After decades of armed conflict, Muslims of the southern Philippines -- the Bangsamoro -- now have the right to self-governance. The new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao encompasses five provinces and more than four million people. But it faces many challenges -- brutal splinter groups, Islamic State sympathizers, and lingering differences between the region's two main separatist groups. Can the Bangsamoro end one of Asia's longest-running conflicts?
Bombing at Philippine Market Overshadows Weapons Handover by MILF Fighters
Jeoffrey Maitem and Froilan Gallardo
A bomb explosion injured at least eight people at a marketplace in the southern Philippines on Saturday, authorities said, as ex-Muslim rebels in the region prepared to surrender their weapons and demobilize under a peace deal with Manila.
Authorities said they suspected that an insurgent faction opposed to the peace agreement and linked with the Islamic State extremist group may have carried out the bombing, which occurred shortly after 7 a.m. in Isulan, a town in Sultan Kudarat province.
A government soldier inspects a vehicle at a checkpoint in Cotabato city, southern Philippines, ahead of an official ceremony to demobilize hundreds of former MILF guerrillas, Sept. 7, 2019, Sept. 7, 2019. (Photo: Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews)
The bomb struck hours before President Rodrigo Duterte and other government officials gathered to witness the decommissioning of slightly more than a thousand ex-combatants with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who turned over hundreds of firearms. The ceremony took place in Simuay, a district in Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao, another province in the south.
“We are still determining the group behind the blast, but there is a likelihood it could be the BIFF,” said Maj. Arvin Encinas, a local spokesman for the military, referring to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which splintered from MILF and rejected a peace deal struck between MILF and Manila in 2014.
BIFF kept fighting for a separate Muslim state in the southern Mindanao region. It later pledged allegiance to Islamic State and endorsed an IS-linked siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi two years ago.
The bomb went off outside the Manolette bread shop in Kalawag 3, a village in Isulan, said Lt. Col. Joven Bagaygay, a local police spokesman.
CCTV footage obtained by police showed a man disguised as a woman leaving a bag with the bomb next to motorbikes that were parked outside the bakery, Bagaygay said.
“We will enhance the footage for possible identification of the suspect,” he said.
Eight civilians were injured in the explosion, officials said.
The bombing on Saturday was an attempt to disrupt the historic handover of weapons and decommissioning of the MILF fighters, said Von Al Haq, a former MILF spokesman who is now a deputy minister for transportation and communication in the regional autonomous government.
“Although it has no direct effect on our event, we have to be firm,” Al Haq told BenarNews.
Al Haq could not affirm that MILF’s former comrades in the BIFF were behind the bombing, but he said no other group was capable of carrying out such an audacious attack.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels wait for transportation to a weapons decommissioning ceremony at Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat town, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, Sept. 7, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
Duterte: ‘A huge step’
The so-called “decommissioning” of 1,060 former MILF forces on Saturday night was part of the peace agreement that MILF and Manila reached five years ago.
The first phase of the decommissioning happened in 2015, and involved 145 combatants and 75 weapons.
Apart from those ex-MILF fighters who turned in their weapons during Saturday’s ceremony, officials said another 35 percent of the MILF force would be decommissioned next year, with the remainder to follow between 2021 and 2022.
By its own estimates, MILF has as many as 30,000 to 40,000 fighters in its ranks.
“Today, we mark another important milestone in the history of the Bangsamoro peace process. It truly warms my heart that we are able in our promise to be a more inclusive, accountable and transparent government for the Bangsamoro,” President Duterte said in a speech at the decommissioning ceremony, where piles of firearms turned over by the MILF fighters were displayed.
Duterte took office two years after the administration of Benigno Aquino III agreed to the peace deal with MILF.
“This is a huge step in achieving lasting peace,” Duterte said, assuring the demobilized MILF members of his government’s ongoing support for them.
The group’s chairman, Murad Ebrahim, today heads an 80-member team that leads the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“We will continue to uphold our part of the bargain,” Ebrahim told the crowd during Saturday’s ceremony.
President Rodrigo Duterte (center) joins Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Ebrahim Murad (left) in inspecting decommissioned firearms in Sultan Kudarat town, southern Philippines, Sept. 7, 2019. (Photo: Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews)
The BARMM zone is made up of at least five southern provinces, where MILF will oversee self-rule until local voters elect their own parliament by 2022.
A majority of voters in those five provinces ratified the autonomous region through a plebiscite held in January and February on a law that granted autonomy to areas controlled by MILF.
The referendum was the final step in the peace pact that was signed five years ago and aimed to settle decades of bloodshed in the Mindanao region.
The Bangsamoro Organic Law, as it is known, gave the impoverished Philippine south an expanded autonomous area and offered self-determination to the nation’s four million Muslims by empowering them to elect their own parliament.
