Abu Sayyaf Under Rising Pressure in Southern Philippines’ Maritime Borderlands

Trilateral naval patrols by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea since 2017 have restricted the transit of Abu Sayyaf fighters. (Image Source: US Pacific Fleet)

Five years ago, the notorious Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf had aligned itself with the Islamic State and was in the midst of its most audacious assault. Led by Isnilon Hapilon, it battled Philippine forces alongside militants from the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters for five months in the southern city of Marawi. This brazen attempt to seize territory and create a caliphate followed a decade in which Abu Sayyaf had ruled the Sulu and Celebes Seas off Mindanao’s western coast, where it regularly kidnapped seafarers and collected millions of dollars in ransom payments.

Yet the fortunes of Southeast Asia’s most feared jihadi group have altered dramatically. Abu Sayyaf is now in steep decline. Hapilon was killed during the final days of fighting in Marawi and each of his successors have since met the same bloody end. Its funding from the Islamic State has dried up—as have foreign recruits. Philippine forces now have the militants on the retreat and with support from Malaysian troops in Sabah have cut-off maritime corridors for jihadists hoping to travel from abroad. Local dynamics, too, on the islands where Abu Sayyaf still exists, suggest it is firmly on the back foot.

Basilan influence fading

It is on Basilan, where Hapilon’s faction used to reign supreme, that Abu Sayyaf’s losses have been most visible. His successor, Furuji Indama, was killed in September 2020 amid heavy clashes with the military in Zamboanga Sibugay province, where he was tracked-down after escaping Basilan. Attacks on Basilan near ceased after Indama’s death, and Abu Sayyaf’s latest leader there, Radzmil Jannatul (alias Khubayb), was killed by soldiers in late-March, prompting many of his followers to surrender.

The military is confident that the threat on Basilan has receded and recently declared 29 barangays free from Abu Sayyaf influence. This included areas of Isabela city and in the towns of Al-Barka, Hadji Muhtamad, Maluso, and Ungkaya Pukan, where once-frequent skirmishes are now rare. The military said its observations found no evidence of community support or resource generation for the group, and no sign of extremist teaching or radicalization in Islamic schools on the Muslim-majority island.  

Sulu hideout under pressure

The neighbouring island of Sulu saw a higher threat from Abu Sayyaf in recent years. Militants there killed scores in a string of suicide bombings from 2018 to 2020, targeting military installations and a Catholic church. Yet rather than signalling a permanent shift in tactics, the blasts appear an explosive last act by extremists aware they were on the run and keen to cause maximum damage before being caught. A month before the final blast, in July 2020, the military reported that Abu Sayyaf’s leader in Sulu, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, had been killed in an encounter near Patikul. His body was never found and the group never confirmed his death—but he has not been sighted since, and is presumed dead.

Since killing scores of churchgoers in bombings in Jolo in 2019, Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities on the island have been degraded by the Philippine military. (Image Source: PCOO)

Hatib’s bomb-making nephew, Mundi Sawadjaan, is now the group’s leading figure in Sulu. Two of his brothers were killed by the military last year: Mujafal Sawadjaan died in Patikul in April, while Al-Al Sawadjaan was shot dead in Jolo last June. But despite rumours of his death, Mundi is likely to still be alive. According to local intelligence reports, he was sighted in January buying food supplies but is likely now in a safe house and reliant on relatives for support. Mundi’s uncle Hatib Majid Saeed (alias Amah Pattit) and veteran Radullan Sahiron remain key leaders in Sulu, though the latter’s faction has lain low for years and has not aligned with Islamic State like the Sawadjaan clan. The military reports that, as of 2021, Abu Sayyaf fighters in Sulu numbered 132, down from 300-400 in the last few years.

Links between the Islamic State and Sawadjaan’s cohort are now only symbolic, with financial ties severed after the group was defeated in Iraq and Syria. Profits from kidnappings have also reduced sharply. The last recorded Abu Sayyaf kidnapping-at-sea was in January 2020, when five Indonesian fishermen were seized from a vessel off Tambisan island, near the Malaysian sea border. They were rescued by the Philippine military last March, after a boat being used to transport them overturned in high seas. With commercial vessels avoiding the area, Abu Sayyaf now holds no known captives.   

Philippine military build-up

The group’s demise on its island hideouts is mainly due to military pressure. The Philippine armed forces has gradually built up its troop numbers on Sulu in recent years, and by 2022 had a force of 4,500 soldiers—the entire 11th Infantry Division—deployed to the province. This cohort consists of experienced fighters that have been reassigned from other battalions. The division is based in Jolo and has operational responsibility for combating the threat from Abu Sayyaf across the entire Sulu archipelago—which also encompasses the island provinces of Basilan to the east and Tawi-Tawi to the west. Philippine forces carry-out ground raids and have launched regular aerial bombardments which have killed scores of militants hiding out in Sulu’s mountainous and thickly-forested interior.

Malaysia’s supporting role

Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) has also played its part, imposing a nightly curfew for civilian boats in the waters of the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZ) to deny Abu Sayyaf targets for kidnapping, while leaving any militant vessels that venture into the area after dusk clearly identifiable. The heavily-policed ESSZ stretches along 1,457km of coast, and covers 58,420km2 of sea area and 32,158km2 of land area. Malaysian authorities have sought to prevent the jungles of Sabah becoming a hiding place or a base for Abu Sayyaf militants to launch kidnappings-at-sea—with seven such plots thwarted since the start of 2020. Last May, an Abu Sayyaf cell found to have set up camp in Sabah was dismantled—eight militants, all Filipino nationals, were captured by ESSCOM troops in the town of Beaufort, before another five militants wielding firearms and machetes were shot dead in a firefight when Malaysian troops discovered makeshift dwellings in a nearby mangrove swamp.

Malaysia plans to strengthen its defences along the coast to prevent future incursions. Last year it announced plans for two new control posts in Kuala Meruap and Siguntur, and a maritime forward operations base on Tambisan island, which has seen several past kidnappings off its coast. ESSCOM commander Ahmad Faud Othman has also requested another six surveillance aircraft and 35 radar-equipped patrol boats from the Malaysian government. Joint trilateral naval and air patrols carried-out in the Sulu Sea by Malaysian, Philippine and Indonesian ships and planes will also be intensified after an agreement between the respective defence ministers at a recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Peace in the Bangsamoro?

Military might aside, the local political context in Mindanao also helps explain Abu Sayyaf’s decline. The self-governed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was inaugurated in 2019 and precipitated a sharp reduction in violence. The two oldest Moro separatist groups in the regionthe Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—have both laid down arms and committed to politics, setting up political parties to contest local elections. The democratic governance structures of the BARMM, led by MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, have brought stability, and retain the support of Muslims who voted en masse for the region’s formation.

With the 40,000 rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front disarming, only Abu Sayyaf and a few other radical Islamist groups are left fighting. (Image Source: Geneva Call)

As a result, Islamist militant groups allied with Abu Sayyaf on mainland Mindanao are also suffering. In Lanao, Faharudin Hadji Satar (alias Abu Zacaria), the supposed “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, leads just 60-70 remaining fighters of the Maute Group, while the extreme Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters are hiding-out in ever-smaller numbers in the marshlands of central Maguindanao. Having rapidly lost public support since the BARMM was inaugurated, these groups have been under constant aerial bombardment by the military and now operate only in small, geographically-isolated pockets of territory, unable to carry-out bombings and sieges of major cities like they did previously.

Despite their near capitulation, these remaining Islamist fighters should not be written off just yet. Abu Sayyaf poses a particular threat. While foreign fighters are unable to join and overseas funding has been extinguished, the local element remains a problem due to the unique history of the islands the militants call home. A lower proportion of residents in Sulu—which was once the revered centre of a pre-colonial Islamic sultanate existing from 1415 until the 1900s—voted for the BARMM than in any of its other four component provinces. The archipelago is also struggling to reap the rewards of the BARMM, with Sulu and Basilan remaining the poorest provinces in the Philippines—the poverty rate in Sulu is 71.9% compared to the BARMM average of 39.4%, giving separatism a lingering pull.

Yet Abu Sayyaf is at its lowest ebb since its formation as a radical splinter of the MNLF in the early-1990s. After thirty years of militancy, the Philippine military has its best opportunity yet to end the violence in the Sulu archipelago, and with the help of the BARMM, push Abu Sayyaf to the margins.

A version of this article was first published on Asia Sentinel.

Duterte Passes the Philippines’ Maoist Rebellion on to the Next President

Rodrigo Duterte promised to end the insurgency via peaceful means during his 2016 election campaign, but talks collapsed less than a year into his presidency. (Image Source: Prachatai)

“If [you] find [yourselves] in an armed encounter with communist rebels, kill them, make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive.” Those were the orders of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, addressed directly to soldiers last March, with his administration entering its final stretch. “Forget about human rights,” Duterte added, “that’s my order. I’m willing to go to jail.” Six years earlier on the campaign trail, Duterte had vowed to end the insurgency, waged by the Maoist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA) since the 1970s, via peaceful means if he became president.

Yet with just weeks left in office after his successor is elected on 9 May, Duterte is set to join the list of Philippine leaders in the post-1986 democratic era to have failed to end the NPA’s campaign. This is despite peace talks having taken place under all six presidents since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, and despite efforts by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops to inflict a decisive military blow. Duterte, as the first president to hail from the rebel heartlands of eastern Mindanao, was better placed to end the insurgency than his predecessors, so what explains the latest failure?

