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Autonomy Could Strip Foreign Fighters of Southern Philippine Sanctuaries: MILF Chief

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
2018-07-25
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Murad Ebrahim, chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel group, talks to members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, in Manila, July 24, 2018.
Murad Ebrahim, chief of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebel group, talks to members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, in Manila, July 24, 2018.
Felipe Villamor/BenarNews

A final peace deal expected to be signed into law soon by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte could help stop foreign militants from infiltrating the troubled south, the leader of the country’s biggest Muslim rebel force said.

Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), expressed confidence that foreign fighters, including Malaysians and Indonesians, could soon be forced out of their sanctuaries as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) comes into force. It aims to end decades of conflict in the southern Philippines through granting autonomy to the predominantly Muslim region.

“We confirm that there are foreign elements joining these small groups,” Murad told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) this week.

“The moment these small groups will no longer accept these foreign elements, they can no longer come [to fight],” he said. Murad was referring to the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives ratified the BOL after the Senate approved the bill a day earlier. Duterte was expected to sign it within days, officials said.

Factions of the two southern groups have pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and engaged the military in sporadic clashes in recent weeks.

Last year, Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged head of IS in the Philippines, led a five-month siege in the Mindanao city of Marawi.

Philippine security forces defeated the militants after pounding the city in airstrikes. Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian considered to be a top IS recruiter in Southeast Asia, was among foreign fighters killed in the battle of Marawi, Duterte announced last October. Hapilon and other top local militants also died in the fighting.

Murad said past failures by the government to sign a lasting peace deal in the south had helped create several disgruntled factions, including one led by the Maute brothers from Marawi who helped spearhead last year’s siege.

“You will notice that most of these small groups, splinter groups, came into being after the failure of the peace process,” Murad said.

He noted that members of the Maute group had belonged to MILF, but they became further radicalized by the government’s failure to fast-track the autonomy law.

“They were able to capitalize (on this) in order to recruit some of their followers,” Murad said.

In 2014, the government of then-President Benigno Aquino III struck a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in which it agreed to pass a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that set boundaries for Muslim autonomous rule in the south.

In exchange, MILF agreed to drop its armed bid for independence.

But during Aquino’s final two years in office, the BBL never made it through a Philippine Congress dominated by Christians.

Hit-and-run attacks

BIFF, a breakaway faction of MILF, has pledged allegiance to IS, but did not send fighters to Marawi.

Instead it engaged the military in hit-and-run attacks in central Mindanao. Military intelligence has said that some foreign fighters had sought refuge in BIFF-held areas.

Murad confirmed that Malaysian and Indonesian fighters were lingering in some areas of the south under the protection of militant groups such as BIFF. The group has been fighting the military in communities near a sprawling marsh on Mindanao.

Murad declined to provide an estimate on the number of foreign fighters.

The Abu Sayyaf, on the other hand, is believed to have less than 500 fighters, and is mostly into criminal enterprise, including bombings, kidnappings and beheadings in the south. In the past two years, the group has beheaded a German and two Canadian hostages.

Murad said the splinter groups were the “result of frustration with the peace process” in the past.

“So we are quite confident that if there is a political settlement acceptable by majority of the Bangsamoro people, the splinter groups will gradually be carried into the mainstream,” he said.

“It’s very difficult for them to exist minus the support of some people in the area,” Murad said.

It took lawmakers four years to pass the legislation, largely because politicians in the predominantly Catholic nation were fearful of a Muslim autonomous region under the helm of the former rebel group.

But with Duterte controlling majority of the both houses of Congress, the BOL bill made it through Congress and Senate after intense deliberations.

The autonomy deal is expected to settle decades of conflict that have left more than 120,000 people dead in some of the nation’s poorest regions.

Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.

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