The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Future of the Peace Process in the Southern Philippines

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 34

Murad Ibrahim, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is escorted by his troops

The emergence of a new rebel movement under renegade Islamist commander Ameril Umbra Kato is threatening a 14-year-old peace process in the Muslim south Philippines. Though Kato’s Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) consists of only 100 to 200 men, their impact on the ongoing peace process is far greater than their numbers might indicate (for Kato, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, April 3, 2009).

The ongoing insurgency in the southern Philippines, mainly concentrated on the island of Mindanao and the smaller Sulu archipelago, is an insurgency steeped in history.  The introduction of Islam to the southern Philippines in the 13th Century laid the foundation for the historical and modern calls for secession.  The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was the original and most united modern insurgent threat, but this group failed to gain autonomy for the southern islands and the insurgency split in 1974 with the creation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF eventually adopted a political insurgency forsaking terrorism in favor of negotiated settlement.  The more militant members of the MILF did not agree with this approach and soon the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was spawned.  The Abu Sayyaf Group seems to have lost its way and has been marginalized through both the joint military actions of American and Philippine forces and local police efforts, leaving it a small but still dangerous criminal organization. 

The MILF seemed to have gained some political traction with the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and negotiation of the later Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which would have created an autonomous Bangsamoro homeland.  Though implementation of the latter agreement was blocked by the Philippines’ Supreme Court, it appeared as if the central government in Manila was finally going to offer some concessions to the insurgents in exchange for peace and stability.  Under the 2008 agreement between the MILF and the Filipino government, locals in the southern Philippines were due to elect their own officials in August 2011 (Manila Standard Today, May 25). However, the elections have been delayed by the central government until 2013.   President Benigno Aquino argues that the elections for ARMM officials would be seen as more legitimate if they were timed with the national elections scheduled for 2013 (The Philippine Star, August 17). This is perceived by many to be a tactic by the government to delay expanded autonomy in the southern Philippines.  The minority leader and Albay Province representative, Edcel Lagman, argues that the delay is unconstitutional while Dr. Dalumabi Lao Bula of the Mindanao women’s group Bai Labi Almujadillah adds the move will allow the government to delay the peace process indefinitely (The Philippine Star, August 17).

The resulting delay has been devastating to the peace process in that it has created yet another splinter in an already fractious insurgency.  Though the MILF and the government are renegotiating the MOA-AD, Kato insists that his group is demanding the full implementation of the agreement, though it need not cover all of Minidanao (Interaksyon [Quezon City], August 17; Inquirer [Mindanao], August 27).The establishment of the BIFF has caused so much chaos in certain regions of Mindanao that the local vice mayor of the city of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, is calling for the national government to take action to rein in the BIFF. Vice Mayor Duterte is concerned as fighting between the BIFF and MILF has already displaced 550 families since the conflict began on August 9 (Mindanao Times, August 15).

The MILF seemed to be gaining credibility after joint talks were held between President Aquino and the leader of the MILF, Al Haj Murad Ibrahim, in Tokyo on August 4 (Philippine Star, August 18). But the recent decision to delay the elections for two years, combined with the splintering of the MILF, has diminished the MILF’s prestige and could lead to a withdrawal of support from many locals sympathetic to the insurgency.

The violence, thus far, has been confined to insurgent on insurgent.  At least 23 combatants have been killed in BIFF attempts to establish control over land held by the MILF in Datu Piang, Maguindanao province. Some local officials have, surprisingly, begun to call for the cessation of ARMM negotiations until the MILF can negotiate or force a ceasefire with the BIFF.  (The Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 16). This may be an indication that locals have become exhausted from the fighting and instability in the region. 

One could simply conclude that the recent events are further indication of ineptitude on the part of both the national government and the insurgents in forging a lasting peace.  But a more nuanced examination of the current situation in its recent historical context could offer a view of a sophisticated national government strategy of offering false conciliation and dragging out negotiations interminably until the insurgency splinters into oblivion.  Given the fact that the national government has now intentionally, or inadvertently, enticed insurgents to fight with and ultimately kill one another, there seems to be no incentive for government officials to pursue local elections or an expansion of the ARMM agreement.