A short-lived peace dialogue

Upon winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire with the NPA in his first State of the Nation address. Talks got underway that August, with four rounds of dialogue held in Oslo, Rome, and Amsterdam over the next year. By November 2017, the peace process was dead. Rebel attacks resumed and a fragile truce between the two sides collapsed, after Duterte refused to release political prisoners. Dialogue was terminated by the government, which labelled the NPA and its political parent body—the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)—as terrorist organizations.  

In the years since, Duterte’s presidency has seen unrelenting clashes between soldiers and the NPA, and frequent rebel ambushes in their rural strongholds in eastern Mindanao, across the Visayas, and northern Luzon. Relations between the government and the CPPstill led by its founder, Jose Maria Sison, now 83 years-of-age and and living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands—fell to an all-time low under Duterte, a former student of Sison’s while studying at university. In 2021, the government designated Sison and another 18 senior CPP leaders as terrorists, later applying the same label to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which represents the CPP in formal peace talks.

Manila has repeatedly ruled out reviving political dialogue and Duterte has stated that unless rebels stop attacking military patrols, “no peace talks can ever succeed under me or any other president.”

With peace negotiations dead, Duterte’s alternative policy was to establish a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). Since 2018, the task force has overseen the work of provincial peace panels, set-up to initiate dialogue between local political and community leaders and NPA ground commanders, in an effort to reduce violence. In a parallel process, the government has also encouraged rebels to surrender in return for livelihood aid, including housing, jobs training, and cash handouts, via the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Programme (E-CLIP). Duterte has praised these two initiatives for “addressing the root causes” and deviating from the “traditional military approach,” yet despite impacting some localities they have not altered the national picture.

‘Red-tagging’ and AFP crackdown

The NTF-ELCAC has also been caught-up in accusations of ‘red-tagging,’ reviving a harmful practice associated with the Marcos dictatorship, whereby political opponentsincluding journalists, rights activists, and lawmakers from the left-leaning Makabayan bloc—have been publicly labelled by the state as communist sympathizers. The proliferation of red-tagging is a visible symptom of Duterte’s authoritarian governance style in which dissent is rarely tolerated and hostile rhetoric from the top openly encourages vigilante violence. The main figurehead of the NTF-ELCAC, Gen. Antonio Parlade, was forced to resign last year to “ease pressure” on the body, after the repeated use of his position to attack government critics and spread fake news about the insurgency undermined peace efforts.

Rebel ambushes on troops delivering aid during natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic soured relations between the NPA and the government. (Image Source: US Embassy Jakarta)

While the NTF-ELCAC has pushed on with its artificial outreach to the NPA, the AFP has at the same time maintained that it can end the insurgency on the battlefield. Speaking in December, new chief-of-staff of the military, Lt.-Gen. Andres Centino, rallied troops to defeat the rebels by the conclusion of Duterte’s term in office on 30 June. While similar deadlines in recent years have been left unmet, the latter stages of Duterte’s presidency have seen an intensified counter-insurgency campaign. On 16 August last year, 19 rebels were killed during an AFP raid on an NPA camp and explosives factory in Dolores, Eastern Samar province, while on 1 December a similar operation in Miagao town, Iloilo province, killed 16 rebels. The AFP has also targeted senior figures in recent months, killing the chief of the NPA’s National Operations Command, Jorge Madlos (alias Ka Oris), in Bukidnon province, and the most senior rebel commander in Mindanao, Menandro Villanueva (alias Bok), in Davao de Oro.

But despite these losses, the NPA has retained its strength nationally. The reasons for this are rooted in both geography and history—and explain the endurance of the NPA beyond Duterte’s presidency.

Strategic and ideological edge

Across an expansive maritime nation of more than 7,000 islands, the NPA has a broad geographical presence, and is active in at least 69 of the Philippines’ 81 provinces. This makes the group more or less impossible to defeat via conventional military means. The strategic adoption of guerilla tactics, whereby rebels operate out of densely-forested, mountainous, and largely inaccessible terrain as a deliberate choice, plays to their advantage, with the NPA able to take soldiers and police officers by surprise by ambushing them on rural roads before retreating. Rifles, often looted from army bases, and rudimentary explosive devices capable of delivering a quick blow, are the insurgents’ weapons of choice in a war designed to demoralize the enemy rather than defeat it outright. A commitment to this grinding approach, along with the decentralized nature of rebel units, which are divided into small groups of fighters moving between temporary camps, have enabled the insurgency to persist.

Also in the rebels’ favor is their ideological coherence. Since the formation of the CPP in 1968, and the NPA a year later, both entities have remained closely intertwined, with minimal factionalism or splintering. Sison, who founded the movement as a young student activist, remains at the head of the CPP-NPA today, with the strategy he outlined in the 1970s in Philippine Society and Revolution and Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War still underpinning the group’s anti-capitalist stance. The refusal of the NPA to give up its core demand to replace the Manila government with a socialist system has blocked progress in peace talks under six successive governments—including Duterte’s.

A steady stream of new recruits has also been key to the NPA sustaining its campaign. Despite the NTF-ELCAC reporting the surrender of 20,500 rebels since Duterte came to office in 2016—a figure overstated for propaganda purposes, which likely includes mostly family members of NPA fighters and ‘supporters’ of the movement rather than armed rebels—the AFP acknowledges that the NPA still has 3,500 fighters across at least 43 rebel fronts, with around 1,000 fighters based in the rebel stronghold of eastern Mindanao. These estimates are broadly in line with the NPA’s strength over recent decades, which since the early-2000s the military has reported annually to be around 3,000–4,000. After suffering losses, the NPA retains the ability to replenish its ranks from the impoverished rural areas in which it operates, which economically lag far behind Manila and main provincial cities.

Taking on the next president

It is clear that after five decades of insurgency, the only way to end the conflict is a peace deal with the CPP at the national level. With Duterte having ruled out talks for his remaining weeks in power, what odds the next president can tame the NPA? If Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.—the current favorite, with Sara Duterte-Carpio as his running matewere to win the election, it would likely be more of the same. While he may not repeat his father’s crackdown of the 1980s when the NPA was at its strongest, he has vowed to support the NTF-ELCAC and is likely to replicate Duterte’s strategy: initially offer peace negotiations but revert to a strongman approach upon the first sign of fracture.

If he wins the presidency, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is likely to continue Duterte’s policy on the NPA, supporting localized talks through NTF-ELCAC. (Image Source: Bongbong Marcos)

Marcos’ main rival, liberal candidate Leni Robredo, has at times criticized the NTF-ELCAC and struck a more conciliatory tone, pledging to deflect from “militaristic approaches to ending internal armed conflict” in order to create a “conducive environment” for peace talks. Her opponents in the present administration, some of whom Robredo accuses of red-tagging her, might argue that Robredo’s plan would backfire, enabling the NPA to use any peace process as a useful pretext to quietly bolster their ranks and regain strength. Yet any president looking to reboot political talks would face a similar risk; as all six previous incumbents of Malacañang have discovered. That Duterte—once a friend of Sison, and sympathetic to the socialist cause—failed to secure peace, only emphasizes the size of the task.

A version of this article is also published on Asia Sentinel.

What Delayed Elections Mean for the Southern Philippines’ Bangsamoro Peace Process

The term of the interim Bangsamoro Transition Authority has been extended by three years, delaying parliamentary elections from 2022 to 2025. (Image Source: BARMM Parliament)

On 28 October, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte signed a law postponing the first parliamentary elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) from 2022 to 2025. The bill had been approved by lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives in September, after a year of campaigning from the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA)—fronted by the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—to extend their mandate to govern. Interim Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in power since the region was formed in 2019, had argued that more time was needed to strengthen democratic institutions after setbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet delaying the elections is a risky move in a region plagued by separatist violence for generations. The process of decommissioning MILF rebels and their weapons is not yet complete, whilst Islamist militant groups remain a threat, despite being on the back foot and confined to operating in remote marshlands and outlying islands—for now at least. It is within this fragile peace, that the BTA strives to develop accountable governance and nurture a thriving democratic culture in the BARMM, while avoiding the failings of a past experiment in self-governance—the now-defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which from 1989–2019 was sunk by corruption and mismanagement.

Elections delayed

An extension to the Bangsamoro transition, initially set to end with elections in May 2022—at which time the BTA’s mandate would expire, and elected lawmakers would take office—was first proposed a year ago, with President Duterte supporting Ebrahim’s proposal to move the polls to 2025. Despite initial legislative progress and the passing of priority laws on forming a civil service and administering the BARMM, responding to COVID-19 came to dominate the BTA’s agenda and led to louder calls for an extension as the passage of other key laws on elections, revenue, and local politics were delayed.

Any extension required approval by Manila. After being debated for months by three committees of the Philippine House of Representatives—on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, Muslim Affairs, and on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity—the law to extend the Bangsamoro transition passed in the Senate on 6 September and in the House on 15 September, where 187 lawmakers voted in favor, with none  against and no abstentions. The bill amended Republic Act 11054 known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the legislation which had encoded the peace deal with the MILF and created the BARMM.

Approximately 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are set to disarm in exchange for livelihood support. The process was delayed amid COVID-19. (Image Source: Mark Navales)

It means President Duterte can now appoint 80 new members of the BTA to assume office after the term of the current transitional authority expires next May. The appointees will govern the BARMM for a three-year term until the rescheduled 2025 polls. However, a provision of the BOL granting the MILF leadership of the region stays in place, meaning 41 of the BTA lawmakers must be members of the MILF, and will be nominated by its central committee. During a Senate debate on the law, it was suggested that the five BARMM provincial governors will play a role in selecting the other 39 places.

