Opinion piece by Jose V. Romeo Jr. in the Manila Times (Jun 10): The foreign factor in Mindanao crisis
WHEN President Duterte mentioned in a talk that foreign fighters would regroup in Mindanao after their rout in the Middle East, I greeted the statement with some skepticism. But with the Marawi incident and the discovery of foreign fighters among the Maute band, I thought that the President must be some sort of Nostradamus.
As background, the Maute group, also known as the IS-Ranao, which figured prominently in the Marawi siege, is a radical Islamist group composed of former guerrillas of the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) guand some foreign fighters. The group is led by Abdullah Maute, the alleged founder of a Dawlah Islamiya, or Islamic State based in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, Philippines. The group already figured in a clash with Army troops in February 2016 that ended with the capture of their headquarters in Butig, Lanao del Sur. The group is thought to have over 100 members and was supplied with equipment by a foreign terrorist. They are said to be affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian Islamist terror group.
The Marawi incident is only one of a series of terroristic attacks perpetrated by entrenched heavily armed and foreign-funded lawless elements in the island. It is best to recall the history of the conflict in Mindanao by identifying the dramatis personae.
The MNLF and MILF
The Muslim militancy in Mindanao can be traced to the 1970s. After news of the Jabidah Massacre circulated, Malaysia began to fund, equip, support and provide training camps to Muslim rebels in Sulu and Mindanao.
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari has admitted that he, along with other comrades, received training from Malaysia. But even with Malaysian, not to mention Libyan and other external support, the rebellion went on with no clear victory in sight. War weariness set in and prolonged support for the rebels already became a burden to their sponsors. In 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the Philippine government and MNLF, although this did not stop the fighting as a new Muslim rebel group, the MILF, came into being.
Today the government has entered into a peace process with the two groups which has resulted in a lull in the fighting.
Today dissident groups have emerged like mushrooms. From foreign reports we have heard, Indonesian operatives are already trading Syria-hardened tutors for weapons and training grounds in Mindanao. According to the same reports, Mindanao is apparently attracting insurgents from further afield. Mohammad Khattab, an alleged bomb-making instructor from Morocco, was reportedly among the five militants killed in Basilan earlier in April. There have been rumors of Muslim Uighurs from China in the area. And in January last year, Zulkifli bin Hir a.k.a. Marwan—a Malaysian described as a key facilitator between Indonesian and Filipino extremist groups—was cornered and killed in Mamasapano. In the Marawi incident, some half a dozen foreign terrorists have been killed by army troopers. Apparently, foreign terrorists are trying to establish an IS presence in Marawi City to gain a foothold in Mindanao in order to establish the island as part of the IS caliphate under the emirate of Isnilon Hapilon, a feat they failed to establish in Iraq and Syria.
Terrorist groups identified
According to security expert Rommel Banloi, terrorist groups continue to pose a threat to the country’s political security and stability. These are the post-Cold War remnants of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), residual armed factions of the MNLF, lawless elements of theMILF, militant members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the al-Qaida-inspired followers of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the shadowy Moro Army Committee (MAC) and the Khilafa Islamiya (KI). His paper identifies current terrorist groups and emerging extremist armed movements operating in Mindanao as threats to Philippine national security. Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said foreign terrorists entered Marawi by using legitimate covers and through “porous” borders.
The Maute is a local armed group based largely in Lanao del Sur, and led by the Maute family. The government considers its members as terrorists. The military said government troops went to Marawi to serv a warrant of arrest on Hapilon, who was supposedly protected by the Mautes. The Abu Sayyaf and Maute have pledged allegiance to IS. This produced the deadly fire glitch that has caused hundreds of lives.
The KI was organized by a young Muslim extremist sometime in early 2012. The group was responsible for the August 16, 2012 bombing of the Rural Bus Transit in Barangay Guiwan, Zamboanga City.
The Moro Army Committee (MAC)
The Moro Army Committee (MAC) refers to the Muslim members of the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) operating in Central Mindanao. Philippine National Police (PNP) sources say that the MAC is a product of the tactical alliance between the NPA and the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) of the MILF. The Mindanao Commission of the CPP authorized the formation of the MAC as early as the late 1990s.
Al Khobar Group (AKG)
The AKG is more known as an extortion group operating in Mindanao, particularly in the cities of Tacurong, Kidapawan, Koronadal and General Santos. The exact date of its founding is not clear but the group became known in 2006. One of its leaders is believed to be Mukasid Dilna who is also accused of being a member of the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the MILF. Thus, it is alleged that the Al Khobar is a special unit of the MILF whose primary task is to mobilize resources through extortion activities.
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)
The BIFF is the armed wing of the BIFM, a breakaway faction of the MILF. Ameril Umbra Kato, then commander of the 105th Base Command of the MILF, founded the BIFF in December 2010. On February 26, 2011, Kato renamed the BIFF as BIFM during its first general assembly, “owing to its increasing mass base.”
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Southern Philippines
The government initially denied the presence in the Philippine south of the JI terror group that is active in several Southeast Asian countries. But it has since admitted that some JI personalities are operating in the Philippines, particularly those accused of the 2002 Bali bombing. The raid of a terrorist camp in Butig, Lanao del Sur on July 16, 2012 indicated that foreign jihadists linked with JI continue to be active in Mindanao.
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)
The United States classifies the ASG as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) for having been responsible for several high-profile terrorist bombings in the Philippines like the Zamboanga City bombing of 2002, the Davao City Airport bombing of 2003, the Super Ferry bombing of February 2004 and the Valentine’s Day bombing of 2005, among others. The ASG has also been suspected of having participated in the January 25, 2011 bus bombing in Makati City and many recent bombings in Mindanao in 2012. The ASG also carried out numerous kidnap-for-ransom activities in the Southern Philippines prompting Philippine law enforcement authorities to describe the ASG as a mere bandit group.
From the above, it would appear that the government has its hands full, forcing it to resort to the draconian approach of declaring martial law in Mindanao. If one considers that the eastern seaboard of the island is threatened by NPA guns for hire who make a living of exacting tributes from law-abiding businessmen; warlords in Central Mindanao pay mercenaries to control their fiefdoms which insure their political entrenchment; and that bandits in the west of the island make a living out of kidnapping, it is small wonder that the Duterte administration want the armed forces to control the political turmoil which apparently local officials are unable or unwilling to do since time immemorial making the land of promise the land of broken dreams.