Islamic State recruiters in the southern Philippines are luring frustrated fighters from the country’s largest Muslim rebel force, despite the deaths of top IS-linked Filipino leaders and their defeat in Marawi, a senior MILF guerrilla warned Friday.
An undetermined number of Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels have “defected” to at least one group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, Mohagher Iqbal, the chief peace negotiator for MILF, told BenarNews, citing intelligence information from field commanders.
“We created a task force to talk to our commanders. We are really engaging them. We mobilized our Islamic religious leaders to tell them teach real teaching[s] of Islam,” Iqbal said.
“People, like in Marawi, they have been swayed already. The radicals in Marawi have consistently cited frustration in the peace talks as one of the reason why they fought the government,” he added.
MILF field commanders have found it hard to rein in young MILF fighters from joining IS, Iqbal said.
New IS leader
The IS faction in the southern Mindanao region is now headed by an ex-MILF guerrilla commander named Abu Turaipe, who controls a massive marshland area in Maguindanao town, where his forces have been involved in low-intensity fighting since August.
Turaipe split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front when it signed a peace deal with Manila three years ago. The MILF then dropped its separatist bid for an independent state in the south, an idea that did not sit well with Turaipe. He broke away from the rebel chain-of-command and led his followers, who numbered in the few dozens, to press on with the fight.
Since then, the Philippine congress has stalled on passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law, legislation needed to implement autonomy for MILF-controlled areas in the south, as outlined in the peace agreement. The region is endowed with rich mineral deposits but its population has remained poor because of decades of insurgency that have left tens of thousands dead.
At first, Turaipe’s band was dismissed as nothing more than a small group of bandits, until its members pledged allegiance to IS last year. They were, however, forced to engage in hit-and-run attacks largely confined in Maguindanao. His faction was not involved in the five-month battle of Marawi, led by Isnilon Hapilon, the overall IS leader in the region, who was subsequently killed.
Now that Hapilon is gone, the low-profile Turaipe has emerged as the next IS leader.
“We are not saying we will not go back to armed struggle if the passage of the BBL fails. [T]he option right now is to pass the BBL,” Iqbal said.
Last week, Wahid Tundok, a senior MILF leader who is its 118th Base commander, warned of violence larger than Marawi should Congress fail to enact the law.
President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, has appeared to listen to MILF’s warnings. During a visit to an MILF camp several days ago, he pledged to shepherd the pending legislation through Congress in a special session to be called at a future date.
The Bangsamoro Basic Law was touted as the centerpiece legislation of then-President Benigno Aquino’s administration. But efforts to pass it have met with stiff resistance from several lawmakers, who are wary of giving too much power to MILF. The proposed law calls for giving the group its own power structure, police force and money.
Past failed efforts to bring about peace in Mindanao have spurred deadly violence. In 2008, the Supreme Court invalidated a deal brokered by the government that would have declared large swathes of Mindanao as the MILF’s “ancestral domain.” As a result of the court’s ruling, peace talks at the time collapsed and hundreds of people were killed in ensuing violence.
According to the military, the aide of Omarkhayam Maute, one of the leaders behind the Marawi attacks who were killed in the battle there, has reportedly been recruiting residents, especially young men, in surrounding Lanao del Sur province.
Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., deputy commander of the military’s Joint Task Force Ranao, said militants aligned with Maute had been going around Muslim communities and actively trying to regroup after their defeat in Marawi in late October.
Citing fresh information from local residents and officials, Brawner said that a man identified as Abu Dar, one of the Maute leaders who escaped from Marawi, was leading the recruitment drive.
“The recruitment efforts for training of new fighters of IS-Maute terrorist group were monitored in the towns of Piagapo, Lumbacaunayan and Sultan Domalondong,” Brawner said.
At least 40 men were working along with Abu Dar in their recruitment drive, said Haroun Al-Rashid Lucman, vice governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. He appealed to the military not to allow the “terrorists to regroup.”
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.