Rebel disarmament

Tied to the peace deal is the disarmament of MILF rebels. This process is not governed by the BOL, but by a precursor accord—the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). It was expected that the entire 40,000-strong contingent of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) would be demobilized by mid-2022. By March 2020, the first two phases were complete, with 12,145 rebels demobilized and 2,175 weapons turned in. The pace then slowed to a trickle as COVID-19 arrived in the Philippines, with only another 1,500 fighters processed since. Demobilized fighters received initial cash handouts, but wider livelihood support programs have yet to be fully delivered.

Decommissioning the remainder of the rebels will be crucial to securing peace. On 8 November, the third phase of decommissioning resumed at the Old Capitol building in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao province, one of five “assembly and processing sites” to open near former MILF camps. Strict COVID-19 protocols and swab-testing overseen by the BARMM Ministry of Health is in place. Phase three of the process, overseen by the Turkish-led International Decommissioning Body (IDB), will demobilize 14,000 BIAF members—7,000 by the end of January, and the remainder in the first months of 2022.

Militants fading

Not all combatants in Mindanao are intent on giving up their arms. Radical groups which splintered from the MILF and its precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), are still active. Though with the majority of the BARMM’s 4.5 million residents supportive of the BTA these rogue elements are under increasing pressure. In central Maguindanao, at the heart of the new autonomous region, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) face bombardment by the Philippine military. Over two days in late-September, 16 BIFF militants hiding-out in marshlands in Shariff Saydona Mustapha were killed by artillery fire and airstrikes, with the rebels providing little match for Philippine forces.  

Islamist militant networks in the BARMM are declining in strength. Remnants in Maguindanao and Sulu face aerial bombardment by the Philippine military. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

The BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2008 due to dissatisfaction over the peace negotiations with Manila, but its influence within local communities is fading. The BIFF’s three factions—led by Ustadz Karialan, Ismail Abubakar, and Abu Turaife—have become isolated and marginalized, with members split over a past pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims there are just a few hundred BIFF rebels remaining and has pledged an intensified campaign.    

On the outer edges of the BARMM in northern Lanao and the Sulu islands, other militants persist in smaller numbers from the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf. These groups, aligned to the Islamic State, have been unable to carry-out major attacks for some years—such as the 2016 Davao night market bombings, the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi, and the cathedral blasts in Jolo in January 2019, which killed scores of civilians, but ultimately failed to disrupt the government-MILF peace process.

The AFP struck a major blow just weeks ago by killing senior Islamic State leader Salahuddin Hassan during a raid in Talayan. It is also likely that notorious Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was killed in clashes with troops last year, but no body has been recovered and his fate remains unclear.

Building livelihoods

Governance and security are the immediate priorities for the BTA, but securing a long-term peace will be impossible without economic growth and prosperity in the BARMM. It is crucial that voters see progress and opportunity to prevent a slide back toward conflict. The BARMM’s economy was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with growth falling by 1.9% in 2020, yet the impact was lower than at the national level with the Philippines as a whole seeing a drop of 9.6%. The BTA is pinning its hopes on a rebound, with Chief Minister Ebrahim declaring the region “open for business” and calling on rich Islamic nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia to invest in the BARMM.

The region has huge potential for growth in areas like Halal products and Islamic banking, and can also count on agriculture and natural resources for revenue. Entrepreneurship is reported to be on the rise, but amidst all this the key will be securing livelihoods for ex-combatants and supporters of the Moro separatist struggle. Not all BIAF fighters supported the delay to the BARMM elections, and some have complained of “technocrats” receiving benefits in power while ex-rebels lack job security. That remains the big question facing the MILF leadership: how to ensure the transition from guerilla warfare to civilian life also works for rank-and-file fighters. They now have until 2025 to figure it out.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Duterte’s ‘Red-Tagging’ Risks Igniting the Philippines’ Maoist Insurgency

The practice of labelling political opponents as communist sympathizers, referred to as ‘red-tagging’, has proliferated since Duterte entered office in May 2016. (Image Source: PCOO)

The communist insurgency in the Philippines is into its sixth decade. Since its formation in 1969, the New People’s Army (NPA)—the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), formed a year earlier—has fought a low-level guerrilla war against government troops. Over that time, much has remained the same. The CPP’s founder Jose Maria Sison remains at the helm, albeit now aged 82 and living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands. Across the Philippines, NPA insurgents still target soldiers and police officers in roadside ambushes before retreating to their isolated rural hideouts.

Amid this violence, peace talks have failed under six successive Philippine leaders, including current president Rodrigo Duterte since 2016. His election—as an outsider candidate hailing from Mindanao where the insurgents are most active—initially led to hopes of a breakthrough. Yet since peace talks collapsed a year into his tenure, the proliferation of ‘‘red-tagging’’, whereby senior officials routinely label political opponents as communist sympathizers, now risks further violence. Killings of left-wing activists by vigilantes and police have become more frequent, and threaten reprisals from the NPA.

Talks collapse under Duterte

Such an outcome was not inevitable. In August 2016, the NPA and the Philippine military had both declared unilateral ceasefires soon after Duterte came to power. Manila entered negotiations with the National Democratic front of the Philippines (NDFP)—a negotiation panel representing the CPP and NPA in peace talks with the government—and several rounds of talks were held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. But in early-2017, the peace process collapsed after Duterte refused a CPP demand to release political prisoners, sparking renewed rebel attacks and bringing an end to the ceasefires.

Efforts to re-start talks have since failed. The CPP has refused to meet a list of pre-conditions set by Duterte; which include an immediate cessation of rebel violence and for the CPP to pledge never to partake in a future coalition government. Sison has also declined repeated requests from Duterte to return to the Philippines for one-on-one talks, fearing the invitation is a pretext for his arrest. A war-of-words has erupted between the two men in recent years as Government-CPP ties have faltered.   

Localized peace initiative stalls

Since terminating talks in 2017 and disbanding its negotiating panel, Manila has pursued a localized approach to tackle the NPA uprising. In December 2018, Duterte signed Executive Order 70, forming the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The role of this body is to oversee smaller provincial and municipal task forces, charged with engaging rebel commanders in local settings and encouraging defections. Rebels who surrender are offered livelihood support, jobs and skills-training through a government-run programme. This local-level strategy has several flaws.

First, it rules out a peace agreement with the CPP-NDFP at the national level, preventing a solution to the conflict in its entirety. Second, the success of this plan has been overstated by the military. In 2020, the military claimed 7,615 rebels had surrendered over the course of the calendar year; this is more than the entire fighting force of the NPA, which has around 4,000 fighters. This figure presents an inaccurate picture of inroads being made against the NPA locally, as among those listed as having defected were rebel supporters or villagers belonging to the NPA’s Militia ng Bayan. In any case, the NPA has proven its ability over five decades to continually replenish its ranks after suffering losses.

With peace talks having failed under six Philippine presidents, NPA rebels have been active in the countryside since the insurgency began in the 1960s. (Image Source: Christian Razukas)

The military’s aim to defeat the NPA by the end of Duterte’s term in mid-2022 is a near-impossible task. Many previous deadlines have come and gone, with the NPA’s strength seemingly unaffected. Eastern Mindanao, Samar, Mindoro, Negros Island and northern Luzon all remain NPA strongholds.

The proliferation of ‘‘red-tagging’’

Aside from violence in those areas, the broader narrative of the conflict is increasingly being driven by government propaganda. Under Duterte, ‘‘red-tagging’’—the labelling of a wide range of political adversaries as NPA supportershas returned on a scale not seen since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos at the height of the insurgency in the 1980s. The practice has been deployed to target labour leaders, human rights activists, students, journalists and legislators from opposition left-wing parties in the Makabayan bloc. This campaign has been waged alongside intimidation, threats and violence.

In 2020, four NDFP negotiators were killed. Some were shot dead by unknown gunmen while others died during law enforcement raids. In March, Julius Soriano Giron was killed in Baguio city. In August, Randall Echanis was shot dead in Manila. And in November, Eugenia Magpantay and Agaton Topacio were killed during a raid in nearby Rizal province. These high-profile killings demonstrate that targets of police operations often extend beyond armed rebels, to the political leadership of the movement.

A pattern has also emerged of law enforcement raids targeting activists judged by the government to share ideological links with communist fighters. On 30 December, nine local indigenous leaders, suspected to have ties to the NPA, were killed in co-ordinated police raids on Panay Island. Then on 7 March this year, another nine people were killed in similar raids across the provinces of Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal. Human rights groups claimed that among the deceased were anti-poverty campaigners, the leader of a workers’ union and two members of a local fisherman’s organization.  

The killings in March sparked huge outrage, coming just two days after Duterte had ordered police and military forces to ‘‘finish off’’ communist rebels. In the same remarks, made in Cagayan de Oro city at a meeting of NTF-ELCAC, Duterte told soldiers to ‘‘forget about human rights’’ in operations targeting suspected insurgents. His national security advisor, Hermogenes Esperon, later defended the raids as legitimate and claimed the victims were all insurgents, stating ‘‘in the name of law and order, a shoot-to-kill order has been issued against armed CPP-NPA members. It is shoot on sight’’.

Encouraging vigilante violence

The widening crackdown associated with ‘‘red-tagging’’ has been assisted by a new Anti-Terrorism Act passed last year, which granted the state new powers to list groups and individuals as terrorists and openly publish their names. Amnesty International has said this practice is ‘‘in contravention of international standards on due process and the presumption of innocence’’, while ‘‘vague and over-broad definitions’’ of terrorism risk the law being ‘‘used to target government critics’’. In December, the NPA and CPP were both designated under the new legislation as domestic terror organizations.  

