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.

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.

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.

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.