The bombing on Saturday morning, however, was a reminder that the Philippine south remains a volatile region despite the 2014 peace deal.
Earlier this week, the military conceded that the armed forces were still hunting for dozens of foreign Islamic militants believed to be on the loose in the region. Last month, a first batch of 225 ex-MILF fighters began basic training at a Philippine army camp to prepare to become part of a joint security team tasked with going after pro-IS gunmen in the south.
The attack in Sultan Kudarat province on Saturday morning came after two suicide bombers, one of them a Filipino militant, killed six people by setting off explosives at a military camp on southern Jolo Island in late June. In January, an Indonesian couple blew themselves up in killing 23 people at a church in Jolo, authorities said.
IS, which claimed responsibility for both attacks, had appointed local militant Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan as leader of its branch in the Philippines after his predecessor, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed in October 2017, at the end of the five-month battle of Marawi.
Dozens of Foreign Militants Have Eluded Capture in South
Dozens of foreign militants have fanned out in the Philippine south to evade capture, a military commander said Wednesday, as an analyst warned that extremists could mount a large-scale attack reminiscent of the Islamic State siege of Marawi in 2017.
Government forces should watch out for more attacks from foreign extremists who have infiltrated the southern region and are moving to radicalize locals, said Jose Antonio Custodio, a security and defense analyst at the Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, a Philippine think-tank.
Excavators tear down buildings and clear debris in the southern Philippine city of Marawi in front of what remains of the city’s Grand Mosque, Sept. 4, 2019. (Photo: Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews)
“A non-neutralization of the ISIS foreign militants will allow them to increasingly radicalize local groups and then this may lead to more Marawi-style attacks or suicide bombings,” he told Benar News, using another acronym for Islamic State and referring to a five-month siege carried out in the southern Philippine city by militants linked with IS.
The military commander for Western Mindanao, meanwhile, said troops were searching the region for about 60 suspected foreign militants, including people from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco and Afghanistan.
“They are scattered in our areas. They don’t have popular support. In due time, using our capabilities, we will neutralize them,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said, reiterating an earlier pledge that the foreign fighters would be accounted for by year’s end.
He said the foreigners were believed to be in areas where Philippine militant groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), were operating.
BIFF, numbering hundreds of fighters, split from the 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2008 and has since pledged allegiance to IS. Earlier this year, MILF assumed the leadership of an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines as part of peace agreement with Manila.
Sobejana said a first batch of MILF fighters who trained under the military had been deployed to certain areas in the south to help government security forces catch the foreign suspects.
“Their role will be important as the role of every member of security forces. They will help us fight terrorism so that peace will be restored,” Sobejana said of the MILF fighters.
Custodio also commented on the new role for the MILF fighters.
“We can only hope that they will be effective. That will depend on the quality of training, the trust on them put by the military, the manner in which they are deployed, the competence of the AFP commanders and the reliability of the initial vetting process,” Custodio said.
Foreigners were among the hundreds of militants who laid siege to Marawi two years ago, but Philippine authorities have increased their vigilance for more militants from abroad infiltrating the south after an Indonesian couple killed 23 people in suicide bombings at a church in southern Jolo island in January, according to officials from both countries.
The two bombers had aligned with Abu Sayyaf fighters under the command of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, touted as the new IS leader here following the death of Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi, authorities said.
Decommissioning of MILF Weapons No Guarantee for Peace in Southern Philippines, NGO Says
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
A peace monitoring organization on Tuesday welcomed Manila’s plan to decommission thousands of firearms controlled by an ex-Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), but expressed doubt that the move would sharply reduce violence in the strife-torn south.
A batch of MILF combatants, numbering an estimated 12,000, is expected to turn over firearms to the government in the first phase of decommissioning scheduled for Sept. 7.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters clean their rifles inside a security checkpoint at Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, a town in Maguindanao province, southern Philippines, June 22, 2019. (Photo: Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews)
“We applaud the plan to retire weapons that are supposedly in the hands of MILF combatants. What we are saying is that it is not enough, and it should not lead to expectations that it is going to resolve in a major deceleration in attacks that are related to firearms. It won’t,” said Francisco Lara, a senior adviser of International Alert Philippines, the local office of the London-based NGO that focuses on peace-building and conflict resolution efforts in hotspots worldwide.
“There is not going to be any impact at all,” he told Philippine media while releasing a new report by International Alert about prospects for peace in the southern Mindanao region.
The phased handover of weapons by the former rebel force, which counts up to 40,000 fighters by its own estimates, is part of a peace deal between the rebel group and Manila that led to the establishment in February 2019 of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), which is governed by MILF.
The former guerrillas, meanwhile, have been helping the Philippine military go after Islamic State-linked militants, including many who belonged to groups that took part in a five-month IS siege of southern Marawi city in 2017.
