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.
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.
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.
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.