Southern Philippines: Transitional Head of Autonomous Region Says He’s Contacted Pro-IS Groups

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
2021-01-29
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Southern Philippines: Transitional Head of Autonomous Region Says He’s Contacted Pro-IS Groups Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, casts his vote during a plebiscite to ratify a law giving full autonomy to the Bangsamoro homeland, at an elementary school in Sultan Kudarat town, Maguindanao, southern Philippines, Jan. 21, 2019.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

The head of the transitional government of a Muslim autonomous area in the southern Philippines said Friday he had reached out to Islamic State-linked militants in a bid to stave off violence that threatens peace in the region.

Murad Ebrahim told reporters that he had made preliminary contact with members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) as well as the Abu Sayyaf Group in efforts to persuade them to come into the fold of the law.

“We are opening a dialogue with them… [and] convincing them to join us, the government,” Murad told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) during its annual Prospects forum.

“Two of the three groups are open. We are working for the 900 of them that would like to join. We temporarily delay the ceremony since some of them are facing arrest warrants,” Murad said, but did not give more details, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

Murad heads the transitional authority that has power over the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BAARM). He also leads the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former armed separatist group that now controls the autonomous region after the guerrillas signed a peace deal with the central government in Manila.

The BIFF is a faction that broke away from the MILF and refused to sign the peace agreement. It and Abu Sayyaf, which also operates in the southern region of Mindanao, have both pledged their allegiance to Islamic State (IS).

Murad, 72, took over leadership of a transitional local government in 2019 after people in five provinces and a handful of neighboring districts voted in a plebiscite to join the autonomous region.

At Friday’s forum, Murad used the occasion to again press the case that his term as head of the interim regional government – set to expire next year – be extended by three years.

He has been lobbying to have his term prolonged till 2025 by arguing that ongoing security threats posed by pro-IS militants, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, have impeded his administration in implementing crucial reforms before his term expires in 2022. A proposed law to facilitate this extension is with the Philippine Congress.

“Most of us are already weary because of the extremely unique circumstances during the past this year, but we owe this to our people and the sacrifices made by our dear brethren in the struggle,” Murad said. “We cannot put our people’s welfare on hold and so our service continues.”

He said that some of the reforms that the transitional authority started “have been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

“While it is true that we support the call for an extension period, we will also make sure that we are not complacent especially in providing social services to the Bangsamoro during one of the darkest chapters in human history,” Murad said.

In August last year, twin suicide bombings carried out by Abu Sayyaf operatives killed 15 people on Jolo, an island in southern Sulu province. A year earlier, 23 died in a twin-suicide bombing that targeted a church in Jolo town.

And while BIFF’s operations have been concentrated on Mindanao Island and far from Jolo, the frequency of violence perpetrated by the group has increased lately.

On Wednesday, at least three people died and scores were wounded in pair of roadside bombings in North Cotabato and Maguindanao, neighboring provinces in the volatile south. Authorities suspect that BIFF militants were behind the attacks.

“We are strengthening the security structure. We have agreed with the government to establish a temporary structure we call an interim security group to assist the police and military in security measures,” Murad said.

Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Iligan City, Philippines.

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