In an interview with BenarNews in June, MILF leader Murad Ebrahim said his group was working to validate how many weapons were to be handed over to Manila, but that many of the firearms were owned by MILF members themselves and not the organization.
“We all know that right now the declaration has been there are two types of weapons – those that are owned by the members and those owned by the organization. The agreement is to decommission those weapons that are owned by the organization and not the members,” Lara told reporters.
Lara said he believed that a substantial number of firearms could be left in the hands of former MILF fighters but, in his view, the government and military must account for all of them.
The firearms to be decommissioned Saturday are to be kept by a group made up of government officials, MILF officials and foreign experts, and each combatant who hands over his weapons is expected to receive a cash payment, including money for education.
“Effectively, it’s martial law that has been able to curb the proliferation of illicit weapons, at least in terms of the evidence that we saw in our database,” International Alert country manager Nikki Dela Rosa said.
In particular, Dela Rosa said, the government needed to review its gun control regulations that allow a person to own 15 semi-automatic weapons.
While violence has continued in the south on a near daily basis, deaths attributed to conflicts have decreased year on year, by about 60 percent to just 900 in 2018. This was partially due to coordinated attacks and the drop in the use of explosives by various armed groups, International Alert reported.
“The state was also able to maintain a fragile peace in the Bangsamoro [region] by imposing martial law, which in turn deterred the carrying use of firearms,” Dela Rosa said.
Philippines: Duterte, Misuari Agree to Form Committee to Bring Wider Peace to South
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed to set up a “coordinating committee” composed of government representatives and leaders of former Muslim guerrilla leader Nur Misuari’s armed group as part of wider efforts to bring peace to the southern Mindanao region, a presidential spokesman said Tuesday.
The Philippine leader met Misuari last Friday in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City, five months after the 80-year-old ex-guerrilla threatened to go to war again if Manila did not change its system of government to federalism from the current presidential form.
Released Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad (second from right) stands next to then-Moro National Liberation Front Chairman Nur Misuari (right) after being turned over by ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf extremists in Indanan town on Jolo island in the southern Philippines, Sept. 18, 2016. (Photo: AP)
“President Duterte had a productive meeting with Mr. Misuari in discussing peace efforts in Mindanao,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters. “The president relayed to Mr. Misuari his desire to immediately form a coordinating committee between the government of the Philippines and the MNLF.”
In the mid-1990s, Misuari and his Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace deal with Manila, under which he became the leader of an autonomous region in the southern Philippines.
However, the government later acknowledged that it was largely a failed experiment, with many parts of the region failing to improve despite millions of dollars in largesse invested by Manila for the area’s development.
In 2013, MNLF members laid siege to Zamboanga City in the south, engaging troops in fierce battles that left more than 200 people dead. Thousands of homes were also burned down and Misuari went into hiding.
But when Duterte became president in 2016, one of his first acts was to order the government to drop charges of rebellion against Misuari. The president also worked towards the signing of a new law that expanded the autonomy and placed the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in charge. MILF is a splinter group of the MNLF, but its leaders enjoy close ties.
Panelo said further discussions about the committee would take place in the second week of September to set the agenda.
He quoted Misuari as telling Duterte that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which consists of 57 member states, should be part of the discussions. BenarNews could not immediately confirm Panelo’s statement.
The coordinating committee “will serve as a venue for the cooperation of the MNLF to achieve immediate peace” in the south, particularly its far-flung Sulu region and Misuari’s hometown, where years of rebellion also spawned smaller and more brutal groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf, Panelo said.
The committee “can expect the full support of the office of the president as we move toward our common goal of resolving the conflict that have caused deaths, and dislocation among the Muslims and Christians alike,” Panelo said.
“In resolving the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao, every undertaking that may lead to a lasting peace and prosperity to that region must be tried and tested until its fruition,” he said.
Misuari was the founder of the MNLF, the forerunner of the MILF, which broke off after Misuari’s group wanted to settle for limited autonomy as opposed to the latter’s fight for full independence.
The MILF was left out of the original peace deal signed by Misuari and the government that saw him become the governor of a Muslim region.
But while Misuari’s MNLF faltered in keeping its end of the bargain, the government subsequently signed a peace deal with MILF. As part of that peace accord, the 12,000-strong MILF dropped its bid for self-rule and settled for an autonomous region in the south.
Fearing that he would be left out of the new power structure, Misuari staged the failed Zamboanga siege.
Misuari had initially opposed the deal with the MILF, under which Muslims in the south were granted an expanded autonomous area and offered self-determination. Some four million Filipino Muslims were also empowered to elect their own parliament.
However, it also appears to have sidelined Misuari as many local government functions are now led by the MILF.
