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.
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.”
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.
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.