The rise in ‘red-tagging’ under Duterte has stoked renewed fears of vigilante violence, while military operations targeting NPA insurgents gather pace. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

Armed vigilantes have been empowered in this hostile climate. On Negros Island, a hotspot of NPA activity, anti-communist militia Kagubak has been linked to assassinations of farmers and left-wing activists in recent years. In February, Cristina Palabay, head of Philippine human rights organization Karapatan, told VOA that at least 78 people were killed and 136 arrested in 2020 in cases recorded as being linked to ‘‘red-tagging’’, warning that ‘‘more and more people are now in the firing line’’.

Human Rights Watch raised similar alarm in a recent statement, warning that the deadly practice ‘‘constricts further the increasingly diminished democratic space in the Philippines, where activists, rights lawyers, journalists and even ordinary Filipinos on social media are under threat’’, and called out ‘‘government officials who give a wink and a nod to extrajudicial killings by their red-tagging’’.

Aiding the rebel cause?

The ‘‘red-tagging’’ epidemic now risks pushback from the NPA and escalation on the battlefield. At the start of this year, the CPP directed the NPA to revive its Special Partisan Units, which are tasked with assassinating soldiers and government figures in towns and cities. These secretive units, usually made up of three or four NPA snipers, proliferated during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s, and their revival on a notable scale would bring the insurgency from the countryside into urban centres.

In response to the 7 March killings of activists by police, the NPA has welcomed those targeted by ‘‘red-tagging’’ to join its ranks, vowing that ‘‘targets of Duterte’s state terrorism can be absorbed by NPA units or provided safe haven’’ in rebel bases. A CPP statement also called on the NPA to launch ‘‘tactical offensives’’ and ‘‘mobilize its units’’ to ‘‘punish the perpetrators and masterminds of these crimes’’. Through his expanded crackdown, rather than defeat the NPA, Duterte is aiding its cause.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Family Ties and New Recruits: Abu Sayyaf Proves Hard to Dislodge in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte addresses soldiers of Joint Task Force Sulu in 2017. (Image: PCOO)

Shortly before midday on 24 August, a bomb ripped through two military trucks parked outside a shopping area in Jolo, the capital of the southern Philippines’ island province of Sulu. As security officials responded to the blast, a suicide bomber detonated her device having been prevented from entering the cordoned-off area. The first explosion, initially reported to have been caused by an IED strapped to a motorbike, was later confirmed as another suicide bombing. The double blasts left 14 people dead and at least 75 injured.

The Philippine armed forces quickly blamed Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group aligned with the Islamic State, which has been responsible for at least five suicide attacks involving eight bombers since July 2018. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf had been dealt a major blow when its leader, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed after laying siege to the city of Marawi with fighters from another extremist group, the Mautes, for five months. It was hoped the militants’ defeat in Marawi might turn the tide on years of rising jihadism in the region.

Yet since then, despite a peace deal signed by Manila and moderate Moro Muslim rebels, intensified army operations targeting local Islamic State affiliates and sustained counter-terrorism support from the United States, the threat from Abu Sayyaf is alive and evolving rapidly. However, headline-grabbing tactics aside, its six-year-old pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State now matters little. As in most of its 30-year history, Abu Sayyaf’s violence is best explained by local dynamics, family ties and its ability to attract new recruits.

US-supported military offensives

In spite of recent Abu Sayyaf attacks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims it has made a degree of progress in stemming the tide of militancy. Martial law in Mindanao, imposed after the outbreak of the Marawi siege in mid-2017, was lifted on 31 December last year, while the army has persisted with regular patrols, ground offensives and aerial attacks on militant hideouts throughout 2020. In October, the AFP’s public affairs chief Capt. Jonathan Zata said 55 Abu Sayyaf members were killed from January-September, while another 78 surrendered. He revealed that 97 firearms, seven IEDs and nine camps were also seized.

Inroads were also made against other Islamist groups. The Mautes lost 24 fighters in clashes with the AFP, while 15 surrendered and five were arrested. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters lost 28 men over the same period, while 134 surrendered and 20 were detained. Abu Sayyaf suffered its biggest loss in mid-August, when notorious sub-leader Idang Susukan was arrested by police officers in Davao city, where he had reportedly travelled to seek medical attention for injuries to his left arm sustained in an earlier battle. Susukan was involved in lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom activities, making his arrest a significant setback.

Yet these markers of progress are tempered by the overall picture. In August, a US Department of Defense update on Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P), its counter-terrorism campaign in the country, said that ‘‘efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference.’’ Estimates from OPE-P indicate that since 2017, Islamic State-aligned groups in the region have maintained a fighting force of 300–500, remaining ‘‘about the same size and strength for the last few years.’’ This grim assessment comes despite annual US funding of $100m for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. The report cited ‘‘COVID-19 restrictions’’ and ‘‘force rotations’’ as having an additional negative impact on assistance in 2020, along with relatively unchanged ‘‘economic, social and political conditions.’’

Abu Sayyaf suicide bombing spree

A prevalent feature of post-Marawi militancy has been suicide bombings – a phenomenon unseen before in the Philippines. Five separate attacks have taken place in the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf operate, and were carried-out by radicalized Egyptian, Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, as well as at least one Filipino. The deadliest incident targeted the Our Lady of Mount Carmel cathedral, just across the street from the latest attack in Jolo, in January 2019, leaving 22 people dead and 81 wounded.

The aftermath of the double suicide blasts on a cathedral in Jolo, January 2019. (Image: PCOO)

Abu Sayyaf have also persisted with lower-level criminal-type activities, kidnapping Indonesian fishermen for ransom off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state, ten minutes by boat from militant bases on Tawi-Tawi island. At least 39 Indonesian seafarers have been abducted by the group since 2016, when foreign sailors started to avoid the area after several Westerners were beheaded by Abu Sayyaf in absence of a ransom. An Indonesian captive, among five seized from a ship in January, died last month amid a shootout in Sulu.

Such activities, of both a criminal and terrorist nature, have rebounded under Abu Sayyaf’s current leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who commands a faction in the mountains around Patikul, on Sulu’s north coast. Reported to have narrowly avoided death at the hands of the military on several occasions, his leadership has been characterized by a mix of maritime banditry and headline-grabbing suicide attacks part-inspired by the Islamic State and its radical ideology. The tactic is more of a side effect than representing firm links.

Family connections and new recruits

For decades, blood ties and close family relationships within Abu Sayyaf have made the group particularly resistant to infiltration. In its current incarnation, the Ajang-Ajang faction led by Hatib also contains many of his relatives, notably his nephew Mundi Sawadjaan, who is a bomb-maker considered likely by the AFP to have constructed the devices detonated by the Jolo bombers. Abu Sayyaf is insular, splintered and non-hierarchical below its senior leadership, making connections difficult to track. Its members and supporters are loyal in part due to benefiting from the economic rewards of hostage-taking and the illegal drug trade. Hideouts on outlying islands and in Jolo’s densely-forested interior are often out of the authorities’ reach.  

Suicide pacts among families have become a defining feature of Abu Sayyaf’s latest spate of terror attacks. The January 2019 cathedral attack was perpetrated by a married Indonesian husband and wife, while the two female suspects behind the latest outrage were found to be the widows of two deceased Abu Sayyaf fighters. Philippine Army chief Lieut.-Gen. Cirilito Sobejana identified one as the wife of Norman Lasuca – the first known Filipino suicide bomber – and the second as widow of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Talha Jumsah. In a raid on 10 October, another Indonesian woman, Rezky Fantasya Rullie, was arrested in Sulu alongside two other women on suspicion of plotting a suicide attack. All three were married to Abu Sayyaf fighters. AFP soldiers reportedly seized IED components and a vest rigged with pipe bombs from their residence.

Although several of the bombers came from abroad, local recruitment enables Abu Sayyaf to replenish its ranks after battlefield losses. Estimates of its strength have remained consistent for years, supporting the narrative that a sizeable recruitment pool exists in Sulu, where young men have limited alternative options to make a living. Sulu, among the most impoverished areas of the Philippines, has a long history of conflict and was the only province to reject a peace deal between the government and moderate Moro insurgents in a referendum last year. Awash with firearms, Abu Sayyaf has drawn on local support in Sulu to fight for independence since 1990, in a region that sat at the heart of an Islamic sultanate prior to the colonial era. Many still wish for the revival of self-governance in the future, and accept militancy as a means to an end. The Islamic State, through social media, has only ever latched onto what has always been a local struggle.

Maute allies in Lanao del Sur

Remnants of Abu Sayyaf’s co-conspirators in Marawi, the Maute Group, remain functional across the Sulu Sea in Lanao del Sur province, on Mindanao’s largest island. Although its resources are stretched thin, the AFP last month identified Faharudin Hadji Satar, also known as Abu Bakar, as the new leader of the Maute Group. Its recruitment drive is reported to be ongoing in the Lanao municipalities of Balindong, Madalum and Piagapo, where displaced residents of Marawi city have received text messages enticing them to join.  

Three years after the Islamist siege ended, much of Marawi is still to be rebuilt. (Image: PIA)

The more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signatory of a peace agreement with Manila and highly influential in Lanao, has pledged to work with the AFP to combat extremism and persuade the Mautes to disarm. It is hoped that the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leads, will eventually bring prosperity and displace the decades-old narrative that oppressed Muslims in the south can only find hope and livelihood opportunities by joining armed groups.

