The Philippine Insurgencies: 2021 — A year in review
by Kasamang Rino
Operations from January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021
Total number of clashes: 357
Total number of reported fatalities from clashes: 418
(Based on a collection of data from Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, Philippine Revolutionary Web Central and multiple news agencies.)
The core idea of this thinkpiece essentially focuses on the statistical evaluation of the insurgent warfare in the Philippines, identifying the trends in active military movement by three major actors: Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), New People’s Army, and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The aim of this thinkpiece is to present data of the new developments in 2021, areas of military and insurgent activity, and other data points surrounding the insurgent guerilla warfare in the Philippines. This thinkpiece does not intend to solely focus on the perspective of the diplomatic and propaganda base present in the strategy of mass-line people’s war launched by the New People’s Army, or the religious propaganda spearheaded by the Islamic State.
However, the statistical data can not fully cover the unpredictable nature of guerilla warfare, especially the strategies employed by the New People’s Army. The politico-mass work of the group and their guerilla fronts cannot be fully tracked through data collection, nor are they released publicly by the PRWC and the sub-wings of the NPA’s media and propaganda organizations.
The data for this article were gathered both from the independent research of the author and from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a renowned research group that tracks and plots data on both military and civilian violence, and the violence from the insurgent, rebel and revolutionary groups. For this thinkpiece, it will only focus on the combat data between the AFP, NPA and ISIS.
Regarding the author’s independent research, the methodology of tracking clashes was accomplished through scanning multiple news sites and organizational media wings of active combat spheres. Information regarding the AFP’s actions were primarily taken from news sites that are both independent and controlled by the Philippine government, with the latter’s claims difficult to credibly verify. The actions of the New People’s Army (NPA) were primarily taken from the Philippine Revolution Web Central (PRWC) and the Communist Party of the Philippines’ (CPP) media website while the ISIS clashes were taken from their media wing, Amaq Media. For the purpose of impartial data collection, all clash data will be taken into account.
This thinkpiece differentiates ISIS and NPA. ISIS is regarded as a genuine terrorist organization while NPA is regarded as a revolutionary group. Hence, civilian attacks will only be taken into account from the AFP and ISIS, as there have been no verified attacks on civilians purposely committed by the NPA.
Unlinkable citations will be cited at the end of the document.
In order to understand the complexity of the insurgencies present in the Philippines, we must first define the key points and groups that will be mentioned in the document situationer.
New People’s Army
The New People’s Army, also known as Bagong Hukbong Bayan in Filipino, is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The party ideologically subscribes to Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought. The New People’s Army is recognized as a terrorist group by the Philippine government, the sentiment of which has been debated. For the purpose of objective documentation and per previous government statements that contradicted Duterte’s terrorist label, the New People’s Army will be regarded as a revolutionary force and as a military alternative rather than an organized terror group.
Islamic State — East Asia
The Islamic State — East Asia Province, also known as ISEAP, is a colloquial term used by the Islamic State, a globally-recognized terrorist group based in Iraq and Syria that claims to re-establish a global Islamic caliphate. East Asia in this context is referred to as a province of the greater Islamic Caliphate, as claimed by the group. In the Philippines, ISEAP is divided into three groups.
Abu Sayyaf, Arabic for “Sons of the Sword”, is one of three major ISIS-aligned Islamic fundamentalist groups present in the Philippines. Abu Sayyaf generally operates in the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi Tawi island chain south of Zamboanga Peninsula, and has operated courier and weapon smuggling groups in the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Dawlah Islamiyah (DI)
Dawlah Islamiyah, formerly known as the Maute Group, is also one of three major ISIS-aligned Islamic fundamentalist groups present in the Philippines. They generally operate around both Lanao provinces and in central Sarangani. They were responsible for heading the brutal 2017 Marawi Siege, and still operate in the mountains north of the city.
*In order to clear up confusion between Islamic State and Dawlah Islamiyah, the larger extremist group, ISIS, will be referred to by its English name, while the local sub-group will be referred to by its colloquial Arabic name.
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, also known as “BIFF”, is the last major ISIS-aligned fundamentalist group in the Philippines and is primarily situated in Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao. The group is made up of defectors from both the MILF and the MNLF that have rejected peace deals with the government and have been radicalized as a result of their extreme values. The BIFF is split into two factions: the Karialan Faction, which is loyal to ISIS, and the Toraife Faction, which remains independent from ISIS.
The conflict across the Philippines during the entire year of 2021 has considered the New People’s Army and the Islamic State being in a continued defensive position against the series of all out wars launched by the Duterte presidency. This has been the case since the breakdown of peace talks between the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political organ of the CPP, and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP).
In 2021, the Duterte presidency was able to secure positions across Mindanao as military strongmen such as Generals Centino, Almerol, Uy et-al. strengthened their military positions. This was an attempt to feverishly quell the insurgencies across the hotbed region and forced the New People’s Army to hold onto a defensive position across all active fronts of insurgency in the region, with the amount of offensive operations done by the NPA falling by around 26%.