Duterte, however, has continued to engage Misuari, who in March said he wanted the system of government changed to federalism in which he envisions himself a regional political player. But Congress has so far rejected such suggestions.
Joseph Jubelag in General Santos city contributed to this report.
Ex-Muslim Rebels Train with Philippine Forces to Counter Islamic State Militants
Mark Navales and Froilan Gallardo
Carmen and Butig, Philippines
More than 200 ex-members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – once the largest Muslim insurgent force in the Philippines – have begun training to be part of a joint security team tasked with going after pro-Islamic State militants in the country’s volatile south, officials said Friday.
The former guerrillas who belong to MILF’s elite Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) began basic training on Thursday at Camp Lucero, a Philippine army base in the town of Carmen in North Cotabato province, as observed by BenarNews correspondents.
A first batch of 225 ex-Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters begins basic training at Camp Lucero in Carmen, southern Philippines, to become members of a joint peace and security team that will police the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo: Mark Navales/BenarNews)
The MILF men will spend the next month going through standard military training to prepare them as members of a “joint peace and security team (JPST),” whose main job will be to pursue fighters linked with Islamic State who are believed to be planning fresh attacks against government targets on the main southern island of Mindanao, officials said.
A breakaway faction of the MILF has expressed support for IS.
According to plans, the joint security team will comprise 1,400 soldiers, 1,600 policemen and some 3,000 BIAF fighters in total – a force that will police the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao – officials said.
They will be deployed in southern areas where there is a high concentration of violence, and while MILF completes the accounting and decommissioning of its weapons, as agreed in a peace deal it signed with the Philippine government earlier.
The formation and training of the MILF members as part of a joint security team is the “manifestation of our desire to sustain the peace process and our commitment to implement the Comprehensive Agreement of the Bangsamoro in the full implementation of the peace process,” said Carlito Galvez, a former military general and now President Rodrigo Duterte’s adviser on peace, reconciliation and unity.
The first batch of 200 MILF fighters was expected to serve and protect residents of some six government-acknowledged MILF camps, and other former communities held by the group in the south, he said.
Once the decommissioning process begins in September, only MILF fighters who are members of the joint peace team will be allowed to carry firearms.
“The military and police are the only ones allowed to carry firearms. After this basic military training, they will be given military ranks as reservists so they could officially bring their weapons as members of JPST as peacekeepers,” said Dickson Hermoso, co-chairman of the joint peace and security committee.
“Their personal firearms as part of JPST will be turned in to Armed Forces of Philippines as property of the government during the training, and the same will be issued to them when they will be deployed to maintain peace and security in areas that have been mutually identified by the GPH [Government of the Philippines] and the MILF,” he said.
The joint team will serve until 2022, when the interim government ends its term and an MILF-lead autonomous region goes to elections to choose its own leaders.
“Many years ago this type of event was simply unimaginable. No one ever thought that the MILF combatants will ever be in a military camp to undertake a military training,” said MILF leader Murad Ebrahim, who today heads the government of the autonomous region.
“But many previously unimaginable things have already happened and are actually happening now right before our eyes. The MILF has taken the mantle of leadership over the Bangsamoro Government in partnership with the government of the Republic of the Philippines.”
A first batch of 225 ex-Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters begins basic training at Camp Lucero in Carmen, southern Philippines, to become members of a joint peace and security team that will police the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo: Mark Navales/BenarNews)
While Manila has managed to bring in the 12,000-strong MILF into the government, a faction known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) has left the group and pledged allegiance to the IS as it pushes through with its fight for full independence in the south.
Other smaller, more volatile groups composed of extremists, like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which was excluded from the peace deal, also pose a problem, officials said.
In an interview with BenarNews two months ago, Murad acknowledged that two years after Philippine government forces broke a five-month siege of the southern city Marawi by pro-IS militants, a small number of foreign militants remains scattered across Mindanao.
“They are distributed among different groups. Both the BIFF and the ASG also splintered into many groups. The ASG is not led by one leader – they are splintered into several groups. Same with the BIFF, into three groups,” Murad said then as he appealed to enemy groups to lay down their firearms and join his government in establishing peace in the south.
Life in Butig today
The basic training for the MILF members kicked off while, elsewhere in the south, the army began integrating former fighters from the Maute militant faction to rejoin society.
The Maute clan had helped former Philippine IS leader Isnilon Hapilon seize Marawi in 2017. Led by brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, their band of militants planned and carried out the siege. Fighters from the Middle East and Asia are believed to have helped them out.
Hapilon and the Mautes were killed in the battle of Marawi. The IS branch in the Philippines is led nowadays by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a little-known Abu Sayyaf commander based on Jolo Island, who planned deadly suicide bombings at a church and an army camp there earlier this year, according to authorities.