The Bangsamoro region, supported by most Moro Muslims, offers a chance for renewal, but the activities of Abu Sayyaf demonstrate how hard it is to get all factions on side. Abu Sayyaf retains a firm stranglehold in Sulu, as the Mautes look to entice decommissioned moderate rebels and capitalize on Moro frustrations over the slow rebuilding of Marawi, where 120,000 residents are still displaced three years after the siege ended. Abu Sayyaf and the Mautes failed in that past mission, but remain a thorn in the side of Mindanao.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Delays to Rebuilding Marawi Threaten a Fragile Peace in the Bangsamoro

Three years after the siege, more than 120,000 residents of Marawi remain displaced across the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Three years ago, the siege of Marawi was in full-swing. A failed attempt by Philippine troops to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, on 23 May 2017, had prompted a militant uprising which would last until October. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers were pitted against ISIS-affiliated jihadis led by Hapilon and his co-conspirators – the Maute brothers – in fierce street-to-street urban warfare.

By the time the battles ended, 1,200 – including 920 militants and 168 AFP soldiers – had been killed. 350,000 residents had fled their homes, unable to return to a city left in a state of ruin. Near-daily IED blasts and government airstrikes had flattened the central Banggolo district, where AFP bomb-disposal experts have since been working to clear debris and safely locate and detonate unexploded ordnance.

The last-known bomb was destroyed in October. Yet construction work has been slow to pick-up pace, even as 126,000 evacuees still reside in transitory shelters or with relatives across the Lanao provinces. Rebuilding Marawi, known as the ‘Islamic city’ with its symbolic Grand Mosque and majority-Maranao Muslim population, will be key to peace in a region afflicted by separatist conflict since the mid-1970s.

Last year, a peace accord was finalized between Manila and the region’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending hostilities and forging a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The inauguration of the region last March signalled the arrival of self-governance, and a chance to address the grievances of western Mindanao’s Moro Muslim population.

Since then, violence perpetrated by the ISIS-aligned groups whom laid siege to Marawi has dwindled. Yet amid the perceived slow pace of reconstruction, further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, local frustrations are rising. A ‘growing sense of despair’ fuelled by a ‘lack of urgency’ in rebuilding the city is now raising fears of a fertile recruitment pool for jihadi groups intent on spoiling the peace process.

Reconstruction efforts directed by Manila

Manila has dismissed such criticism. In the aftermath of the siege, President Rodrigo Duterte created Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), headed by Housing Secretary and former AFP general Eduardo del Rosario, to oversee rehabilitation efforts. A lengthy operation to clear unexploded ordnance from the former ‘Main Battle Area’ got underway in 2018 and was completed late last year, paving the way for the reconstruction of the worst-hit Banggolo district. The area was the city’s bustling commercial hub.

But from the start, plans have faltered. The initial plan, to give the entire task of rebuilding Marawi to a Chinese-led consortium, collapsed amid a political tussle over future visions for the city. Instead, the work was split into multiple projects, with government departments responsible for public works and highways, energy, health and education to award separate contracts to firms to build roads, electricity infrastructure, communications networks and drainage systems, as well as new hospitals and schools.

The role of TFBM to co-ordinate the projects within an overarching plan is inevitably a mammoth task. The task force aims to fully rebuild all public infrastructure and utilities by late-2021 before residents are permitted to return to Banggolo; although in some areas people have been able to start repairing damaged homes. Residents must obtain a building permit, by providing proof-of-ownership alongside a design plan, yet many are concerned that in undocumented cases their homes might be demolished.

COVID-19 setback compounds past delays

The government-led rebuilding of Banggolo looked set to pick-up pace earlier this year, but movement restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19 have delayed work by several months. From 20 March, cities and provinces in the BARMM began to be placed under ‘enhanced community quarantine’, before the whole region transitioned to ‘general community quarantine’ on 1 May. Yet lockdown measures were eased on 16 May after the BARMM was declared ‘low-risk’. The BARMM has seen 100 cases and four deaths from COVID-19 – far fewer than other parts of the Philippines, despite its weak health system.

Bombing of Marawi City
The five-month siege, in 2017, destroyed the central Banggolo district, which witnessed airstrikes and daily gun battles between AFP troops and ISIS-linked militants. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

While noting the impact of COVID-19 in restricting the movement of labour and materials, TFBM chief Eduardo del Rosario revealed early in June that preparatory work has continued, allowing firms to ‘go full blast’ in July. He said in a press release that TFBM remains committed to the 31 December 2021 deadline, and has urged project contractors to ‘work 12 hours a day’, or ‘double time’ if necessary. In further comments, del Rosario said he aims to ‘prove government critics wrong’, and labelled a claim of ‘inaction and neglect’ alleged in May by vice-President Leni Robredo as ‘very inaccurate and unfair’.

TFBM has highlighted the reconstruction of the Mapandi Bridge – a key entry-point into the city centre that witnessed fierce clashes at the height of the siege – and work to repair the 18.97km transcentral Marawi road as evidence that progress is being made. Government support for 25,300 still-displaced families is also seen via the provision of rice, cash assistance, livelihood training and tractors for local farming co-operatives. Yet despite the help available, displaced residents living in cramped conditions in transitory shelters, vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19, are increasingly desperate to return home.

Frustration rising among long-term evacuees

Anger among evacuees though, pre-dates the untimely arrival COVID-19. Back in November, Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW), a civil society organization founded to monitor the rebuilding of the city, issued a strongly-worded statement after attending a public Congressional hearing on the issue. MRCW criticized a lack of transparency and accountability in the Manila-led rebuilding process, labelling it a ‘total mess’. Aside from lamenting the slow-pace of construction work, MRCW criticized the delayed passage of a compensation bill, alleging that Maranaos are being ‘treated as second class citizens’ and were blamed by the authorities for the incursion of ISIS that led to the five-month siege. The group also asked Duterte to reverse a controversial decision to build a new AFP camp in Marawi.

Dissenting voices have also emerged from those in power, at the local and national level. Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, interim Chief Minister of the BARMM and former head of the MILF, who in his position must tread a fine line between BARMM citizens and Manila, has sought to reassure Maranao Muslims that the government remains committed to the project while acknowledging that the job is ‘far from over’. Other BARMM lawmakers have been more vocal and called for TFBM’s leadership to be overhauled. Mindanaoan politician Amihilda Sangcopan has asked the agency to hold a ‘State of Marawi Address’ to tell evacuees when they can ‘go home to their beloved city’, while detained opposition senator Leila de Lima has lamented the ‘suffering, worsening poverty and dispossession’ of Marawi’s ex-residents.

ISIS recruitment and the BARMM peace process

The effort to re-start construction following the COVID-19 disruption comes a year into the three-year BARMM transition period; designed to implement the peace deal and secure a lasting peace in Moro-majority western Mindanao. The MILF is currently disarming its 30,000 fighters, while ordinary citizens have placed their hopes on the new autonomous region to end decades of large-scale armed conflict.

Marawi, known as the Philippines’ Islamic city, is of high symbolic importance to Moro Muslims. Rebuilding mosques destroyed during the siege will assist peace efforts. (Image Source: Suhayla)

Yet radical groups – born out of the Moro separatist rebellion and later inspired by ISIS ideology – are still active and aim to upend the peace process. Abu Sayyaf pose a risk in the Sulu islands to the west, while the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters remain present in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. Further delay in rebuilding Marawi could assist in their recruitment. A U.S. diplomatic cable, released in February, noted that ‘public anger at the Philippine government’s extended delays in providing for the reconstruction of Marawi has allowed extremist elements to re-gain a foothold in the city’, warning that a negative public perception of efforts to rehabilitate the city had likely ‘reinforced extremist anti-government narratives and contributed to terrorist recruitment’.

The AFP has reported recruitment by the Maute group in towns around Lake Lanao, on which Marawi sits, in the three years since the siege, with the militants offering a financial incentive for young men to join-up. Although the strength of militant groups has undoubtedly declined since the height of the siege, when the Mautes and their allies deployed 1,000 fighters in the city, such reports drive concern that a failure to rebuild swiftly could create an atmosphere conducive to the terrorists’ bolstering their ranks – by targeting displaced residents seeking a way out of homelessness, joblessness and poverty.

‘I want to finish the projects during my time’

The BARMM, in which the hopes of Mindanao’s Moro Muslims are invested, has little control over the reconstruction of Marawi. The fate of the city lies with the central government in Manila. Earlier this year, after releasing funds for construction in the Banggolo district to begin, Duterte remarked: ‘I want to finish the projects during my time’. Despite confirming he would go ahead with plans to build a new army base in the city, he said ‘I am not after the Maranao’, arguing it is necessary to prevent a repeat of the siege. Duterte’s term ends in 2022, around six months after TFBM’s deadline to rebuild the city.

If the deadline is not met and reconstruction efforts drag on for years, Marawi risks becoming another ‘open wound’ driving recruitment to rebel groups unsatisfied with the peace process. Former chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – the failed predecessor to the BARMM – Mujiv Hataman, has warned that a failure to rebuild in good time could lead Marawi to become the modern equivalent to the 1968 Jabidah massacre, which drove recruitment for the old Moro separatist groups. In the current context, as ISIS allies look to rebound, such a scenario would pose a huge security risk.

With the BARMM in place and the MILF disarming, Manila could not have a bigger incentive to deliver on its promise to rebuild Marawi – and ensure the peace gains made since the siege are not reversed.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

After Duterte Scraps VFA, What Next for the US-Philippine Security Alliance?

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin sent the US formal notice of Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA on 11 February. (Image Source: US Marine Corps, Chanelcherie K. DeMello)

On 11 February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte provided formal notice to the US of his decision to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – a bilateral treaty inked in 1998 to facilitate the presence of US troops in the country. Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin had voiced his concerns over the risks of cancelling the agreement in a Senate hearing the previous week, warning the move could result in the ‘severe curtailment’ of America’s long-standing defence obligations to its former colony.

