Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

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What Underlies the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Campaign of Terror in Western Mindanao?

Since the end of the Marawi siege in October, Philippine troops have been redeployed to take on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

In the three months since the jihadists of the ISIS-linked Maute group were routed by Philippine troops in Marawi, another radical band of Islamists have risen from the shadows to take their place as the vanguard of ISIS in western Mindanao. Since the five-month siege of Marawi ended in late-October, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have launched a wave of IED attacks and regularly clashed with security forces, whilst their de-facto leader Esmael Abdulmalik has been touted as a possible replacement for slain Abu Sayyaf militant Isnilon Hapilon as ISIS’ new emir in Southeast Asia.

In the post-Marawi climate of heightened threat awareness, the BIFF’s recent spike in activity has garnered an increased amount of attention not only in the Philippines, but across the wider region. Yet the group has been around for almost a decade and has been involved in high-profile incidents before, notably the Mamasapano clash of January 2015 which left 44 special forces soldiers dead and sent shockwaves throughout the country. The BIFF has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the past, whilst a small cohort of its fighters are thought to have taken part in last year’s Marawi siege.

What underlies the BIFF’s intensified campaign of terror? And how has this previously little-known militant group emerged from being a mere footnote in Mindanao’s long-running armed Islamist insurgency to positioning itself as the last bastion of ISIS’ ambitions to carve out a regional caliphate?

The BIFF has its roots in the decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency which has been fought on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao since the early 1970s. In its initial stages, the insurgency was fought by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded by Nur Misuari, and later by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) founded by Hashim Salamat, which broke-off from the MNLF in 1981. Both organizations enjoyed support from large sections of the Muslim population in the Mindanao region, which has long suffered from underdevelopment and high rates of poverty in comparison to other parts of the majority-Catholic country, leaving its residents feeling marginalized.

The MNLF and the MILF both started out fighting for a fully-independent state for the Muslim-majority Moro population in the south, leading to a protracted conflict which has caused more than 100,000 deaths. Yet in recent decades their stance has softened as both groups have turned their attention away from armed struggle and towards peace talks with the government, aimed at securing greater autonomy in the south rather than independence. This shift angered hardline elements within the separatist movement, resulting in the formation of several radical groups to revive the campaign for a fully-independent Muslim state. A breakaway faction of the MNLF – Abu Sayyaf – emerged in 1990 and went on to gain global notoriety after launching a spate of kidnappings in the region and brutally beheading several Western hostages. Twenty years later, in 2010, a second splinter group emerged this time from within the ranks of the MILF, and called itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

The BIFF was formed by Ameril Umbra Kato, who was educated in Saudi Arabia and espoused a more radical brand of Islam based on Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, practiced more widely in the Middle East than in Southeast Asia. Frustrated with the MILF’s decision to accept autonomy at the expense of full independence, Kato led around 300 former MILF comrades in a campaign of attacks targeting the military and civilians in rural areas across the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato. The primary aim of the attacks was to disrupt the peace process between the government and the MILF.

Kato was succeeded as leader by Mohammad Ali Tambako after suffering a stroke in 2011, yet Tambako left to establish another militant group two years later. Kato died of natural causes in 2015 and the BIFF appointed Ismael Abubakar as its new figurehead, signalling a new era in which the group separated into factions and became more of a splintered guerrilla organization than a co-ordinated or hierarchical group. The BIFF remains loosely-structured today, and is not thought to have a defined leadership structure or central chain of command.

The BIFF has its roots in Mindanao’s long running Islamist separatist insurgency, but in recent years has fought under the banner of ISIS (Image Source: Keith Bacongco)

Amidst the uncertainty over its direction and leadership, the group had pledged allegiance to ISIS in late-2014. At the time, this was not viewed as a concern by the authorities and was seen as more of an attention-grabbing ploy aimed at aiding recruitment and boosting the group’s profile. This view changed suddenly when in May last year, militants from the ISIS-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups launched a brazen assault on the city of Marawi. The threat from ISIS had become visible, having materialized itself on a large scale in Southeast Asia for the first time. The Marawi crisis led the security forces in Mindanao to take pledges of allegiance to ISIS by smaller militant groups far more seriously.