In Butig, the hometown of the Mautes in Lanao del Sur province, the military has been trying to reestablish full control and bring back a semblance of normal life.
But grim reminders of past violence carried out by the Maute-IS faction are still visible. A bullet-riddled elementary school stands unrepaired and the area remains largely deserted, except on Sundays when the town’s market struggles with few customers.
Nearby, a group of men play “sepak takraw,” a foot volleyball sport native to Southeast Asia.
The Philippine flag flutters from a pole where the militants used to fly Islamic State’s black flag.
Security is still tight, though. Heavily armed soldiers, who are stationed in the former town hall, patrol Butig’s deserted streets day and night.
Capt. Ron Villarosa, a local army spokesman, said they were trying to reintroduce farming and other sources of livelihood for the residents of Butig, but it has been slow going.
Former Moro Islamic Liberation Front combatants undergo basic training at Camp Lucero in Carmen, southern Philippines, Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo: Mark Navales/BenarNews)
Currently, some 165 former Maute-IS fighters who had surrendered to the government have been allowed to return to their families and their communities, according to officials.
The military has also partnered with Peace Crops, a group of young agriculturists volunteers, to teach the former guerrillas how to plant vegetables in a 90-hectare plot of land in Butig.
“The Mautes recruited seventy percent of their fighters from farmers of these villages. It was not the students in Marawi,” Villarosa told BenarNews, adding that the Mautes had enticed young people here with money if they joined IS.
“Take down poverty and the ISIS will lose their appeal,” he added, referring to Islamic State extremists by a different acronym.
At the courtyard of the old town hall in Butig, soldiers loaded boxes of vegetable seedlings and a small hand tractor in the back of a military truck. And judging by the early reactions, the program appears to be off to a good start.
Nappy Magondacan, a former IS fighter, said he was glad that the military and the volunteers had come to teach them some agricultural skills.
“This will augment my income to feed my family,” said Magondacan, 20, a father of two who fought under the flag of the Mautes. He was also suspected of having a hand in the killing of army intelligence officers in 2017.
Now, he works the rice fields around Butig during harvests, and gets a small share of rice as a salary.
“I joined the ISIS when the Maute brothers promised to pay me 20,000 [Philippine pesos] every month,” Magondacan said. “I did not receive that money they promised me.
Rey Anthony Anacleto, a volunteer with the Peace Corps, said the government needed to focus on areas like Butig where the IS insurgency grew, rather than concentrate in pouring money into Marawi, which remains largely destroyed.
“I hope in the future that would change because the real fight against extremism starts here in the farms,” he said.
Southern Philippines: Soldier, 9 Islamic State-linked Militants Killed in Clashes
A soldier and at least nine suspected Filipino militants linked with Islamic State were killed in clashes in the southern Philippines that began over the weekend, a military spokesman said Monday amid recent reports of foreign extremists hiding in the Mindanao region.
The fighting broke out on Saturday near Sharif Saydona Mustapha, a town in southern Maguindanao province, between government forces and supporters of Abu Turaife, a local Islamic State (IS) leader in the south.
A Philippine soldier walks past military vehicles damaged in a suicide attack at a military camp in Jolo, southern Philippines, June 28, 2019. (Photo: AP)
Firefights went on until the next day and troops confirmed nine deaths on the enemy side, regional military spokesman Maj. Arvin Encinas said. The military said six of the nine dead enemy fighters had already been identified.
“We launched air and ground assaults against them,” Encinas told BenarNews, adding that clearing operations continued on Monday.
The soldier, identified as Sgt. Ahmad Mahmood of the Army’s 601st Brigade, was killed while another soldier and three militants were injured, Encinas told the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA).
Turaife is one of the leaders of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a radical Muslim faction that split from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an insurgent force that signed a peace deal with Manila and controls a Muslim autonomous region in the south.
BIFF says it is fighting for a separate Muslim homeland in the southern region of the predominantly Catholic country. The group has now embraced the ideology of IS, which was defeated in wide swaths of the Middle East and is looking to expand operations in Asia and other areas, according to analysts.
The fresh fighting took place amid reports that several foreign militants associated with the IS leader in the Philippines, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, were hiding in the south, the site of two suicide bombings since January, one of which was perpetrated by an Indonesian couple, police in Jakarta said last week.
The latest bombing, which hit a military camp on Jolo, occurred on June 28 and left three soldiers and three civilians dead along with two suicide bombers. One has been identified as a 23-year-old Filipino member of an Abu Sayyaf unit under the command of Sawadjaan.
Sawadjaan succeeded Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in October 2017 near the end of a five-month battle that erupted when he and other militants seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
Philippines: MILF Leader Tells IS-linked Militants to Give up the Fight
Jason Gutierrez, Jeoffrey Maitem, Jojo Rinoza and Mark Navales
Camp Darapanan, Philippines
The leader of what was once the Philippines’ largest Muslim insurgent force downplayed threats posed by militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) and urged them instead to drop their guns and help develop an Islamic homeland he now leads.
