Philippine military chief sees ‘total victory’ against southern militants before 2024

Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
Philippine military chief sees ‘total victory’ against southern militants before 2024 A group of people, described by police as former combatants of the militant group Abu Sayyaf, swear an oath of allegiance to the Philippine government following a ceremonial surrender of their weapons in the town of Jolo, July 30, 2022.
[Nickee Butlangan/AFP]

The Philippines can achieve “total victory” against Muslim militants in the volatile south by year’s end, the country’s new military chief said, after the president last week lifted an emergency enforced across Mindanao since 2016. 

Armed Forces commander Gen. Romeo Brawner said there had been no kidnap-for-ransom activities during the past two years in Mindanao, the country’s southern third where Filipino extremist factions linked with the Islamic State group are known to operate.

“[F]or more than two years now, there [have been] no more such incidents because of the military operations we are conducting. Many of them were neutralized. Many of them died but more of them surrendered,” Brawner said on Sunday during a program on DZBB radio, transcripts of which were released Monday.

“That is why we are very optimistic that by the end of the year, we are going to defeat them, we will achieve total victory against all of these terrorist groups.”

Brawner made the declaration more than a month after security forces killed the suspected IS emir for Southeast Asia based in the southern Philippines. 

Several groups operate in Mindanao, including the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). 

Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for a number of kidnappings and beheadings of victims. 

Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf man considered the IS regional leader, led the group when it took over the southern city of Marawi in 2017 before government forces drove them out in a five-month battle. He was killed during the fighting there along with many foreign militants. 

Brawner said the number of “terrorists” in Mindanao had dramatically fallen since 2017, when troops pushed out IS militants, including foreigners from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

While the military chief did not give figures of foreign militants still in the south, military intelligence sources placed the number at between 100 and 200.

“That’s why, as you can see, especially in the areas of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, it’s been more than two years now that we’ve not heard of any kidnap-for-ransom [incident],” Brawner said. 

Last week, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. lifted the state of emergency in Mindanao, saying the conditions that led to its imposition in September 2016 had “been significantly mitigated or reduced.”

‘‘Through successful, focused military and law enforcement operations and programs that promote sustainable and inclusive peace, the government has made significant gains in improving and restoring peace and order in the region,’’ Marcos said. 

Marcos said he was lifting the emergency to “boost economic activity and hasten the recovery of the local economy.” 

His predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, imposed the emergency after Davao City was bombed by militants, leaving 14 people dead and dozens wounded. That attack was a trial run for a much larger attack in Marawi a year later, officials had said.

Military chief Brawner said security forces would still maintain a presence in key areas in Mindanao to attain “sustainable peace.”

“We are not going to be satisfied with the neutralization of these threat groups. We have to sustain our gains,” he said.

“So what will happen is that soldiers will continue their presence in these areas and contribute to the whole nation’s approach in achieving peace.”

The government was continuing with its program of decommissioning, disarming and reintegrating former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), once the country’s biggest separatist force that signed a peace pact with Manila in 2014. 

MILF has ceased to be a rebel force, and is now in control of an autonomous region in the south, where many of its ex-guerrillas are seeking to be integrated into the Philippine military and police.

“For the BIFF and other rogue elements who are continuing to fight with the government, our military operations against them will still continue,” Brawner said.

BIFF, or Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, are guerrillas who broke away from MILF, when the latter agreed to the peace deal with the government. 

MILF has been helping Manila fight against BIFF and other militant organizations.


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