Terrorism, despite being a global spectre, tends to be a localised affair. Time and again, it bursts out in areas where the youth bulge and unemployment are the highest. Desperation is the oxygen of terrorism.
In this respect, Middle Eastern terrorism isn’t so much due to the violent nature of Islam – a popular yet deeply misinformed narrative – as it is a product of the seemingly hopeless life in the secular realm. But the sudden spate of terrorism in Thailand, Indonesia, and now the Philippines, has reopened the debate if Southeast Asia has become the “second front” of global terrorism, also caused by the same scourge of poverty.
The notion of a “second front” was made popular by the likes of Rohan Gunaratna of the Nanyang Technological University, who have argued that al-Qaeda would expand to Southeast Asia just as its bases in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are pummelled.
However, if one goes by the case study in southern Thailand, where violence is an admixture of crime and separatist extremism, one would hesitate to draw a quick conclusion on the situation in Jakarta or Manila, especially the latter.
First, the Philippines is in the midst of a supposed war on drugs launched by a populist president whose hands may already be tied by the Senate and the Congress, what with the constant calls for the president’s impeachment. Second, granted the possibility that both the legislative arms of the government have already been compromised by the criminal world in the Philippines, putatively since the days of President Fidel Marcos at the very least, it is a matter of time before the deep state hits back. In the Philippine deep state, elected and non-elected officials embedded in the government are in cahoots with the underworld.
Third, the criminal elements in the Philippines know that any attempt to resurrect the scourge of extremist Islam, which tends to populate the media very quickly, gives them the necessary smokescreen to hide their hand. Fourth, at more than 8,000 casualties, the narcotics ring in the Philippines has been hit hard. Thus any violence that erupts suddenly and mysteriously, may well be an attempt to strike at President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.
Hence the terror attack in Mindanao and then the rampage at the Resorts World Manila, arguably one of the safest in the world, could well be the criminal underworld mounting a fightback. If the deep state wants to claim Duterte’s scalp, the latter has five options to respond in kind.
One, the head of the police agency and judiciary need to be changed. Merely appointing someone from his home base of Davao, where Duterte used to govern, is not enough. He has to revamp the policy agency – root, branch and all. Second, declaring martial law is not enough. Martial law implies a president who has already lost control. At this stage, Duterte has yet to regain control of Mindanao. If he imposes martial law across the nation, his plan to unveil a US$70 billion infrastructure plan will be dead on arrival. So Duterte must use a law-and-order approach to restore the integrity of the Philippine police and justice system.
Third, Duterte can ask for international assistance. But doing so requires him to correctly identify the culprits first. So the onus rests on capturing the Resorts World assailant or assailants alive and extract vital intelligence. Fourth, Duterte is obliged to find more allies in and across various parties. Without other Congressmen and Senators willing to fend for him, the legislative noose will tighten. Finally, the president can implore China to assist.
As it stand, things in Manila will get worst before they get better. And, Duterte will ask himself if can handle all these without a wider martial law.