Many observers have questioned the sense in Duterte terminating an agreement that has for the past 22 years underpinned what is arguably Washington’s most strategically important security alliance in Asia. The immediate trigger appears to be the US decision in January to rescind a visa for Ronald dela Rosa – a senator and close political ally of Duterte, who in his former role as national police chief led Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign; roundly criticized in the West over alleged extra-judicial killings.

The visa revocation drew an angry response from Duterte, who immediately threatened to cancel the VFA and barred members of his cabinet from travelling to the US. Yet the visa issue may have provided a convenient excuse for Duterte, who has executed a pivot away from the US and toward China, since his shock election win in 2016. Duterte has routinely denounced US influence and criticized US foreign policy, claiming it has treated his nation ‘like a dog on a leash’ since the end of American rule in 1946.

Immediate and practical impacts of VFA termination

The termination of the VFA will take effect after 180 days, meaning the status-quo will be maintained until mid-August when the agreement is scheduled to expire. However, US-Philippine defence ties will not cease to exist when the six-month deadline is reached, as the two countries have two additional defence agreements, which are set to remain in place. A Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951, commits the US to come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of an attack by a foreign power; while the 2014 Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA), penned during the Obama administration, introduced new provisions for troop rotations, the use of military bases and the positioning of assets.

While these two agreements are important in their own right, the VFA is vital to their implementation. It provides a legal framework for US troops to enter and exit the country without needing a passport or visa, and provides clear procedures for handling issues and disputes which may arise as a result of American presence. Above all, the VFA is a crucial tool in facilitating regular joint exercises between the two militaries. Around 390 such exercises are planned for 2020, the largest of which – referred to as Balikatan, meaning ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in the local Tagalog language – is due to be held in May.

The continuation of these drills after the 180-day period ends would be uncertain in the absence of a replacement for the VFA. After Duterte’s decision, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Clarke Cooper, said joint operations would be ‘put at risk’, emphasizing that ‘all engagements’ require a facilitating legal mechanism to be in place. Foreign Secretary Locsin said as much during the Senate hearing on 6 February, noting that the VFA was the ‘substance’ that made the MDT effective.

Long-term strategic implications of terminating the VFA

Beyond these logistical issues, terminating the VFA has two significant implications for the Philippines’ national security – which may also impact regional security and wider US interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, a permanent US military presence in the Philippines, enabled by the VFA, serves as a deterrent to Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea – labelled the West Philippine Sea by Manila. Over the past decade, Beijing has reclaimed land and built military installations on contested islands in the region, where control of various portions of the sea and its features is disputed between China and five other claimant states. The area serves as a vital route for global shipping and seaborne trade.

The VFA – which facilitates the presence of US troops in the Philippines – was signed in 1998. The two nations also have a Mutual Defence Treaty dating back to the 1950s. (Image Source: US DoD)

The US has sought to push-back against Chinese maritime expansionism, for fear Beijing could assert full dominance and displace the US as the foremost naval power in the Asia-Pacific. In this sense, the Philippines is ideally located – on the sea’s eastern perimeter – as a staging post to guard against this perceived threat. The VFA, in allowing the permanent presence of US troops, has ensured a base from which the US can project power and launch freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. While the US does have close ties with other claimant states – such as Vietnam, on the sea’s western fringe – the relationship with the Philippines is long-established and it is considered a crucial partner. Terminating the VFA may give China the green light to continue its activities in the sea unchallenged.

Secondly, the VFA has enabled two decades of counter-terrorism co-operation between US forces and the Philippine military on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, where extreme Islamist groups, such as the notorious Abu Sayyaf, operate. The area is also home to a number of other hardline groups linked to the Islamic State, including the Maute Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US deployed 600 soldiers to the region to help stem the tide of militancy, and around 100 remain stationed in Mindanao on a rotating basis. Although they don’t participate in active combat, US personnel provide intelligence and reconnaissance support, which played a key role in ending the 2017 siege of Marawi, when Philippine forces battled Islamist militants for five months.

The US has also provided equipment, financial assistance and urban-warfare training, helping to boost the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to tackle rapidly-evolving terrorist threats in Mindanao. Several senior Filipino politicians now fear that by scrapping the VFA, the desire of the US to provide such assistance may decrease, risking worsening instability in the insurgency-prone south. Foreign Secretary Locsin stated last month that the VFA ‘allows for continued support for addressing non-traditional security threats’, adding that US forces had been ‘instrumental’ in not only combating terrorism, but also in helping to confront ‘trafficking in persons, cyber-attacks…and illegal narcotics’. Security issues aside, US humanitarian support and disaster response has also been aided by the VFA.

A shared interest in renegotiating the VFA?

Despite senior figures in his administration voicing their concerns, Duterte appears intent on sticking with his decision. He has pushed back against those ‘trying to save’ the VFA, voicing a desire to ‘rely on ourselves’ in the defence sphere. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump responded to reporters with apparent indifference when asked about the move, remarking ‘I really don’t mind…we’ll save a lot of money’. Despite these assertions, some Filipino politicians have stated a preference for the VFA to be reviewed rather than scrapped, and the 180-day notice period may afford time for negotiations.

It is in the interests of both parties to maintain the kind of co-operation that the VFA facilitated, even if the agreement must now be revived in a different form and under a different name. A renegotiation of aspects of the VFA as part of a new deal, acceptable to both Duterte and Trump, may be possible if both men opt to put the shared security interests of their respective countries ahead of political gain in the domestic sphere – where their populist bases are largely supportive of an isolationist approach to foreign policy. Longer-term, the future of the US-Philippine security alliance will be passed into the hands of new leaders: Duterte’s single six-year term ends in 2022, while Trump is seeking re-election in November. A US-friendly leader in Manila, or a Democratic president in the US, would likely lead to a return to the more engaged Obama-era relationship between the US and its Southeast Asian allies: centred on strengthening security partnerships, and opposing Chinese actions in the maritime realm.

Yet with Duterte and Trump at the helm, the US-Philippine security alliance appears to be weakening; and with the VFA set to be terminated, the defence establishments of both countries will hope for no lasting damage.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is Duterte’s Latest Peace Overture to the NPA Another False Dawn?

In December, President Rodrigo Duterte called on CPP leader Jose Maria Sison to return home to the Philippines from exile in the Netherlands, for a one-on-one meeting. (Image Source: PCOO)

Late last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte indicated a willingness to reverse his prior decision to terminate the peace process with the New People’s Army (NPA) – a communist rebel group at odds with Manila since the 1960s. On 26 December, Duterte appealed to Jose Maria Sison – the exiled head of the NPA’s political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – to return home from exile in the Netherlands for one-on-one talks in an attempt to revive the peace process. Sison replied that while he was open to dialogue, he would only be prepared to meet Duterte in a neighbouring country.

This initial positive exchange was followed by a sense of growing momentum, when a 16-day ‘holiday truce’ agreed by the NPA and the Philippine military – covering the Christmas and New Year period – largely held firm despite several reported violations. In the early weeks of 2020, informal discussions have taken place and the government’s former chief negotiator, Silvestre Bello III, has even suggested Sison could return to Manila to sign an interim peace accord ahead of the resumption of formal talks. Duterte has sought to allay Sison’s fears over returning, stating on 11 January: ‘I guarantee his safety’.

Yet despite these steps forward, the window of opportunity for peace talks to resume may be limited. At the start of Duterte’s administration, talks with the NPA appeared to be moving forward until the peace process collapsed in early-2017 amid a dispute over a prisoner amnesty. All attempts to restart dialogue have since proven fruitless amid an atmosphere of rising hostility between the government and the CPP, typified by repeated tirades of insults exchanged in public between Duterte and Sison. This chequered history suggests the current receding of tensions may turn out only to be temporary.

A history of failed talks

The NPA and CPP have been led by Sison since he founded the rebel movement in the late-1960s. For five decades, the NPA has fought government troops in rural areas across the country, with the stated aim of overthrowing the Philippine state and replacing it with a political system predicated on Maoist ideology. While the insurgency reached its height in the 1980s during the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, the rebel movement has since held peace talks with six successive democratic-era presidents.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – the negotiating body of the NPA and CPP – participated in failed talks during the administrations of Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III before entering dialogue with Duterte upon his election in 2016. Talks initially progressed well, with a ceasefire being declared and four rounds of dialogue being held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. Yet the peace process collapsed in 2017 amid Duterte’s refusal to release political prisoners and renewed rebel attacks. NPA activity has since rebounded in rural central and southern areas of the Philippines.

In 2018, several months of back-channel talks proved fruitless after the NPA refused to meet Duterte’s pre-conditions for the resumption of formal dialogue, which included an end to rebel attacks, an end to extortion and a political commitment from the CPP not to seek to form a coalition government. Last March, Duterte announced the peace process was ‘permanently terminated’ during his presidency – due to expire in 2022 – and disbanded his negotiating panel, which had been led by Silvestre Bello III. In its place, Duterte proposed localized talks with NPA commanders, bypassing the senior leadership.

Barriers to renewed dialogue

Duterte has rowed back on his decision, offering an olive branch in the form of a face-to-face meeting with Sison. Given this change in tone, what is the likelihood of formal national-level talks between the government and NDFP restarting, and ultimately succeeding, during the remainder of Duterte’s term?

Since peace talks failed in 2017, AFP troops have fought the NPA on a near-daily basis. Violence has centered on Eastern Mindanao, Samar and Negros Island. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

Meaningful progress is unlikely for several reasons. First, Sison’s reluctance to return to the Philippines represents a firm barrier to dialogue. Duterte has long insisted that any future talks must be hosted in the Philippines, which Sison has described as ‘totally unacceptable’, arguing in December that agreeing to return would ‘put the NDFP and the entire peace negotiations in the pocket of the Duterte regime’. Alternatively, Sison has proposed holding informal talks in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, ahead of the resumption of formal negotiations in a third-party country – most likely Norway, which has served as a mediator between the two sides in the past. The Philippine government is unlikely to allow the CPP to dictate the timing or location of negotiations, leaving both sides at odds over their desired venue.

