Renewed action by Philippine armed forces indicates that the path to rehabilitation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is not running smoothly. On November 19 an air attack targeted what was a meeting of about 50 Abu Sayyaf terrorists, including leaders Khadaffy Janjalani and Isnilon Hapilon, together with Indonesian members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) led by Mike Usman, in the marshlands of the southern province of Maguindanao.
Although MILF denies links with either group, it lodged a protest with the government at Manila, on the grounds that one of its camps was hit by mistake, thus constituting a violation of a two-year old ceasefire agreement. The agreement does not cover JI or the Abu Sayyaf group.
Some sensitivities are being revealed by this exchange. Abu Sayyaf has not been known to work with JI in the past, but MILF has been facing accusations of historical relations with the Indonesian group. If the presence of the JI at the target zone is established, and at a site where the MILF claims its camp was targeted, the patiently forged relations between Manila and MILF could be seriously jeopardized. Persistent reports of such a connection have dogged the peace process and, despite MILF denials, evidence is mounting that operational and training links, earlier forged through ties established in Afghanistan in the 1980s, continue. JI established a foothold in the southern Philippines in 1994, and former MILF chairman, Salamat Hashim, promoted the establishment of JI training camps on the Afghanistan model under MILF protection.
The ceasefire negotiations have been buffeted and both the government and MILF are blaming each other for the deterioration. The Maguindanao attack comes a week after an outbreak of fighting between government troops and MILF forces, blamed by MILF on a family feud, but which forced 1,000-3,000 people to flee their homes. Monitoring teams are being dispatched to prevent further flare-ups. MILF also has to fend off claims that some of its fighters are receiving training in suicide bombing from the JI at its base at Mt. Cararao in Lanao del Sur.
An alternative explanation to the Maguindanao event would complicate the situation even further. Should the MILF leadership have been unaware of the meeting and members of JI and other like-minded jihadist groups have established their own personal ties to individual MILF commanders without the knowledge of the MILF leadership, the implication is that the MILF may not be able to deliver on its obligations to the peace agreement. The organization has already conceded to the existence of ‘lost commands’ dispersed since the Philippine army overran major MILF camps in 2000.
What remains to be established is whether the lack of centralized control over the ‘lost commands’ is an accident of war, or a strategy. If the former is true, MILF would appear to lack the ability to meet the obligations; if the latter, the good faith to do so.