The jihadists from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf took five months to dislodge. In mid-October, the Philippine military announced the end of the siege after the deaths of militant leaders Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon in the main battle zone. More than 900 militants were killed in total, dealing a serious blow to Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities and virtually destroying the Maute group as a fighting force. Whilst a small number of the BIFF’s members were thought to be present in Marawi, many of the group’s fighters remained in its heartlands elsewhere in western Mindanao. These BIFF fighters now constitute the surviving remnants of ISIS in the southern Philippines, and have taken up the mantle vacated by the Mautes with a renewed sense of purpose and authority.

Since the end of the Marawi siege clashes between government forces and the BIFF have intensified in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, where the group has its rural strongholds. Government airstrikes, ground offensives and gun battles resulted in the death of 28 BIFF members in the final three months of 2017, whilst two government troops were also killed. In December, the BIFF launched a series of attacks targeting the indigenous Teduray tribe whilst attempting to seize pockets of territory in rural villages in Maguindanao province, setting fire to houses and killing several tribe members whilst driving thousands more from their homes. The BIFF has also launched a spate of bomb attacks targeting police patrols, military bases and civilians. On New Year’s Eve, the militants detonated an IED outside a crowded bar in Tacurong city, killing two civilians and injuring twelve, having earlier in the day killed one and wounded five policemen in a bomb blast in Datu Hoffer town.

The BIFF remains split into at least three main factions, the largest and most active of which is led by Ismael Abdulmalik, also known by the alias Abu Turaife. In a particularly worrying development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reported seeing ‘foreign-looking’ gunmen fighting alongside BIFF militants in Maguindanao province, indicating that terrorist fighters from elsewhere in Southeast Asia may have joined-up with the group. It is possible that surviving Maute group members, including a number of Indonesians and Malaysians believed to have fought in Marawi, may have bolstered the BIFF’s ranks. At present, the BIFF appears to be the new group of choice for the region’s militants.

Local authorities have said they are monitoring the recruitment activities of jihadist groups in western Mindanao and are bracing themselves for another Marawi-style attack. Cotabato city has been muted as a possible second target. President Duterte has responded by extending Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 and has promised to destroy the BIFF, whilst recently-installed military chief Lt. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has vowed to redeploy resources from Marawi to tackle Islamist groups across the south. Mindanao’s civilian population remains on edge as its security forces maintain a heightened state of alert, having conducted several urban warfare training exercises in recent months to prepare for a repeat scenario. In Marawi last May, the authorities had been caught off guard.

Military operations against the BIFF have intensified in recent months in the group’s rural strongholds in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato (Image Source: AFP)

The rise to prominence of radical groups such as Maute, and now the BIFF, comes at a crucial stage in the southern Philippines’ drawn-out peace process with the MILF, which has laid down its weapons since a provisional peace deal with the government was signed in 2014. Currently, lawmakers are debating the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would pave the way for a new autonomous region in the south to replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), constituting a final negotiated end to hostilities with the largest groups in the Moro rebel movement.

The bill is expected to be passed later this year. Yet after slow progress in getting even to this stage, concerns have been voiced that if the bill is delayed further, or in a worst-case scenario fails to pass through Congress, frustrations will grow and fertile ground for jihadist recruitment will be created. President Duterte and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim have both warned of the radicalization risk. Duterte has talked repeatedly of the importance of correcting ‘historical injustices’ committed to the Moro people, whilst Ebrahim has described the BBL as being of ‘great importance for stability and security in Southeast Asia’. In a November interview with Channel News Asia, the MILF leader said ‘the longer this process takes, the more people are going to be radicalized’. Despite expressing his own frustration over the slow progress being made, Ebrahim has said the MILF remains firmly committed to the peace process and is staunchly opposed to radical groups such as the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf.

President Duterte has extended Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 to crack down on the BIFF and other militant groups active in the region (Image Source: Philippine Government)

Whilst the passage of the BBL may be an important step in quelling the long-running insurgency, it must be noted that previous peace agreements have not succeeded in ending the violence altogether. Despite the creation of the ARMM in 1989 and the signing of separate peace accords with the MNLF in 1996 and the MILF in 2014, several new groups have been spawned and the insurgency has evolved.

