Talks which began on April 18 between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are being flagged as a ‘breakthrough’ in the eight-year bid to put an end to decades of guerrilla warfare in the southern Philippines, but are coming at a time when attacks from another Islamist formation, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), appear to be on the rise.
At the end of a three-day meeting in the Malaysian city of Port Dickson delegations from Manila and the MILF sounded upbeat over the issue of rights to an ‘ancestral domain’ on the island of Mindanao, where the Islamist group has been fighting to establish an independent Islamic state. For the first time, as reported by the Manila Times, the discussions extended beyond cessation of hostilities to major issues such as how much of Mindanao is to be controlled by the MILF. Formal peace negotiations are to begin within months [www.manilatimes.net].
However, continued conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and MILF guerrillas is complicating progress on the ground. Right up to the inception of this latest round of talks the AFP attacked MILF forces in Maguindanao in the face of attempts to defuse violence, in a targeted attack on members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), considered to be hiding in the area. On an April 17 posting on the MILF website the group’s leaders described the attack as an attempt to sabotage talks, denying that there were JI members in the area [www.luwaran.com].
Since the Port Dickson announcement the ASG has demonstrated its continued vigor, despite its depletion as a result of U.S.-backed offensives, reportedly through an increased co-operation with Jemaah Islamiyah and local bandits. On April 25 it ambushed a military patrol on Jolo island. Military analysts are watching warily for signs of such a collaboration, which would seriously upgrade the ASG’s capacities. Presidential Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor Norberto Gonzales openly described the ASG as “the most dangerous” armed Islamist group in the country. Up to now most analysts have put a Bali-style attack as beyond them, but a linkup with the estimated 30 or so JI members in the region may alter that.
Hence the vigilance in Manila and regional transit points, such as Singapore, concerning a potential influx of explosives experts. Immigration officials in major airports and ports nationwide were placed on alert after the Bureau of Immigration received intelligence that two Egyptian members of al-Qaeda were attempting to enter the country. The two suspects are very high profile — Muhsin Musa Mutawalli Atwah (a.k.a. Abd al-Rahman al-Muhajir), and Muhammad Rabi’a Abd al-Halim Shuwayb, (a.k.a. Hamza al-Rabi). The first is described as a consultant on almost every bombing attack carried out by the group so far. The second is a former member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and successor to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. This follows the arrest in Zamboanga in March of a Palestinian, Fawaz Zi Ajjur, whom ASG prisoners claimed had given training in bomb-making on Jolo island. If the reports prove verifiable, it would indicate that al-Qaeda is placing significant value on the progress of secession in the southern Philippines.
U.S. embassy Chargé d’Affaires at Manila Joseph Mussomeli certainly thinks so. He described the southern Philippine island of Mindanao as “the new Mecca for terrorism” and added weight to the government’s accusations of links between the JI and the 12,000 strong MILF, arguing that strategists were “not focused enough on the threat” posed by a region poised to become another Afghanistan. That U.S. and foreign interests would soon become the focus for an invigorated ASG, with a new focus from territorial independence towards holy war, was indicated by the testimony of ASG detainee Gamal Baharan, who last February detailed how he had trained to attach explosives to the hull of a ship.
Concerned at the number of Filipinos flooding into the country to escape the fighting, Malaysia has found the accusations of the linkage between MILF and other Islamist militant groups embarrassing, and has asked the U.S. not to consider evidence of JI presence as a threat to the ongoing peace talks. Manila has also appealed to Washington not to classify the MILF on its ‘foreign terrorist organization’ blacklist, so as not to derail the discussions. The MILF itself is making strenuous attempts to demonstrate good faith, only recently lending its aid — as it claimed on its website — to the rescue of 13 students abducted by criminals in Lanao del Sur [www.luwaran.com].
Is progress in the current talks a test case for the end of an insurgency? There are still some doubts. Although a compromise on the territorial reach of future MILF autonomy appears in the offing, the continued ambiguity of links between MILF operatives and members of the ASG and JI place large question marks as to the longevity of any agreement.