Murad Ebrahim, who led the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) during decades of separatist rebellion, told BenarNews in an interview that there remained only “a small group” of foreign jihadist scattered across the main southern island of Mindanao.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters bow in prayer at a mosque inside Camp Darapanan, Philippines, June 22, 2019. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)
They number between 20 and 30, and are embedded with fringe militant groups, said Murad, the interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“The reported foreign fighters of the ISIS here is very small. They are tied up with local groups and are not actually ideological,” he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State (IS).
Such groups are on the run after a massive campaign to crush them, two years after they stormed the southern city of Marawi and mounted a five-month battle that left more than a thousand people dead, most of them militants.
Murad heads an 80-member team that leads the BARMM, a zone made up of at least five southern provinces where MILF will oversee self-rule until local voters elect their own parliament by 2022. Marawi, now mostly in ruins, is one of its main cities.
The new Muslim homeland was ratified by voters in plebiscites earlier this year, as the final step in a peace pact signed with Manila in 2014, and brokered by Malaysia.
Map of Bangsamoro
However, small factions such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Abu Sayyaf have splintered from the MILF, and allied with the so-called Islamic State as it tried to establish a home base in Southeast Asia after losing territory in the Middle East.
Two years ago, militants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East joined in the Marawi attack, and a handful are known to have escaped and sought refuge in jungle camps.
“They are distributed among different groups. Both the BIFF and the ASG also splintered into many groups. The ASG is not led by one leader – they are splintered into several groups. Same with the BIFF, into three groups,” Murad told BenarNews.
And while the peace agreement requires his forces to eventually turn in their weapons, those assigned to join the military in combating these remnants would be the last to do so, Murad said.
“When the security structure is already in place, then we can decommission them,” he said.
‘Open for dialogue’
Murad acknowledged that there had been some residual violence in the south since he assumed the leadership of the BARMM early this year, but said he was confident that with the MILF joining the military in its fight, the threat would soon be eradicated.
Moreover, militants still fighting “are open for negotiations,” according to the 70-year-old veteran fighter.
“We are open for dialogue with them because we feel and believe that most of these splinter groups were frustrated by the government,” Murad told BenarNews during the interview on Friday at his office in Cotabato City, where he has traded his field clothes for a suit.
“We are also offering them, if they want to join (the government), we are open to accommodate them. We are willing to because our agreement with the government is that there will be a declaration of a general amnesty. This will cover all political crimes. So we will include them – all those who are qualified.”
Murad said those who joined the Marawi siege and those wanted by the government would not be covered by the amnesty.
‘Ready to transform’
In the years since the peace pact was signed, much has changed in the MILF’s main Camp Darapanan, just outside Cotabato City. A cement road leads to the heart of the area, replacing a dirt path that once connected the gunmen to the outside world.
An archway welcomes tricycles, trucks and other civilian traffic into the MILF administrative camp, while vendors selling freshly picked squash and other farm produce line the street as the harsh tropical sun beats down.
Yet the setting still bears reminders of the MILF’s decades-old rebellion for an independent Muslim state in the southern third of the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s largest predominantly Catholic nation.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters walk past a sign declaring the region Bangsamoro, June 22, 2019. (Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews)
A security patrol guards the camp’s perimeter and grizzled veterans tell stories of gun battles over piping hot coffee to anyone willing to listen. A sentry armed with a .50-caliber machine gun is perched on a post, scanning the horizon for potential enemies.
“Before we entered into this interim period of governance, we already expected that there will be great challenges because first of all, we are a revolutionary organization and we have no experience in governance. We had to transform from revolutionary to governance,” Murad said.
Murad and the MILF are trying to establish an autonomous Muslim region about two decades after the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) failed to do so. The MILF split with the MNLF in the 1970s.
After the MNLF signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, its leader, Nur Misuari, became governor of a Muslim region known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
But, according to analysts, Misuari failed to uplift the lives of the poor and allegations of corruption plagued his administration. In 2013, followers of Misuari led a two-month siege in southern Zamboanga city that left more than 200 dead, most of them MNLF fighters.
Murad said his administration aimed to prevent a similar failure by focusing on “moral governance.”
He noted that militants, particularly the Abu Sayyaf which is notorious for kidnappings for ransom, were motivated mainly by a desire to escape harsh poverty in their areas.
But as peace takes hold and economic development begins to trickle down, Murad said he expected many to give up their arms.
“Now, we see our people are ready to transform from the usual revolutionary force. We feel everybody accepts now the situation is different from what we were facing before when we started the struggle,” Murad said.
