Islamic State's grip widening in southern Philippines, says MILF leader

Islamic State's grip widening in southern Philippines, says MILF leader

In the second of a three-part series looking at the changing security situation in the Southern Philippines, Channel NewsAsia's Amy Chew speaks to the leader of the MILF about the growing threat of radicalism there.

MILF leader 1
MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim along with members from the group. (Photo: Amy Chew)

CAMP DARAPANAN, Philippines: From the air, Mindanao island in the southern Philippines is a stunning mass of lush greenery surrounded by sparkling blue waters, an unexpected stunning sight.

But on the ground, the lush beauty gives way to harsh realities. Mindanao is the poorest region in Philippines.

Four out of the top five poorest regions in the Philippines were in Mindanao in 2015, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority (PSA).

In June this year, Filipino Senator Sherwin Gatchalian was quoted by ABS-CBN News as saying that extremism in the southern Philippines can be traced to poverty and the only way to counter it is by ensuring that families have enough for their basic needs.

Insurgencies and armed conflicts have ravaged the island for 40 years, killing more than 100,000 people.

The latest large-scale armed conflict was the five-month siege of Marawi city by pro-Islamic State (IS) groups that ended last month, leaving 1,132 militants, soldiers and civilians dead, flattening buildings and displacing more than 200,000 residents. 

The attack, led by the pro-IS Maute Group and Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was the fiercest fighting the Philippines government has faced in many years. 

It also marked the most serious assault by the global terror group in a bid to get a foothold into Southeast Asia, raising the black flag of IS in Marawi, unsettling governments across the region.

The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group in southern Philippine with 12,000 members, has warned of an increased IS presence in Mindanao following the Marawi siege.

At Camp Darapanan, the headquarters of MILF, the group’s leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, told Channel NewsAsia that it was crucial for on-going peace talks to succeed, as an antidote against the rising threat of violent extremism.

Murad, a former military commander who said he favours peace over war, warned that IS was exploiting the protracted peace talks to recruit people to join the group.

"DELAY IN PEACE TALKS DRIVING PEOPLE TO ISLAMIC STATE"

The 69-year-old spent decades fighting in the harsh jungles of Mindanao. Still, he has regularly been described as a moderate leader committed to peace. 

But there are no mistaking his credentials. Heavily armed bodyguards suddenly appeared from nowhere to surround the garden when he arrived for an interview with Channel NewsAsia, followed by respectful handshakes and greetings extended by men in the vicinity.

Murad said a successful outcome to peace talks in Mindanao was of “great importance” for the stability and security of the whole of Southeast Asia.

“If the problems in the Philippines worsened, Malaysia (and) Indonesia will be affected,” said Murad. 

“The longer this peace process takes, the more people are going to be radicalised,” he added.

“What we see now is ... they (pro-IS groups) are capitalising on the delay of the peace process. They try to influence young people (by saying) tens of years have been spent on the peace process but nothing happened,” said Murad.

“They try to get young people to join their group, saying that only by means of violence, could we achieve our aims,” he added.

MILF OPPOSED TO ISLAMIC STATE

MILF has publicly voiced its opposition to IS and is fighting alongside the Philippines’ military against pro-IS groups.

“For us, we are really determined to oppose this group (IS) … any radical groups. We don’t believe their activities will help in achieving our aspiration of Bangsamoro (people of Moro), (which is) a political aspiration for self government and self determination,” said Murad.

Only a few dozen civilians could be seen on Tuesday morning on the outskirts of the mostly destroyed
Only a few dozen civilians could be seen on Tuesday morning on the outskirts of the mostly destroyed eastern half of Marawi, where regular bursts of gunfire and occasional controlled explosions could still be heard AFP/TED ALJIBE

The MILF and the central government have been negotiating for greater autonomy and wealth sharing in Mindanao in peace talks that started in 1997. The talks have yet to conclude.

MILF, with its vast network of men and control over territory in Mindanao, has detected an increase in the number of IS militants in southern Philippines following the loss of the terror group’s territories in the Middle East.

Western analysts recently said they expect IS fighters, driven from Syria and Iraq, to move to Libya and the Philippines.

‘We feel that after the Middle East, … where they (IS) are losing ground, they increased (their) penetration into the southern Philippines. We have information they (IS) want to strengthen their forces in southern Philippines because they see southern Philippines as a very strategic area,” said Murad.

“If you look at southern Philippines, it is at the center of several countries in the Pacific rim like Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand ... they want to form a wilayat, a province of the (Islamic) Caliphate,” said Murad.

During the siege of Marawi, IS called for people to wage jihad in the city, drawing foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East to the Philippines.

“According to our monitoring, there were three Middle Eastern-looking people in Marawi ... there were five men from Malaysia and about seven to eight from Indonesia,” said Murad.

WEAK RURAL GOVT CONTROL FACILITATES IS INFILTRATION 

The government's weak control in parts of Mindanao – in the highlands and rural areas - is leaving the southern Philippines open to further penetration by IS, said Murad.

