the spread of infectious diseases currently shaping our counterterrorism narrative?

In preventing and countering terrorism, COVID-19 has demonstrated that the spread of infectious diseases is a serious terrorist threat of the 21st century.  In a report, A More Secure World, published by the United Nations as early as 2004, the spread of infectious diseases has been identified to be one of the major threats to international peace and security.  This threat can be more catastrophic than the consequences of World Wars 1 and 2 combined.

Pandemics and infectious diseases outbreaks present clear and present danger to public health, human security, and even national and international security.  

Do we really have adequate and equipped hospitals, public health units, emergency departments, quarantine areas, and laboratories to meet the security challenges of infectious diseases?  Have we defined the role of the military and police in responding to the spread of infectious diseases?   Do we have enough first responders to public emergencies caused by the spread of infectious diseases? Are the proposed Philippine anti-terrorism laws responsive to bioterrorist threats?  What role can individual citizen play to prevent and counter bioterrorism?

Academics, experts, and scholars worldwide agree that preparedness is the most potent defense against bioterrorist attack whether caused by nature of by humans.  Preparedness requires not only capacity building for emergency responders and health care providers but also the keen awareness and appropriate education of the citizens. 

Governments have the gargantuan responsibility to provide citizens not only well-trained first responders and medical service providers but also reliable and accurate information on the emergency situation and the nature and extent of the threat caused by the pandemics.   Denying them of these information also denies the citizens of the inherent right to defend and protect themselves as well as others.  

An informed citizenry through greater transparency is the best shield against bioterrorist attacks whether caused by humans or by nature.  Raising the awareness and improving the education of citizens must shape our current narratives to prevent and counter threats of bioterrorism. 

Our current responses to COVID-19 are providing us difficult but useful lessons on how to confront greater threats ahead.

Photo Credit: Google Images