Alongside offensives against the New People’s Army by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Islamic State especially its sub-groups and allied militias such as the BIFF, Abu Sayyaf, Daulah Islamiyah and other groups under the banner of ISIS-East Asia Province have been put on backpedal as a result of the all-out war offensive. Actions done by the group have sharply fallen by 46% with operations in the Zamboanga Peninsula have all but stopped and the collapse of Abu Sayyaf courier groups in the region. Operations in Sarangani and coastal Lanao del Norte have also been hampered and slowed down as a result of the all out war.
But with the coming all-out war closing into its final stages as a result of the near-end of Duterte’s term, all insurgent groups present in the conflict have been building up necessary strength in order to fully forward their offensive tacticology into the coming years, with the turn of the elections proving a necessary strategic goal for further offensives in the guerilla campaign.
Incident Focus: New People’s Army
In Mindanao, NPA activity in the region has fallen by a full 26% due to the focus of the Duterte administration to narrow down its home-base, especially in the Davao region. The government’s military campaign was meant to secure land and territorial concessions given to government allies. This has hampered the Southern Mindanao Regional Command of the New People’s Army, who have been forced to cease military offensives in the hotbed areas of Davao City, such as Paquibato and Calinan districts, which are part of the rural outlying areas surrounding the city center itself.
However, NPA activity and operations in the hotbed regions of Agusan and Surigao became more active, since state military activity has slowed down in the area. A result of a general series of offensives by the NPA against state military formations near the mountains within Surigao peninsula alongside with the continued resistance in Bukidnon and Zamboanga Peninsula. Even with the death of high-ranking officials of the NDF such as Jorge “Ka Oris” Madlos in Bukidnon, the NPA has not recorded a decline in its anti-military operations defense after the death of said official.
In Visayas, the military has been launching offensives especially in Central Negros and Northern Samar. Groups such as the Leonardo Panaligan Command (NPA-Central Negros) and Rodante Urtal Command (NPA-Northern Samar) have been particularly active in defending against military offensives in their key stronghold areas.
In Panay, general bombing raids and artillery attacks done by the AFP on supposed NPA positions has led to the outcry of human rights and indigenous people’s organizations as unguided bombings have been more active especially in the areas around Miag-ao in the southwest of the island, destroying the homes and farms of those living in mountainous areas in the municipality.
In the area surrounding the municipality of Las Navas mountains in Samar, the NPA encircled the municipality center in three-fourths, with the only road accessing the municipality coming from a ridge north of the municipality; this position essentially acts as a fishbowl position, of which the military has to defend against relentless sniping and guerilla offensives launched by the NPA near the Las Navas area. The area has faced one of the most active clashes in 2021.
In Luzon, NPA was able to hold the same status quo as observed in 2019, with general offensive activity occurring in the Mountain Province. The New People’s Army was able to maintain its own position and commit to offensives within Bicol, especially with the multiple attacks on AFP groups in Masbate. There were still multiple incidents that harmed the NPA’s standing in the region, especially with the accidental killing of Keith Absalon, a FEU booter. Multiple NPA commands, such as the Ilocos and majority of the Central Luzon’s NPA guerilla commands were claimed to have been dismantled by the Philippine Army.
Incident Focus: Islamic State (East Asia Province)
Concerning the Islamic State’s movement in the Philippines, the Philippine government has put upon the assumption of dismantling one of ISIS-East Asia’s banner groups, Ansar Khalifa Philippines, which was generally active within the region of Sarangani. With the latest attacks by the group having been severely hampered in mid-2020, this might certainly be the case. If verified, ISIS-East Asia’s movement in Sarangani would be severely hampered as a result of this.
Alongside that, operations done by BIFF have spread around Lake Buluan during 2021, as cell groups belonging to the organization have organized around the area as a result of continued recruitment by the group of the disadvantaged and poor in the area. One attack that has particularly stuck out during the year was the Datu Paglas occupation on May 8, wherein the municipality’s market was occupied by the group for around 6 hours.
Dawlah Islamiyah, a subgroup of ISIS-East Asia, has recently taken over ISIS operations in Sarangani in 2019, alongside the gathering of locals in the mountains of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur borders. Operations occurring within the mountain area have been completed, with ISIS’ media wing, Amaq News, reporting that groups belonging to Dawlah Islamiyah have been operating in the mountains and harming Department of Public Works and Highways projects in the mountains.
Recent operations done by DI in the Lanao area include the dismantling of an electric post and the destruction of a bridge constructed near the mountains. However, the group may continue to be confined and restrained, as their leader and group emir, Salahudin Hassan, was killed in Talayan, Maguindanao during a clash with the military.
On the other hand, Abu Sayyaf has been on the backfoot during the entire year especially in its stronghold in Sulu. As per the Philippine Army media, many of their supposed key leaders and bomb-makers were rounded up in Jolo and Zamboanga City. The group continues to operate across Basilan and Sulu, with roadside improvised explosive device (IED) bombings being used to slow military movement.
Alongside this, government attempts to curb bomb-making cells in the BARMM has led to multiple incidents concerning infighting between the Philippine National Police and Philippine Army. Both counter-intelligence operations were unaware of each other’s real identities, mistaking each other for ISIS fighters. This goes to show the depth of inability of both PNP and AFP in countering the Islamic State insurgency.
