Report: Economic delays can fuel new round of militancy in Bangsamoro region

Richel V. Umel and Jeoffrey Maitem
Iligan and Cotabato, Philippines
Report: Economic delays can fuel new round of militancy in Bangsamoro region A motorcyclist passes through the arch marking the city limits of Marawi in the southern Philippines, May 21, 2021.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Militant groups could exploit frustration over the Philippine government’s delays in fulfilling economic promises to former Muslim rebels in an autonomous southern region by rekindling their recruitment efforts, a conflict monitoring group said in a report published Friday (Manila time).

A peace pact between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government has led to some gains for the war-torn Bangsamoro region, but militant groups are still operating on the fringes, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in its 43-page report. 

“Despite the interim government’s policies to contain violence, sporadic clashes with insurgents continue in various provinces,” ICG said.

“Delays in delivering the promised peace dividends will not automatically replenish the militants’ ranks, but they do raise the risk of renewed recruitment,” warned the report titled “Addressing Islamist Militancy in the Southern Philippines.” 

In 2014, the MILF ended its 44-year separatist insurgency and signed a peace pact, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, with the government in the majority Catholic Philippines.

Under the deal, the MILF ceased to be a rebel force in exchange for an expanded autonomous region to be governed by its leaders who committed to turn in their weapons. In February 2019, these former guerrillas, led by Murad Ebrahim (also known as Ahod Balawag Ebrahim), formally assumed leadership of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). 

Ebrahim was supposed to give up leadership of the transitional government this year, but President Rodrigo Duterte signed a law postponing the polls to select new leaders to 2025 after Ebrahim said that the coronavirus pandemic had slowed the implementation of economic reforms.

According to ICG, Ebrahim’s government should now step up “socio-economic assistance to hard-hit areas, work with local authorities to reintegrate former militants and devote more energy to resolving the local conflicts militants often exploit. 

“For its part, Manila should fast-track rehabilitation of Marawi, the city ravaged by battles with insurgents in 2017,” it said. 

Muslim women walk in a street in Marawi, southern Philippines, May 21, 2021. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

A large part of Marawi, a city which lies within the BARMM, remains tattered after intense ground fighting between government forces and Islamic State-linked militants, combined with large-scale aerial bombardment by the Philippine military from May to October in 2017. As many as 1,200 IS fighters, troops and civilians were killed during the five-month siege by the militants. 

Many Marawi residents have been unable to return to their destroyed homes because clearing operations to remove unexploded ordnance are still ongoing. 

While the government and the military have so far managed to prevent any new outbreaks, ICG said militants could be waiting in the wings to sabotage peace. 

“At least for now, it appears the allure of insurgency for the Bangsamoro’s people is fading. But the fact there is no second Marawi siege in the making is not a success in itself; militants do not need to be IS-inspired to continue fighting the Philippine state,” the ICG said, noting that local grievances contribute more to the resilience of militant groups than ideology. 

It emphasized that in the past, militant groups were able to tap into the frustrations of young, angry Muslims and could do so again should Ebrahim’s group fail to deliver on its promises. 

“As elsewhere, the best strategy remains to tackle underlying local causes while diversifying the current set of security operations to include better policing and intelligence gathering in order to disrupt militant networks. Absent these steps, the specter of militancy will continue to haunt the Bangsamoro,” the report said. 

While the Bangsamoro government is on the frontlines of tackling militancy in the region, the national government and the military have been crucial in delivering support. The report noted that sustained military operations in the past two years led to the deaths of many fighters, even as Manila also worked with local authorities to urge militants to drop their weapons or face military assault.

“As a result, hundreds of militants have laid down their weapons,” the report said.

Persistent threat

Rommel Banlaoi, a counter-terrorism analyst at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said a “persistent terrorist threat” in Mindanao remains.  

“Terrorism in the Philippines is not disappearing. It is not disappearing because we have to understand terrorism in the Philippines in the context of our domestic security threats,” he told BenarNews. 

He noted that the Philippines has been “experiencing prolonged internal armed conflicts” with Muslim militant groups linked to the Islamic State in the south, as well as the communist New People’s Army, along with insurgents elsewhere.

These groups include the Abu Sayyaf and its many cells linked to the IS and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – a splinter organization of the MILF, experts have said.  

The Abu Sayyaf, or “Bearers of the Sword,” a militant group based in the southern Philippines, is blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including bombings of military camps. Founded by an Afghan-trained militant in the 1990s, the group later branched out to raising funds through kidnapping when its leader was killed.

The BIFF members are ex-MILF guerrillas who are fighting in central Mindanao. They have pledged allegiance to IS, but did not join in the siege of Marawi.


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