“They (IS) ... know government control over areas, especially in the highlands ... in rural areas, is not strong, particularly in Mindanao. Many areas are not well-protected. Mindanao is also very porous. They (IS) can easily come in,” said Murad.

“And it is easy to buy weapons here,” said Murad.

Add to that, infiltration by Malaysian and Indonesian IS militants were difficult to detect because “they look just like us,” said Murad. 

The 10,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting for a Muslim
The 10,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting for a Muslim homeland in the largely Catholic Philippines for decades, is warning of the growing strength of Islamic State group-affiliated groups in the region. (Photo: AFP/Ferdinand Cabrera)

Former MILF fighters told Channel NewsAsia in an earlier interview that the southern Philippines was the only place in Southeast Asia that IS could establish a province as the country was awash with weapons, armed groups and ungoverned spaces. 

Asked whether IS will succeed in carving out a wilayah (territory) in southern Philippines, Murad said “no.”

“Given the problems in Mindanao, they (IS) can strengthen their forces. But to create a successful wilayah, I don’t think so,” said Murad. 

FEARS OF ANOTHER MARAWI-STYLE ATTACK

The Philippines government has now declared the end of fighting in Marawi. As the government set out to rebuild the city, MILF warned there are signs pro-IS groups are attempting to stage another “Marawi-style” attack in other parts of Mindanao.

“After the Marawi attack, we really sense pro-IS are trying to launch attacks in other cities,” said Murad.

“We identified radical groups moving silently into Cotabato city. They were not armed and were probably doing reconnaissance,” said Murad.

Cotabato City is a 30-minute car ride away from MILF’s headquarters and serves as the regional seat for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

“We … deployed our own forces in strategic areas on the outskirts of Cotabato city, just to send a signal we will defend Cotabato city if they (pro-IS groups) attacked,” said Murad.

The ARMM is predominantly Muslim and comprises five provinces and two component cities in Mindanao.

SPLINTERING INTO RADICAL GROUPS

Meanwhile, the protracted peace talks have disappointed some of MILF’s young members, causing them to break away to form radical groups with some pledging allegiance to IS.

“History has shown that every time the peace process fails, you will have splinter groups They always end up being more radical,” said Murad.

Amongst them is the pro-IS Maute Group founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, leaders of the Marawi siege. Both were killed by the military.

“The Maute was (previously) with the MILF,” said Murad.

Murad traced the rise of the Maute Group to the breakdown of the 2015 peace process when the Philippines’ legislature failed to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to establish the new autonomous Muslim-majority region called Bangsamoro.

The BBL would have greater powers than the existing ARMM which it would replace.

“The Maute Group surfaced after the failure of the BBL in the last administration … they split from MILF in 2015 ... formed their own group under their own name,” said Murad.

Another MILF splinter group is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) which pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, according to the Jakarta-based Institute For Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).

TIES SEVERED WITH JEMAAH ISLAMIYAH SINCE 2001

In the mid-nineties, the MILF allowed the regional terror group, JI, to set up a para-military training camp in its territory, a decision that sometimes returns to haunt the group in peace negotiations.

Murad did not shy away from answering when asked why JI was allowed into its territory.

“JI from Indonesia volunteered to fight with us during the height of our fighting, especially at the time (when) there was this all-out war against MILF,” said Murad.

“So when they (asked to) set up their own camp, we permitted them. But after we resumed the peace process, we courteously asked them (JI) to leave the Philippines,” said Murad.

“We said that since we are already in the peace process, there is no need for us to have this (JI) training camp,” Murad added.

Murad said JI’s departure from its land started in 2001.

An official from the government-run Coordinating Committee on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) told Channel NewsAsia that Mount Caracao, where the JI camp was located, is verified “100 per cent free of JI” since 2013.

OPTIMISM UNDER DUTERTE

After years of disappointment, Murad is optimistic a revised draft BBL, the cornerstone of the peace negotiations, will be passed under President Rodrigo Duterte's administration.

“We are optimistic it (BBL) will be passed as long as the President continues to support the law,” said Murad.

Rodrigo Duterte (C) poses with MILF leaders and government officials as they hold a draft of the
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) poses with MILF leaders and government officials as they hold a draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. (AFP Photo/Ted Aljibe)

“President Duterte … is the first president from Mindanao. He understands well the problems in Mindanao. He acknowledges there has been injustices committed against the Bangsamoro people,“ Murad.

Duterte, has vowed to fast-track a revised draft of the BBL for passage through the legislature.

The draft BBL was filed in the Lower House of Congress on Sep 29 this year.

To date, the ceasefire agreement signed by the MILF, as part of the peace negotiation, has been holding well.

Asked whether MILF will resume fighting should the BBL once again fail to pass through the legislature, Murad said: “We will cross the bridge when we come to it.”

Source: CNA/ac

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