As a result of the continued failure of NTF-ELCAC to effectively reduce operations executed by both insurgent groups, it struggled to dismantle groups that have been building its presence across their respective regions. NPA’s Northern and Central Luzon operational commands remained. These areas of operation have been rebuilding its armed strength during the later year of the Duterte presidency despite the creation of megaprojects such as the New Clark City, initially designed to attract investment and create employment opportunities in the region. NTF-ELCAC’s budget has been cut by P24 billion in order to make way for preparations against COVID19 and benefits for frontliners against the pandemic.
NTF-ELCAC has failed in all of its goals, of which include:
- Development for barangays and municipalities affected by insurgency
- The stifling of insurgent activity across Philippines
- The establishment of urbanization projects in poorer communities
- The prevention of ‘recruitment’ from the NPA and ISIS
The Philippine government has also been attempting to develop areas that have been claimed to be freed from insurgent influence in order to continue propping up the NTF-ELCAC’s campaign against both insurgent groups. This however, has not changed the development status of multiple rural municipalities that have been hotbeds of insurgent activity. A quarter of the population remain both underemployed and unemployed during the course of the year, which shows a lack of boosted job confidence in rural areas. With a whopping 36 billion budget during the majority of 2021, only being cut down as of recent, economic activity has failed to be re-adjusted across the Philippines during the year.
Certain harmful state military practices continued to happen as well, most concerningly, evidence planting, unguided bombings, random strafing and false arrests. These actions have continued to plague the accountability and capability of both AFP and PNP as suitable counter-insurgency instruments and as state protection agencies, with time and time again showing multiple human rights abuses committed by the state.
For the government to truly end the insurgencies, the only way to address the root cause of the conflict. The government must alleviate poverty and suffering, distribute lands to the landless, and stop the injustices on the ground. In Mindanao, Former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez said that mining is the source of conflict. Just recently, South Cotabato Sangguniang Panlalawigan unanimously agreed to lift the ban on open pit mining. The NPA has been known to attack mining operations in Mindanao which have infamously led to the violent displacement of indigenous people. According to a study conducted by Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agricultura, another form of exploitation in Mindanao are the Agribusiness Venture Arrangements (AVAs) which has largely contributed to landlessness of Mindanao farmers. Large foreign plantation corporations take advantage of loopholes in Philippine agrarian reform laws to grab lands from poor farmers. Local landlords have facilitated such injustices.
In Negros Island, sakadas or sugarcane plantation workers have remained impoverished for generations because of landlessness and poor labor conditions institutionalized by hacienderos. In 2018, nine sugarcane farmers were massacred by the police. Four years later, agrarian reform beneficiaries and their supporters in Hacienda Tinang, Tarlac were arrested by the police for attempting to collectively farm the land awarded to them. In 2021, the AFP 3rd Infantry Division conducted aerial bombardment of peasant communities in Miag-ao, Iloilo that severely destroyed farmlands and left eight people dead. In the same year, aerial bombardments were also conducted by the military in Impasug-ong, Bukidnon. Both aerial bombardments were intended to kill communist insurgents but ended up traumatizing the local residents.
The government must realize that if it is serious in ending the communist insurgency, state fascism must also end. Violence creates more violence. The NPA persists because of injustices perpetrated by the government, large foreign corporations, and local landlords. Gina Lopez said that no signing of a treaty will ever work unless social injustices are addressed.
With Duterte’s term coming to an end, we continue to see developing and repeating patterns commited from all three state and guerilla actors in the Philippines. Despite an attempt to fulfill an all-out war, and with the arrests and killings of multiple NPA commanders and NDFP peace panels, the NPA continues to grow and operate within the Philippines, amounting to nearly more than 300 actions committed during the previous year alone. Failing to suppress the Communist insurgency within his term, Duterte will share the same distinction like all Philippine presidents before him. This continues to show the inability of the government to fulfill peace with the Communist insurgency.
We, Institute for Nationalist Studies, share the thought that the incoming administration of Marcos Jr. will not learn from the mistakes of Duterte, and would only serve to strengthen the Communist insurgency. As Marcos Jr. assumes the presidency and if peace talks will resume, the NPA is expected to demand the return of the Marcos ill-gotten wealth. Bongbong Marcos and his family have consistently denied that they have ill-gotten wealth and will not return anything. Failing to meet their demands, the Communist insurgency will likely persist during and beyond Bongbong’s term.
The same continues to be said for the Islamic State. Despite the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law under the Duterte administration, and with the affirmation of MNLF-MILF peace deals, we share the same thought of a rise with insurgent activity in the BARMM and ISIS-operating regions. Moros still remember that it was Marcos Jr.’s father who committed the Jabidah Massacre which fueled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Violent memories of the past guide the Moro’s fight for self-determination in the Philippines.
With all of this, we would like to inform the reader that the insurgent activity that had occurred in the year 2021 has served as a prime example that even Duterte’s all out war has failed to end the Communist and Islamist revolt that has been going on for more than 50 years.
 a military position that puts the defender in a strategic disadvantage