Expert: Armed groups in southern Philippines turn to cigarette smuggling


Several armed groups in the southern region of Mindanao in the Philippines have transitioned from acts of terrorism to engaging in cigarette smuggling, according to an international security expert.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said these armed groups allegedly forged alliances with high-ranking officials within the Philippine police and military to facilitate and safeguard their illegal operations.

Speaking at the recent two-day “PROTECT 2023: Doing Business Amidst New Threats” conference at the New World Hotel in Makati City, Prof. Gunaratna noted that cigarette smuggling has become an immensely lucrative source of income for various armed groups in Mindanao, including the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Although extensive efforts by the military, law enforcement agencies, and intelligence communities have disrupted these groups after decades of existence, their members have turned to criminal activities, he said.

“The structure of the Abu Sayyaf, the structure of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters), and that of the ISIS had already been dismantled. Their leaders had been neutralized, including the last foreign terrorist fighter in the South,” Prof. Gunaratna said.

Prof. Gunaratna said the Mindanao armed groups are transitioning from terrorism to crime. “Terrorism is no longer the real monster in the Philippines; crime is,” he said.

He disclosed this during a thought leaders round table discussion on national security issues during the second day of the forum. The topics under discussion included smuggling, counterfeiting, human trafficking, infiltration of business and government (fraud), and money laundering, with a focus on cross-border crimes and the use of technology by criminals and terrorists.

The PROTECT conference series, focused on “Navigating Business Amidst New Threats,” was initiated in 2005 by Leverage International (Consultants) Inc., in collaboration with the Anti-Terrorism Task Force Security and Safety, later known as the Anti-Terrorism Council. This response was prompted by the escalating threat of terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

The conference, held on September 28 and 29, saw the participation of high-ranking government officials, including National Security Adviser Secretary Eduardo Ano, Supreme Court Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo, Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa, and former AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Benjamin Defensor. Leaders from the private sector also attended.

Professor Gunaratna revealed that armed groups were using funds acquired from activities like kidnap-for-ransom and financial support from backers to invest in activities such as cigarette and rice smuggling. They had also procured multiple speedboats for the illegal transportation of goods from neighboring countries, primarily Indonesia, he said.

“The ASG was initially founded in Basilan by Abdurajak Janjalani. During the leadership of Kumander Robot and Mujiv Susukan, the ASG used ransom money from the infamous Sipadan Kidnapping in 2001 to engage in rice smuggling,” he sad.

Professor Gunaratna said a team within the ASG, led by Bensali Andan, also known as Binang Andan, started smuggling cigarettes in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Their operations had grown significantly, generating millions of pesos in revenue, ensuring a steady source of funds even when their kidnapping activities were unsuccessful.

In July 2021, police in Zamboanga City arrested two ASG officials and seized numerous boxes of assorted smuggled cigarettes worth millions of pesos, along with five high-powered firearms, from their rented house in Barangay Sta. Barbara.

Another anti-terrorism expert, Professor Mohd Mizan Mohd Aslam from the University of Malaysia Perlis, noted the ASG’s involvement in cross-border crimes, specifically cigarette smuggling, in an article published in the New Straits Times on September 21, 2021. Aslam noted that the ASG chose to smuggle cigarettes due to its “lowest risk” compared to other illicit goods.

Professor Gunaratna also revealed that the MNLF utilized its personnel and war equipment to smuggle cigarettes from Malaysia through Sabah into various southern parts of Mindanao, including Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Sulu, and the Zamboanga Peninsula. Allegedly, MNLF officials established connections with local politicians, some of whom held political positions in areas safeguarding their illicit business interests.

Emphasizing the significance of combating cigarette smuggling, Professor Gunaratna said the Philippine government was losing billions of pesos in unpaid excise tax each year, funds that could have been allocated to support various pro-poor projects such as universal healthcare.

To address the rampant illicit cigarette trade, smuggling, and the sale of smuggled cigarettes, Professor Gunaratna suggested several approaches. These included tackling corruption, strengthening border control monitoring, sharing intelligence information regionally, harmonizing preventative regulations among source, transit, and destination countries, enhancing law enforcement efforts against transnational crimes, and effectively implementing the Anti-Terrorism law.

He also highlighted the emergence of numerous private ports, particularly in Mindanao, as a key factor facilitating the successful transportation of smuggled goods from neighboring nations. Professor Gunaratna stressed that without effective government oversight, these private ports would continue to be exploited by smugglers for illegal activities.

“Unless these private ports are monitored and put under the control of the government, smugglers will continue to engage in this illegal activity,” Professor Gunaratna said.

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