A haven for terror

Lack of progress in autonomy push could see members of moderate rebel groups joining ranks of extremists.

A Muslim woman, one of around 2 million living outside of their Mindanao homelands, at an Eid al-Adha celebration in Manila. (Photo by Basilio Sepe)
By Inday Espina-Varona

The grand mosque in Marawi towers over the rubble sprawling across half of this southern Philippine city — the center of faith for the country's 11 million Muslims.

Seven hundred people have been killed since the conflict broke out on May 23. Almost half a million others count time in tent cities or the cramped homes of relatives.

As Filipino Muslims celebrated Eid al-Adha, the sacrifice feast, they looked to Marawi's wasteland as a symbol of crushed hopes and new beginnings for peace efforts in Mindanao.

The Philippine government is on its last push to drive out so-called Islamic State-inspired militants after more than three months of fighting. It has embarked on a US$300 million rehabilitation program.

The hardest task ahead: Fending off inroads of extremism and terror,

That mission does not stop at the borders of Mindanao, where most Filipino Muslims live. Almost a quarter of the country's Muslims are scattered across the archipelago after long years of conflict. The capital, Manila, has suffered its share of major terror attacks.

The alphabet of terror has morphed through the years, in sync with setbacks to peace efforts.

The conflict goes back more than 500 years in some form, since the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

Most rebel groups identifying as Bangsamoro, the term for Filipino Muslims who see themselves as a nation, see self-determination as their common call.


The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was launched in 1972, the same year the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.

Five years later, some of its key commanders formed the New MNLF. Later in the 1980s with Osama bin Laden's mujahedeen fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, 400 Filipino guerrillas returned home in batches to found the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In 1991, a few MNLF members formed the Abu Sayyaf, which has staged kidnappings, beheadings, arson attacks and bombings through the years.

The MILF and the Abu Sayyaf jeered at the MNLF's 1996 peace agreement that created the still existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Many disappointed MNLF members joined both groups.

The MILF has since downgraded its call for an independent Islamic state to that of "genuine autonomy."

The Abu Sayyaf long ago allied itself with groups like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya, among others, that sought the creation of a Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate.

The Abu Sayyaf also leads Marawi's IS-inspired fighters. Their main allies are former MILF members disgusted by setbacks to the 10,000-strong group's autonomy efforts.

From the MILF also came the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), headed by veteran fighters in central Mindanao.

The BIFF has since suffered a breakaway.

The Jamaatul Muhajireen Wal An Saralso flies the black Islamic State (IS) group's flag. It recently tried to encroach on MILF territory in clashes that cost the bigger group ten fighters.

A small group has ties with all the other organizations. Most of the founders of Rajah Sulayman Movement (RSM), an extremist group of converts to Islam, are serving sentences for terrorism. But security analysts believe followers are behind an urban, digital surge in IS support. The group benefits from recruits working in the Middle East and it's members' abilities to navigate Christian-dominated cities.

Autonomy dream

There are many themes for terror groups to exploit: poverty, cultural alienation in the face of discrimination, corruption, and setbacks in a decades-old peace process.

Leaders of the MILF are now seen as "moderates." They warn that Marawi's destruction and new government efforts to water down a draft autonomy law push youth into radicalism.

"Patience may be thinning out for some," MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim warned in his Eid message. "Different times call for different sacrifices," he explained, citing the need to shepherd the prized autonomy law through Congress.

Despite promises, Duterte failed to submit the draft law as a priority bill. The president believes his still vague notion of federalism is the answer to Mindanao's woes.

War-weary MILF elders fear that time is running out for peace.

Security analysts echo their warning, pointing to more than 30,000 new dropouts from Marawi as new fodder for preachers of hate.

Philippine Sports Commission chairman William Ramirez recently held a sports festival for displaced youth.

"Typically, most children in a poor community say they want to become teachers, police," he said. Some young, Marawi athletes told him they "want to become members of IS."

"The MILF remains key to any solution," says anti-terror expert Zachary Abuza.

The group's aging leaders have extended goodwill to Duterte, sending men to open a safe corridor and escort trapped Marawi civilians. It has lost members responding to Duterte's call to block fleeing IS-linked fighters and their allies.

That alone makes them vulnerable to charges of collusion by more radical Muslims. The new autonomy law is their last hand. Any delays or new setbacks there could see mass defections into the ranks of terror.

Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and commentator based in Manila.

Source: UCAN

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