He credited President Rodrigo Duterte for the general change in the public’s perception of the Muslim cause.
“He himself acknowledged the injustices against the Bangsamoro. So this acknowledgement of injustices makes people like us feel this time around that it’s different from the past, when we were seen as their enemy,” Murad said.
About 120,000 died in fighting in the Philippines since the 1970s, according to Mohagher Iqbal, the former MILF chief negotiator who is now the BARMM’s minister for education.
Murad Ebrahim: From Insurgent Leader to Peacemaker
Jason Gutierrez, Jeoffrey Maitem, Jojo Rinoza and Mark Navales
Veteran insurgent leader Murad Ebrahim has traded in the fatigues he once wore for a business suit to lead the Muslim autonomous region his Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) won after decades of armed struggle in the southern Philippines and a peace pact years in the making.
Murad took over leadership of a transitional local government earlier this year after people in five provinces and a handful of neighboring districts agreed to join the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Murad Ebrahim, interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), speaks with BenarNews in his office in Cotabato City, Philippines, June 21, 2019. (Jojo Rinoza/BenarNews)
The 70-year-old claims he may see peace in his lifetime in a region where 120,000 have died in insurgency-related violence since the 1970s – and despite the failure of an earlier autonomous region, the ARMM, governed by MILF’s predecessor, the MNLF.
In an hour-long, no-holds-barred interview at his office in southern Cotabato City, Murad discussed his dreams, expectations and challenges as he navigates his new position while militants, both foreign and local, are nipping at his leadership.
BenarNews: What challenges lie ahead for you? Did you think it would be easy or difficult?
Murad: Before we entered into this interim period of governance, we already expected that there will be great challenges because first of all, we are a revolutionary organization and we have no experience in governance. We had to transform from revolutionary to governance.
Second, the expectation of our people is very high. So we need to respond to that expectation.
The first challenge we faced in the first year of the transition period is that our block grant was not appropriated in the 2019 budget. So we only have the remaining budget of the ARMM for 2019.
This remaining budget is already pre-planned, so we cannot re-align. We cannot introduce new programs for 2019.
BN:In short, it is a question of money?
Murad: One of the challenges is the question of money. The funding.
BN:How do you see your group evolving in the face of these challenges?
Murad: We see that we are progressing. We can manage the challenges. And we are hoping that, because by 2022, there will be an election for a regular government. So we need to strengthen our political party because the ministerial form of governance is more dependent on the strength of the political party.
BN: Many of your men have known nothing except fighting. How difficult is that?
Murad: Starting a few years ago we already tried to capacitate our people, because we are expecting that when we enter the government we need to capacitate them. And on our side we see that our success depends on how we can mobilize the capability and the talent of our people.
So even though we employ our own people in the organization, we also maintained those ARMM employees who are … especially part of the bureaucracy, we maintained them. We did not totally change the bureaucracy.
BN: So the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is still there?
Murad: It’s still there. And the bureaucracy is still intact. Actually, as of now, we just changed all those personnel who were linked with the political authority.
BN: How is the civilian government taking the changes?
Murad: Well, we see that so far, it is acceptable to them.
BN: And what makes the MILF leadership this time around different from the MNLF?
Murad: Well, now we focus on what we term as moral governance. We see that our success lies in how we can correct the evils of the system … evils of society. So we need to focus more on the advocacy for moral governance.
And the very time during the inauguration of the ARMM, we asked all our BTA (Bangsamoro Transition Authority) members to pledge to Allah to abide by the moral governance. That is our main advocacy for now.
BN: Where are you on the decommissioning process? How many firearms does the MILF have?
Murad: There are two tracts in the peace process. One is normalization and the other is the political tract. The normalization and political tract are side by side.
Now, under the normalization tract, this includes the decommissioning of our troops. And the decommissioning is divided into three phases. The first phase falls after the BOL (Bangsamoro Organic Law) is in place, the second phase is when the security structure will be in place. Third is when all the provisions of the agreement is implemented.
So now we are looking into decommissioning about 12,000 of our combatants. Maybe in the coming two or three months.
BN: So these 12,000 fighters will turn over their firearms?
Murad: Yes. Because we have also divided the firearms into three categories – the firearms owned by the organization, the firearms owned individually by the fighters, and those that are owned by civilians but which were used during war.
So we have different arrangements with the government with this. So the first thing we will turn over are the weapons owned by the organization. Then maybe we will have some arrangement on those guns individually owned by the fighters and civilians.
BN: How many are you willing to give up to avoid being vulnerable to attacks by other groups opposed to the MILF?
Murad: We have officially declared the number of weapons owned by the organization to around 6,000 to 7,000. We are still trying to account for those owned by the combatants themselves. And then there is also those that are owned by civilians.
