Philippine pro-Islamic State militants, former allies MILF set for showdown with approval of autonomy law

Philippine pro-Islamic State militants, former allies MILF set for showdown with approval of autonomy law

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

KUALA LUMPUR: Pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in the Philippines’ troubled Mindanao island are expected to face a crackdown from their former comrade, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), following the historic signing of a law granting greater autonomy to Muslims in the south, say security experts.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday (Jul 26) enacted the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), allowing Muslims in Mindanao to start moving toward self-rule by 2022.

The BOL is a culmination of 21 years of peace negotiations between the government and the MILF in a bid to counter violent extremism and half a century of separatist conflict.

“If the Bangsamoro government is formed, it will be more difficult for pro-IS groups to carry out their violent activities because MILF will utilise their existing armed forces to go after them,” said Prof Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

“That’s MILF's promise to the Philippine government."

He added: “The MILF has been working with the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) to run after pro-IS groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Abu Dar Group."

MILF has publicly declared its opposition to IS, and last year started working with the Philippine military to fight pro-IS groups in Mindanao.

Prof Banlaoi however cautioned that threats to peace will remain after the MILF ends their struggle against the Philippine government.

"There are several threats: The BIFF in central Mindanao; the Abu Dar Group, composed of remnants of the pro-IS Maute group, in Lanao provinces; and the ASG in Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces," he said. 

READ: A rocky road to peace in the southern Philippines: Pressures on the MILF leadership

MANY PRO-IS GROUPS ARE SPLINTERS FROM MILF

Most of the pro-IS groups are former members of MILF, the largest armed group in Mindanao with about 30,000 fighters.

In an interview with Channel NewsAsia last year, MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said during the decades-long negotiations, its members broke away to form more radical groups each time peace talks broke down. 

Some of the splinter groups went on to pledge allegiance to IS.

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

As the former comrade of many of the pro-IS groups, MILF wields considerable influence over them except for the ASG, according to Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington, DC.

“MILF has some influence, in that there are personal and kinship relationships,” said Prof Abuza who specialises in terrorism and insurgencies in Southeast Asia.

"They know the pro-IS groups, and often cohabit with them. They should be able to root them out far more effectively than the Philippine military or the Philippine National Police (PNP). 

"MILF has very little influence over the ASG, simply because the latter is predominantly comprised of ethnic Tausugs, and the MILF has always had a very limited presence in Sulu island."

The Tausugs are inhabitants of Sulu.

"The real question is whether the MILF can stem defections from its ranks which have been taking place in the past three years," said Prof Abuza.

One of the splinter groups, the pro-IS Maute Group founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, seized control of the city of Marawi and held on to it for five months before the military wrestled back control on Oct 17 last year. 

READ: Fears of another Marawi as Islamic State militants regroup, plan suicide bombings

More than 1,100 people died in the fighting. The Marawi siege was the worst outbreak of its kind in Philippine’s modern history. 

It also marked the most serious assault by IS in its bid to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia, unsettling governments in the region.

Following the Marawi siege, MILF urged the government to speed up the peace talks as an antidote to violent extremism.

READ: The men behind the Marawi siege

MILF EXPECTED TO ASSUME MANY GOVERMENTAL RESPONSIBILITIES IN NEW BANGSAMORO GOVERNMENT: EXPERT

The onus to crack down on the myriad of pro-IS groups operating in the Mindanao jungles will rest on the future Bangsamoro government that is to be elected, according to Prof Abuza.

“The onus will be on the new Bangsamoro government after a plebiscite and elections are held,” said Prof Abuza 

The new government will have internal policing functions, though they will be part of the PNP chain of command. 

“The MILF is expected to assume many of those governmental responsibilities. Most importantly, the MILF has a real incentive to crack down on pro-IS militants and deny them sanctuary,” said Prof Abuza.

“They have long made the argument to Philippine leaders and Congress that the antidote to IS militancy is a workable autonomy agreement. There is a lot of latent mistrust toward the MILF, so they have to prove themselves."

A challenge to MILF's authority in the region is another reason for rooting out these militants, added Prof Abuza. 

Abu Sayyaf rebels
Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines gained international notoriety for kidnapping dozens of foreign tourists for ransom in the early 2000s. (Photo: AFP)

FOREIGN FIGHTERS FROM MALAYSIA AND INDONESIA EXPECTED TO BE FORCED OUT OF MINDANAO: MILF

MILF’s chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim expressed confidence that foreign fighters, including Malaysians and Indonesians, could soon be forced out of their sanctuaries when BOL comes into force, reported BenarNews.

Murad believes the BOL will bring splinter groups back into the political fold, making it harder for foreign extremists to form alliances with them.

“All these splinter groups are a result of the frustration with the peace process. The moment the small groups no longer accept the foreign elements, they can no longer come to the Philippines,” Murad was quoted as saying.

According to Prof Abuza, MILF chairman Murad is correct "to a degree".

He said: “There is a push-pull factor. On the one hand, the IS central command has been encouraging Southeast Asian supporters to travel to Mindanao to fight.

“But if there are no longer groups who are willing to host them, it will be harder for them to really establish themselves there."

Prof Rommel cautioned that the BOL will not automatically stop the influx of foreign fighters.

"The BOL can even attract some foreign fighters to come to the southern Philippines to oppose what they perceive as 'co-opting with the infidels'," said Prof Banlaoi.

"But the BOL will require the Bangsamoro government to formulate measures to prevent the entry of foreign terrorist fighters to Mindanao.  

"Otherwise, foreign terrorist fighters working in tandem with local fighters could undermine the peace aspired by all."

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)

MILF HAS CAPACITY TO WEAKEN ISLAMIC STATE IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

Prof Abuza meanwhile added that if the MILF prove to the Philippine government that they are are serious about making Mindanao less hospitable for the pro-IS militants, they could really weaken IS in the region.

“This is so important, because while you have IS cells in Indonesia and Malaysia, they are simply cells operating in inhospitable environments, up against competent and well-resourced security forces," he said.

“Only in the Philippines did pro-IS groups control territory, and have the space they needed to attract IS's attention, and encourage foreign fighters."

Former Malaysian and Indonesian militants who fought in Mindanao told Channel NewsAsia earlier that the Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia where IS could establish a foothold, as it is awash with weapons, explosive materials, ungoverned spaces and porous borders.

MILF’s biggest challenge now is to transition from a guerrilla army to a functioning government, said Prof Abuza.

“That is hard to do, and few rebel groups do it effectively or seamlessly," he said. 

"The key is that resources have to quickly flow to them so they can pay people and assure their loyalty to the new autonomous government."

Source: CNA/ac(rw)

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