A spike in armed confrontations in January and indications of a developing alliance between the region’s Islamist insurgent groups have underlined the fragility of the ongoing peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest of the Muslim separatist organizations in the Philippines which has been waging a 26-year rebellion in the southern part of the country.
On January 6 a military raid on the combined forces of two Muslim insurgent groups, Abu Sayyaf and Abu Sofia, resulted in the death of the Abu Sofia leader, Bebis Binago. Three days later a large force of MILF fighters responded with an attack on a military outpost 37 miles south of Cotabato city in Maguindanao, causing 23 fatalities.
Aware of the political implications of this acceleration in hostilities — the worst outbreak since a truce came into effect 17 months ago — both the Philippine government and the leadership of MILF made strenuous efforts to explain away the event as “an isolated case,” not sanctioned by the MILF leadership, but rather the work of undisciplined members acting to avenge the death of the Abu Sofia leader. At stake is the resumption of peace talks in Kuala Lumpur in February. So far, the peace process has stalled and resumed several times over the last two years. While agreeing to confine the military response to these “rogue members,” as reported by the Philippine Daily Enquirer (www.inq7.net), the Philippine military underlined how the MILF fighters had close links with the two other insurgent groups, known for their kidnapping and extortion activities, not least from the fact that the slain Abu Sofia leader was the brother of the local MILF commander.
Then came news of another linkage, this time with the Jemaah Islamiyah regional Islamic militant network. On January 27 an air strike took place on a suspected meeting between Abu Sayyaf, the “rogue members” of MILF and Jemaah Islamiyah at Datu Piang and Ampatuan on Mindanao island. Philippine intelligence believes that Abu Sayyaf leaders Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Soliman and Isnilon Hapilon were present, along with the Indonesia Dulmatin, held to be behind the 2002 Bali bombings.
As to how Indonesian and Malaysian JI members were entering the country, a report in The Manila Times explained how Malaysian intelligence had alerted the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard to the existence of militants posing as fishermen, after they had arrested a number of them on Philippine-registered fishing boats off the coast of Sumatra (www.manilatimes.net).
The implications of a developing alliance between the region’s Islamist insurgent groups are serious and place a question mark over future peace talks between MILF and Manila. According to The Manila Times, bomb experts from Jemaah Islamiyah have been training MILF fighters, while both MILF and Abu Sayyaf are providing security for their guest trainers. Military intelligence reports put the present number of known Indonesian and Malaysian Jemaah Islamiyah members in the region at about 30 militants, well down from its peak, but still posing a threat to the country’s security.