Second, the core areas of disagreement that have scuppered talks in recent years, remain unresolved. The government still requires the rebel movement to meet six pre-conditions, first proposed in 2018, before the peace process can resume. These conditions include an end to attacks, extortion and arson in addition to the encampment of rebel fighters, the signing of a bilateral ceasefire and an end to NPA recruitment. Given Sison’s lack of control over NPA commanders on the ground, from his base in the Netherlands, it is difficult to foresee these conditions being met, even if Sison and his advisors agreed. Sison also continues to call for ‘the release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds’ as his own pre-condition for formal talks resuming. It is unlikely the government will deviate from its past stance.

Third, a lack of trust exists on both sides, with each suspicious of the other’s real intentions in seeking fresh talks. The CPP fears Duterte’s offer for Sison to return to partake in negotiations is a pre-text for his arrest. Despite Duterte’s reassurances, a court in Manila issued an arrest warrant for Sison just last August over his alleged role in the 1985 Inopacan massacre, while in September the Philippine police asked INTERPOL to issue a ‘red notice’ for the detention of Sison. These developments came after the arrest of several NDFP negotiators since 2017 and many previous threats from Duterte to detain Sison. Equally, the government is also suspicious of the CPP’s true intentions, having criticized NPA violations of past ceasefires and accused the group of using past peace negotiations as a cover for recruitment.

These suspicions have not been helped by an ongoing war-of-words between Duterte and Sison since the peace process first collapsed in 2017, typified by increasingly heated rhetoric and personal insults. After back-channel talks failed in 2018, Duterte derided NPA rebels as ‘robots’ fighting for a ‘bankrupt mind’ in reference to Sison, while the CPP leader retorted that Duterte was ‘very capable of violence’, labelling him as a ‘crazy guy in power’. Duterte has openly criticized CPP ideology as ‘outdated’, while the CPP has condemned Duterte’s authoritarian leadership style and argues he seeks to crush dissent. Tensions have been raised by the alleged ‘red-tagging’ of left-wing advocacy groups in recent months.

Fourth, even if the peace process resumes, the likelihood of a final peace accord being signed is slim, given that both sides have opposing visions of its end point. The CPP’s stated aim remains to replace the Philippines’ system of government with a socialist-style system lead by the working classes. Sison’s ideology, first outlined in 1974, argues this must be achieved through a prolonged guerrilla-style war, leaving little room for political negotiation. Many suspect that even in the event of a deal being signed, the NPA would refuse to disarm, with a spokesperson for Duterte’s peace process advisor arguing on 17 January that ‘never has it been the rebels’ intention to demobilize their armed wing, even if both parties sign a final peace agreement’. The Duterte administration, in line with the view of past Manila administrations, foresees a solution in line with the Philippine constitution and democratic processes. In such a case, no parallel armed forces would be permitted and the NPA would be required to disarm.

Another false dawn?

Despite Duterte’s latest peace overture being accompanied by more positive rhetoric by both parties, recent history suggests that events could spiral downhill quickly if disagreement on the core stumbling blocks persists. Since talks first collapsed in 2017, relations between the government and the CPP have been characterized by rising hostility and distrust. Even amid the recent détente, on 5 January the new chief-of-staff of the Philippine armed forces, Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos, vowed to crush the NPA before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022 – a threat which Duterte himself his repeated on multiple occasions.

Such mixed-messaging and Duterte’s unpredictable, shifting stance on his approach toward the CPP, may dissuade the CPP from returning to the negotiating table and leave Sison to conclude the risk of returning to Manila is too high. Unless a formal summit is agreed during this rare moment of calm, the revival of the peace process may – as Duterte stated last March – have to wait ‘for the next president’.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

After Martial Law, Could the Islamic State Rebound in the Philippines?

President Duterte has opted not to extend Martial Law in Mindanao beyond 31 December 2019. The emergency measure had been in place for more than three years (Image Source: PCOO)

On 10 December, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced the end of martial law in Mindanao after opting against an extension, on the advice of military and police chiefs. The emergency measure, which was first imposed in the restive region in response to an ISIS-led siege of Marawi city in May 2017, had previously been extended three times and is now set to expire on 31 December. Two years after ISIS were defeated in Marawi, the jihadist threat has been reduced to a more manageable scale.

The ISIS-affiliated groups which led the siege have been pushed back and many of their leaders killed, leading Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to declare his preference for lifting martial law entirely in November. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) chiefs initially suggested extending the measure only in ‘selective areas’ where extremist groups still operate. The provinces of Maguindanao and Sulu have both experienced attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups this year.

With martial law lifted, what level of threat do ISIS’ surviving local affiliates represent in Mindanao? And despite ISIS’ declining global influence, after territorial losses in the Middle East and the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria, could its followers in the Philippines rebound?

ISIS remnants in Mindanao

The Maute Group, accused of planning the assault on Marawi in an attempt to carve out a Southeast Asian ISIS caliphate, are severely depleted after AFP operations in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. While the group was 1,000-strong ahead of the siege, it is now thought to have fewer than 25 active members. Its founders, brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, were killed during the final gun battles in Marawi in October 2017; while its new leader, Abu Dar, was shot dead during a military operation in Tubaran on 14 March, leaving the Mautes without a main figurehead. After Abu Dar’s killing, the AFP said the Mautes were no longer capable of launching a Marawi-style raid, yet military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner warned that the group was still trying to recruit and remains a national security risk.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which played a minor supporting role in the Marawi siege, emerged relatively unscathed and posed a larger threat in its aftermath. In 2018, they regularly fought government troops and carried-out a string of bombings, maiming civilians in restaurants and shopping malls, in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. However, AFP airstrikes and ground operations targeting BIFF hideouts in the rural Liguasan Marsh area of central Maguindanao have dented the group’s capabilities in 2019. In April, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the three BIFF factions – the most powerful of which is led by ISIS-affiliated militant Abu Toraife – had been forced into a tactical alliance and resorted to guerrilla-style tactics to survive while under growing pressure. In recent months, the group’s remaining fighters have lain low.

A smaller ISIS-aligned group, Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP), also remains active further south, in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. However, since its leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid was killed in a firefight with police in 2017, AKP has been regarded by the authorities as more of a criminal nuisance than a transnational terror threat, having engaged only in a series of small-scale gun battles.

The threat from Abu Sayyaf

The Philippines oldest known jihadi group, Abu Sayyaf, which was formed in the early-1990s, currently represent the gravest threat of all Mindanao’s ISIS affiliates. After playing a leading role in the Marawi siege alongside the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf retreated from mainland Mindanao to their former maritime hideouts on the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. After regrouping and replenishing its ranks, Abu Sayyaf has rebounded in 2019. The most extreme faction, led by ISIS supporter Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, has perpetrated a wave of high-profile suicide bombings in Sulu this year. On 27 January, two militants detonated themselves inside a crowded cathedral in Jolo, leaving 22 worshippers dead and 81 wounded. A second double suicide attack killed eight people at a military base in Indanan on 28 June, while a fifth bomber blew themselves up at an AFP camp in the same town on 8 September.

Abu Sayyaf laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in 2017, as part of a coalition of four local militant groups with links to the Islamic State (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The bombings were all claimed by ISIS via official statements. Several of the suspected bombers were revealed to be Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, adding to concerns that Abu Sayyaf is harbouring foreign fighters trained in bomb-making and willing to volunteer themselves for suicide missions. Back in July, Maj. Gen. Sobejana had warned that seven foreign terrorists were training Filipino militants in IED construction while another 42 suspected foreign fighters were being monitored by the authorities. He said many of these suspects were likely ‘embedded’ with Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF. On 5 November, government soldiers shot dead two Egyptian militants at a checkpoint in Jolo, confirming these fears.

Abu Sayyaf has around 400 fighters and continues to fight the army under the command of Sawadjaan in Sulu, while another ISIS-linked faction led by Furuji Indama remains active in Basilan. Smaller cells are active in the Tawi-Tawi islands, while Abu Sayyaf activity has been reported in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah and along the coast of mainland Mindanao’s Zamboanga peninsula. Abu Sayyaf is also notorious for launching piracy attacks and kidnappings-at-sea, several of which have occurred in 2019.

Guarding against an ISIS resurgence

Although degraded post-Marawi, and contained to the remote southwest of the country, ISIS-aligned groups are still active and intent on forging a regional caliphate centred on the southern Philippines.

There is growing concern that the BIFF and Mautes may look to replenish their ranks by targeting the 66,000 residents still displaced from Marawi city, more than two years since the end of the siege. The government has been criticized by its opponents for the slow pace of rehabilitation, with the central Banggolo district still in ruin and needing to be cleared of unexploded ordnance before building work can begin. It is feared that young men with limited economic opportunities and their livelihoods placed on hold due to the ISIS-led siege, may ironically become prime targets for recruitment by jihadi groups. Tensions are rising, with the government’s 2021 target for rebuilding the city unlikely to be achieved.

An extension to martial law in Abu Sayyaf and BIFF strongholds would have helped the AFP maintain pressure on ISIS remnants; but the military and intelligence agencies will maintain vigilance regardless. The AFP will likely continue launching airstrikes and undertaking ground offensives in the ISIS hotspots of Sulu and Maguindanao; while also holding regular trilateral naval patrols alongside Indonesian and Malaysian forces in the Sulu Sea, to deter kidnappings and prevent the movement of foreign fighters. Guarding against the transition of Abu Sayyaf to mainland Mindanao is crucial in preventing a repeat of Marawi, when the Philippines’ four ISIS-linked groups were able to join forces to take-over the city.