BN: 6,000 is a bit low, don’t you think?
Murad: As I have said, the firearms owned by individual combatants is much higher.
BN: How many are we talking about?
Murad: Our regular combatants alone, is about 30,000 to 40,000. … Some are owned by the combatants and civilians.
BN: Will the decommissioned weapons be destroyed?
Murad: Under the agreement, it will be put beyond use. It will be kept in a certain place agreed upon and it will not be used by both parties. It will not be destroyed. This is similar to the agreement of Northern Ireland. The weapons of the Irish rebels are intact.
BN: When the MILF joined the government, there were several groups that splintered from the MILF, including the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters). How do you plan to deal with them if your firearms have already been surrendered?
Murad: Well, initially we are forming an interim security arrangement. It is forming a joint peace and security teams composed of the MILF-BIAF and government forces. Half of it from the police and the AFP (military).
So this will be the interim security. The MILF forces in this interim security will be the last to be decommissioned. When the security structure is already in place, then we can already decommission them.
BN: Will the MILF will be part of the anti-Islamic State drive?
Murad: Yes, we will be. But our strategy is two parts – we are open for dialogue with them, because we feel and believe that most of these splinter groups, or all of them, are (fighting) out of frustration from the peace process. You will see that the ASG (Abu Sayyaf) emerged after the failure of the implementation of the 1996 peace process with the MNLF. The BIFF splintered from the MILF after the failure of the MOA-AD. The latest group, the Maute Group, splintered also from the MILF. They bolted out after the non-passage of the BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) during the Aquino time.
[The MOA-AD or Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain was signed between the MILF and the government of ex-president Gloria Arroyo. It was later rejected by the Supreme Court. The MILF then declared all-out war with the government, leading to large-scale clashes and the displacement of entire communities.]
BN: How are you going to prevent the entry of foreign fighters, as happened in Marawi?
Murad: First of all, the reported foreign fighters for IS here is very small. They are tied up with the local groups and are not actually ideological. It is more of a financial necessity. Now actually, our intelligence confirms there are very few foreign nationals who are with these small groups.
BN: How many were you able to monitor based on intel in Mindanao?
Murad: They are from 20 to 30 maximum. Scattered … not in one location.
BN: When you say scattered, they are in heavily populated areas?
Murad: They are distributed among different groups. Both the BIFF and the ASG also splintered into many groups. The ASG has no one leader – they are splintered into several groups. Same with the BIFF, into three groups.
Even the latest one, the Maute Group, was also splintered (in) at least two groups. So now, even these foreign elements, they are also scattered among these splintered groups.
BN: But they can take advantage of that?
Murad: Yes. They can take advantage. [But] minus the support of the people in the area and then with the strong security structure in place, we are confident that we can finally get rid of them. We are also offering them, if they want to join [the government], we are open to accommodate them. We are willing to, because our agreement with the government is that there will be a declaration of a general amnesty. This will cover all political crimes. So we will include them – all those who are qualified.
BN: Even those who took part in Marawi?
Murad: Well, that would be different because many of them are considered as criminals and not tied to political crime.
BN: Has the MILF heard about Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan? Police and military said he worked with Indonesian militants in carrying out the Jolo bombings. Do you believe that?
Murad: Well, we see that most of the ASG are mainly motivated by money. Because we see that’s why they are more engaged in kidnapping. Recently, they have been involved in these bombings. These foreign fighters are trying to entice them with money. And that is why they also joined this group.
BN: If you compare the MILF now to how it was several years ago, what’s the difference?
Murad: Well, now, we see our people are ready to transform from the usual revolutionary force. We feel everybody accepts now the situation is different from what we were facing before when we started the struggle.
[W]e believed at that time that it was a fight for survival. If you go back to how this conflict started, it started in the late 1960s when there was this so called genocide campaign versus the Bangsamoro.
Now it is different, especially after the new president, [Rodrigo] Duterte, came into power. He himself acknowledged the injustices against the Bangsamoro. So this acknowledgement of injustice makes people like us feel this time around that it’s different from the past when we were seen as their enemy.
BN: How has your life changed?
Murad: … Your lifestyle always depends on your surroundings. When you are in the jungle, you have a different lifestyle. In urban areas, you have another lifestyle.
BN: You are in comfortable suits now?
Murad: We have to be. Although, you know, I only wear like this (on) official business. But on ordinary days, I wear normal clothes.
BN: Describe your day.
Murad: … In my schedule for weekdays I am in the office. But on weekends, I stay in [MILF camp] Darapanan because now our plan is that we will maintain the MILF as a social movement. We will not disband.
We will officially register it as a social movement, not necessarily a political party but more like an NGO or like a CSO (Civil Service Organization). It could be a partner of the government in implementing social services to the people.