The Philippines between terrorism and political risk: an overview
A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all. - George F. Kennan
George F. Kennan once said that total security is an utopia, which most likely will conduct us to the brink of disaster. This is a lesson well-known by those who work in the field of political risk, especially in the corporate world, where the need for protection and security of assets must meet the need of doing business – or more brutally, of making money. That is why we are called every day to the difficult task of finding the perfect formula between what level of risk is acceptable, which one can be tempered with some countermeasures, and which one is simply too high to contemplate the idea of doing business.
The Philippines, in this sense, is definitely an interesting country. From a mere political perspective, the state is going through a phase of relative political stability. Nevertheless, persisting issues are affecting its overall security conditions. First of all, President Duterte’s strategy on the war on drugs, the failure of peace negotiations with far-left groups, human rights protection, management of relations with the US and China, and management of COVID19 crisis receive much criticism. In the regions of Metro Manila, Laguna, Bicol, and Cebu province, protests against some of President Duterte’s controversial policies are on the rise.
Secondly, the level of crime in some areas of the country is becoming worrisome. For example, the risks of kidnapping for ransom is growing. In some cases it is even perpetrated by police ofﬁcers. Until a few years ago, abductions used to concern only the local population (excluding terrorist related kidnappings) but foreign personnel have recently been targeted. The latest high-proﬁle case was the kidnapping of a Filipino-American citizen by armed people in September 2020. Express kidnappings or robberies are also quite numerous: criminals usually force their victims to withdraw the maximum amount of cash from ATM machines.
Finally, from a broader perspective, there is the instability stemming from international relations. More specifically, The Philippines is involved in maritime or territorial disputes with various countries in the region. Maritime accidents among commercial or military boats represent an actual possibility of clashes in the South China Sea and may cause increase in tensions. With China, in particular, there is a dispute over the Spratly islands and the exploitation of energy and ﬁshery resources around the Scarborough Shoal. Ironically, however, COVID19 has unexpectedly become a trigger to ease the tensions in the bilateral relations. In October 2020, the Philippine government has surprisingly announced the resumption of energy exploration and collaboration with Beijing in the disputed areas.
In the Philippines, the risk linked to terrorism is signiﬁcant. Speciﬁcally, the incidence of the actions of paramilitary groups is particularly high in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) where attacks against commercial centres and crowded areas are recorded. Such risk is also present in the Manila metropolitan area where indiscriminate attacks may hit public transport and places attended by foreign visitors. In recent years, there have been reports of progressive intensiﬁcation and extension of terrorist activity to areas previously considered safe (tourist destinations such as Inabanga in Bohol Province and Puerto Princesa in Palawan Island). The main threat is posed by jihadist groups, in some cases connected with Islamic State. These groups generally attack police forces or civilians with light weapons or improvised explosive devices (IED) with low potential. In addition to Mindanao, the areas most affected are Bukidnon, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, Maguindanao, Northern Cotabato and Zamboanga City. The risk of attacks on Manila also appears to increase. As such, the recent arrest of a member from an Islamist group called ‘Dawlah Islamiyah’(DI) on 19th September 2020 in Quezon City (National Capital Region), stresses out that Manila itself could turn into a soft target as well. The main Islamist groups active in the Philippines are Jama’ah Abu Sayyaf (Abu Sayyaf Group-ASG), which includes about 400 militants divided into various factions, many of which have sworn allegiance to IS. ASG operates in the Sulu archipelago (especially in the islands of Basilan and Jolo) and in the rural areas in the south and west of the island of Mindanao. The latest major attack claimed by ASG, probably in response to a series of arrests arranged by the authorities, took place on 24th August 2020 in Jolo, which resulted in the death of 14 people and wounded 75 others. The attack was staged with two suicide attacks with IEDs, targeting a military vehicle near a commercial building.
The case of Mindanao
In the complex geography of The Philippines, Mindanao is gaining prominence as one of the most turbulent areas of the country. Due to the presence of various armed terrorist and criminal groups, the region has indeed a precarious security situation. Martial law was implemented and a state of emergency still remains in force. The ending of the clashes in Marawi did not implicate a decrease in the threat of terrorism. Even with the elimination of some of Maute and ASG’s (IS afﬁliates) leaders signiﬁcantly weakening the groups active in the area, they continue to demonstrate strong operational capacity. On January 27, 2019 two bombs exploded in the cathedral in Jolo, causing 20 deaths and hundreds of injuries. On August 24, 2020, as mentioned earlier, two explosions caused by suicide attacks in Jolo resulted in 14 fatalities. While the ‘Bangsamoro Organic Law’ ratiﬁed the peace agreement signed between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front recognizes greater autonomy to Mindanao, the possibility of attacks from Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)which opposes the agreement, remain. Proof is the failed BIFF attack on December 3, 2020 on the military unit in Datu Piang.
From a business perspective, the overall political risk in the Philippines is manageable. According to various political risk indicators and indexes, the country positions itself at a guarded level, which means that its overall level of security does not have a negative impact on foreign business opportunities. There are areas of major concerns, such as the situation in Mindanao and the growing rate of abductions for ransom. It is also hard to predict the extent of which COVID19 have impacted the overall security of the country. For instance, crime may increase as a consequence of impoverishment caused by the pandemic, exposing foreign travellers to more risks while travelling for business purposes. Similarly, it is not yet known how the pandemic will affect other related issues like social segregation, radicalization, and extremism at both individual and state level. From a social and ethnic perspective, this latter aspect would definitely be of relevance in a country as complicated as the Philippines, as it possibly feeds claims that areas or groups are treated in different ways by government, thereby exacerbating inter-regional or group tensions.
Despite some criticalities, there is more than one reason to look at the Philippines as a country where to invest without any major concern. As briefly mentioned, the country is experiencing a phase of political stability, which is usually considered as one of the most relevant indicators in the assessment of country risk. Additionally, a primary factor of stability may stem from the hopeful path of normalization in the bilateral relations with China. The signs seem to lead towards this direction, paving the way to a new phase of stability.
Stefania Coco Scalisi is the Intelligence and Travel Security Specialist of Coesia spa, an Italian multinational holding in the packaging field. In her role, she takes care of all the intelligence activities of the group and the travel security of its 9k+ employees operating in more than 32 countries, and travelling to about 100 more, the majority of which medium to high-risk countries. Already an Italian Fulbright scholar, Stefania holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, and specialization courses from Harvard University, MGIMO and King's College. Granted a Certificate in Terrorism Studies from St. Andrews University, Stefania has experience not only in the private sector, but also with think tanks (ICT-Herzliya, Israel) and international organizations (Frontex, Special Tribunal for Lebanon, ODiHR).