Hopes are also invested in a peace deal signed between the government and an older, more moderate Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The accord, ratified in a referendum in western Mindanao earlier this year, will see former rebels govern a new Muslim autonomous region, encompassing the core territories where ISIS-linked groups remain active. If the deal brings economic development and enhances livelihoods, then ISIS – known to prey upon unstable and poverty-stricken regions to reinvigorate itself – may be denied a climate conducive to its resurgence in the Philippines.

An earlier version of this article, written before it was announced that martial law would not be extended beyond December 2019, is published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Deciphering the Jihadist Threat to the Philippines’ Moro Peace Process

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR), ratified in a public vote in early-2019, lends greater autonomy to Moro Muslims in western Mindanao (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

In the impoverished west of the Philippines’ conflict-afflicted southern island of Mindanao, residents voted earlier this year to approve a landmark peace deal which it is hoped will signal an end to one of Southeast Asia’s bloodiest and most intractable insurgencies. Since the early-1970s, separatists have waged a decades-long armed campaign against the central government in Manila in pursuit of either full independence or greater political autonomy for the region’s oppressed Moro Muslim population. After failed peace agreements and false dawns in 1976, 1989 and 1996, the past year has seen major progress.

July 2018 witnessed the signing of an historic peace accord between the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and Mindanao’s largest Muslim insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The deal – known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) – provided the legislation needed to create a new self-governing region to replace the flawed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was established in 1989. A public vote in all areas set to form part of the new political entity was held across two days in January and February, with a majority needed to ratify the BOL in each jurisdiction. Turnout exceeded 85% as residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposed new region, which will be called the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

In the five existing ARMM provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, a combined total of 1.54m people voted in favour while just 198,000 voted against. After polling closed in non-ARMM areas, it emerged that Cotabato city had also voted to join the BARMM and will become its seat of government. While Isabela city voted against, more than twenty villages in North Cotabato province voted in favour to ensure the BARMM will be larger and more populous than its predecessor.

Yet despite hopes for peace rising after voters rubber-stamped the creation of the BARMM, Duterte has kept Mindanao under martial law in an attempt to tackle the lingering threat from ISIS-affiliated groups active in the provinces set to form the new region. Martial law has remained in place since the siege of Marawi erupted in May 2017, when jihadists from the Maute Group (MG), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP) joined forces to take-over the city. In spite of ongoing peace efforts, these radical elements have refused to relent.

Moro Muslims have been present in western Mindanao since the arrival of Arab traders in the Sulu islands in the 1300s, and have since fought uprisings against Spanish and US colonialists, and later the modern-day Philippine state. The Moros’ have long suffered cultural and political marginalization, and their communities rank among the poorest in the country, with the poverty rate in the ARMM at 59%.

The 30-000 strong MILF long-ago dropped their demand for full independence in favour of autonomy. The last few decades have seen episodes of violence despite a series of past peace agreements having been signed; none of which have managed to quell the insurgency in its entirety. There is now real optimism on both sides that the proposed Bangsamoro region may represent a genuine path to peace.

The new jurisdiction will have its own 80-member elected parliament able to enact laws, headed by a chief minister. The region will receive 75% of taxes collected within its territory, while benefiting from central government grants and improved access to natural resource revenues. Rebel leaders are also hopeful the new region will be a significant improvement on the ARMM, which has been associated with corruption and criticized for constituting autonomy in name only. The government and the MILF campaigned side-by-side for a ‘yes’ vote and have pledged to work together to implement the BOL.

The new Bangsamoro region is to be led during a three year transition period by Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim (Image Source: Philippine News Agency).

While the government and the MILF have pursued peace, several ISIS-aligned groups have remained active in Mindanao. The main protagonists of the Marawi siege, the ASG and the Mautes, are still alive despite having suffered heavy losses during the conflict. The ASG has reverted to launching attacks in its remote island lairs of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, while the Mautes are still thought to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur despite the group’s leader, Abu Dar, being killed in a recent army offensive. The BIFF is the strongest jihadi group in the region, with around 400 fighters in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The AKP operates further south in Sarangani and South Cotabato.

These groups have committed a series of high-profile attacks aimed at disrupting the peace process. Just five days after the BOL was inked last July, a Moroccan suicide bomber with ties to the ASG detonated his device at an army checkpoint near Lamitan city, killing 11 people. Local police said his intended target was a school parade taking place in the city centre. BIFF bombings targeted the Sultan Kudarat town of Isulan on 28 August and 2 September, killing five and injuring 49 civilians. In mid-September a bomb planted by the AKP wounded seven people in General Santos city. A blast blamed on the BIFF struck a shopping mall in Cotabato city on 31 December, leaving another two dead and 34 injured. The post-BOL spike in IED attacks in late-2018 followed a stark warning from BIFF figurehead Abu Misri Mama: ‘we are not in favour of autonomy [and will] continue to fight for independence.’

Attacks have continued into 2019. On 27 January – timed to wreak maximum havoc between the two BOL polling days scheduled for 21 January and 6 February – twin explosions tore through a packed cathedral in Jolo, killing 22 worshippers. The attack, carried out by ISIS-aligned ASG militants, served as a reminder that jihadist groups remain intent on shattering the southern Philippines’ fragile peace.

ISIS-affiliated militants have also regularly clashed with government soldiers on the battlefield, with fighting most intense in rural areas of western Mindanao. Last year witnessed 119 clashes linked to Moro and Islamist groups on mainland Mindanao, with at least 83 involving the BIFF. While the MILF engaged only in small-scale clan disputes between rival factions at the local level, clashes between BIFF factions and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) led to the death of 173 militants and 21 government soldiers. The BIFF is most active in Maguindanao, the site of 70 clashes in 2018, and North Cotabato, which saw 24 encounters. The Mautes have engaged in sporadic fighting with the army in Lanao del Sur, while the AKP has initiated several gun battles in Sarangani and South Cotabato. At least 91,485 people were displaced last year in Mindanao as a result of clashes involving ISIS-linked groups.

The BIFF stronghold of Maguindanao also proved to be the epicentre of a rising IED threat, seeing 19 attacks, which mostly targeted military and Philippine National Police (PNP) vehicles by the roadside.

Meanwhile in its remote island hideouts of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the ASG engaged in 63 armed clashes with the military during 2018, resulting in 161 fatalities and displacing at least 5,000 civilians.

The 30,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has pledged to disband and disarm its insurgent force before transitioning into a political party and contesting elections (Image Source: PCOO).

These figures demonstrate that ISIS-aligned groups are still active and pose a threat to stability in the region. Sustained BIFF-AFP clashes continue to take place, while IED blasts have targeted both state security personnel and civilians. However, the threat has reduced since the militants’ attempt to take-over Marawi city was extinguished in October 2017. In the build-up to the siege, the four ISIS-affiliated groups were able to join forces and operate relatively freely in light of alleged AFP intelligence failures. The army was taken aback by the militants’ combined strength and level of co-ordination, and was vastly under-prepared for a prolonged urban siege characterized by street battles and enemy sniper fire.

Post-Marawi, the AFP’s awareness and posture has altered considerably. Remnants of the four ISIS-aligned groups have been weakened by sustained offensives under martial law, while the infiltration of foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia has slowed due to trilateral naval patrols carried-out in the Sulu Sea by the Philippines and its two nearest neighbours. Mindanao’s ISIS-aligned groups are now separated geographically, and will struggle to join ranks to launch a combined assault as they did in Marawi. While a repeat can’t be ruled out, it is unlikely in the current state of heightened vigilance.

With the BARMM ratified, Duterte is now hoping to crush these groups under martial law. Yet despite the progress made in the past year, barriers to peace remain. A lengthy transition awaits as the MILF transforms into a political party ahead of elections to the new regional parliament due by 2022. The demobilisation of the MILF may also prove difficult. The MILF’s 30,000 fighters will likely find it harder to reintegrate back into society than senior MILF leaders who have joined the BARMM’s transitional administration. Political leadership itself will be an arduous task. MILF leaders have sought to prepare early by visiting former rebel chiefs in Indonesia’s Aceh province to learn about the implementation of a similar peace accord there over the past decade. In Aceh, an autonomous settlement addressing grievances of Muslim insurgent groups in exchange for disarmament has largely held firm since 2005.

Authorities hope the peace accord will dent recruitment for ISIS-affiliated groups in Mindanao, who joined forces to occupy Marawi city for five months in 2017 (Image Source: Mark Jhomel).

On Mindanao, the presence of Jihadi groups makes a replication of Aceh’s peace gains more uncertain. Military intelligence reports suggest foreign jihadists from the pre-Marawi influx are still fighting with the BIFF, while the Mautes are alleged to be recruiting in Lanao del Sur to bolster their depleted ranks. Further clashes with the AFP are likely throughout 2019, although under the strain of martial law ISIS-linked groups may further splinter, turn to guerrilla-style tactics and make greater use of explosives.

The key test for a lasting peace in Mindanao will be whether the hearts and minds of Moro Muslims can be won over by the new autonomous region, which promises to reduce poverty and spark more equitable development. Should genuine autonomy prevail and political stability take hold, the brazen attempt by ISIS to hijack the Moros’ five-decade separatist campaign may yet prove to be short-lived.

This article was first published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The statistics in this article are sourced from the institute’s Armed Conflict Database (ACD), which collects data and analyses key trends in all active conflicts worldwide.