Two of the largest former Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines on Monday announced the formation of a joint fighting unit to help the military pursue militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) and avert a siege similar to last year’s Marawi city.
The leaders of the 10,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) said they had agreed to create the “Biwang Bangsamoro Unified Coordinating Council” during a meeting on the main southern island of Mindanao over the weekend.
The teams would include fighters from both sides who would coordinate with soldiers otherwise hobbled in going after Islamic State (IS) forces in remote areas, Mohagher Iqbal, a MILF senior member said.
The formation of the elite fighting group was decided immediately by both groups “due to the serious increasing threat” of IS in Mindanao, Iqbal, the MILF’s chief negotiator in peace talks, told BenarNews.
He said the new team would conduct joint intervention measures and share intelligence information.
“It’s a key to establish sustainable peace and order,” Iqbal said. “We don’t want the peace efforts we are forwarding with the government to be spoiled by the so-called IS-inspired groups. Everybody should be vigilant.
“The end of war in Marawi does not mean the end also of ISIS,” he added, using another acronym for IS.
MILF broke away from MNLF in the late 1970s over ideological differences. It signed a peace deal with government in 2014 after dropping its fight for independence.
The MNLF signed its own peace pact with Manila in 1996. Its founder, Nur Misuari, eventually became the governor of a Muslim autonomous region, but failed to lift the area out of poverty despite millions of dollars being poured into the region.
Misuari later led a deadly siege of Zamboanga city in 2013 that left more than 200 rebel fighters, soldiers and civilians dead.
Misuari went into hiding and the court suspended his arrest warrant on rebellion charges on orders from President Rodrigo Duterte – whom he considers a personal friend – after Duterte came to power in 2016. An arrest warrant on lesser graft charges was filed in September 2017.
Duterte has said he believes that any initiative to bring peace to the volatile south would not work without the help of Misuari and his forces.
In May 2017, Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of IS in the region, led Filipino, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters in taking over Marawi, where they had planned to establish a seat of power.
An intense, five-month battle ensued, leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 combatants and civilians.
Duterte identified Abu Turaipe as the new IS leader in the south, following the deaths of Hapilon and top Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad in the battle of Marawi.
MNLF Chairman Muslimin Sema attended the unification ceremony and vowed that they would not allow another siege to take place similar to Marawi.
“We want to ensure the safety and protection of the people against bad elements who want to sow terrorist acts,” Sema said.
He said both sides had agreed to set aside ideological differences and were “uniting as one to protect our land from the IS.”
But while the Marawi war has ended, government troops were fighting against other groups in the southern region, namely, the splinter Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) which has not openly declared allegiance to IS but appears to be aiding their fighters.
BIFF split from the MILF in 2008 and vowed to push the separatist fight, attracting younger, more hardline members of the MILF.
On Saturday, the military said, troops on reconnaissance patrol came under attack from about 50 BIFF militants. The two-day battle left a one soldier and nine militants dead.
Last month, BIFF militants stormed a community in Shariff Aguak town, killing two civilians and setting on fire more than 20 houses.