At present, it is the BIFF which pose the greatest concern going forward. Radical groups such as the BIFF will remain attractive to those who will never accept autonomy and maintain a desire to see a fully-independent Islamic state created in the southern Philippines. This is especially true for those living in the most impoverished areas of Mindanao, who may feel disenfranchised and excluded from the potential benefits that any political settlement may bring.

As long as the underlying conditions of instability remain present in Mindanao, transnational terror groups such as ISIS and aspiring militants from across the region will seek to take advantage of the situation. These links pose the biggest challenge to the ongoing peace process in the Philippines’ troubled south. Despite efforts on both sides to secure a lasting peace, the spread of ISIS’ global ideology to the region continues to aid recruitment, giving new meaning and impetus to the localized battles fought by formerly little-known militant groups such as the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and now the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

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

Philippines Communist Insurgency: Rhetoric Heats Up as Peace Negotiations Remain Stalled

President Duterte vowed when elected to pursue peace talks with the CPP-NPA, aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-running communist insurgencies (Image Source: PCOO)

This feature was first published on Asian Correspondent.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in May 2016, hopes were raised for a negotiated end to one of Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgencies. On the campaign trail Duterte had vowed, if elected, to enter into ‘inclusive talks’ with rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the once-outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Peace talks did indeed begin in Norway last August, and got off to a positive start with both sides declaring separate ceasefires and agreeing to further rounds of dialogue, which took place in Oslo in October and Rome in January. At the turn of the year, it appeared steady progress was being made.

Yet the peace process crashed to an abrupt halt in early February after a series of armed clashes led both parties to declare their separate ceasefires at an end. Talks were briefly revived in the Netherlands in April, before a fifth round of dialogue scheduled for May was cancelled by Duterte. Since the collapse of the peace process earlier this year, violence has spiralled and deadly attacks have become a frequent occurrence. September saw several high-profile incidents, with NPA rebels killing four government troops in an ambush in Nueva Vizcaya at the start of the month, whilst on 20 September, nine Maoist rebels were slain in a clash with the Philippine army in Carranglan.

After several attempts to restart negotiations failed, rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly heated in recent months. In August, President Duterte declared ‘war’ against the Maoists, stating ‘Let’s stop talking, start fighting’, before describing peace negotiations as a ‘waste of time’. The CPP responded by labelling Duterte’s administration as a ‘semi-colonial, anti-peasant regime’, whilst claiming ‘the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle and collective action’. Amid the escalating war-of-words and with negotiations still stalled, this report examines the reasons why the peace talks faltered and assesses the prospects of future dialogue.

The history of the modern communist movement in the Philippines dates back to 1968 and the founding of the CPP by a former student activist, Jose Maria Sison, who still leads the organization from self-exile in the Netherlands. The party’s armed wing, the NPA, was established a year later with the aim of overthrowing the central government in Manila through a sustained campaign of armed resistance, referred to by the CPP-NPA as a ‘protracted people’s war’. The movement is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and seeks to establish a political system led by the working classes, which would redistribute land to the poor and expel US influence from the Philippines.

The NPA reached the height of its powers in the early-1980s during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when it attracted widespread public support and had more than 25,000 members. In the democratic era, the movement has declined in strength but still retains an operational presence in most provinces across the country, and now has around 4,800 active members. Clashes between NPA rebels and Philippine troops continue to occur sporadically as the insurgency approaches its sixth decade, despite repeated military crackdowns. The NPA remains especially strong in poorer rural areas where it enjoys widespread support and exercises de-facto control through the collection of ‘revolutionary taxes’; payments which Manila describes as extortion.

Peace negotiations have taken place intermittently in past decades between the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a political grouping which represents the CPP-NPA in formal talks – and successive governments led by Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, yet to no avail. The election of Duterte last year signalled renewed hope for peace, and the first round of talks with the NDF in August 2016 produced a landmark result: the declaration of ceasefires by both sides. The commitment held and the parties convened again in Oslo two months later, before a third meeting in Rome this January. Yet at the beginning of February, months of careful diplomacy unravelled in a matter of days, whilst efforts to rekindle negotiations in the following months made little progress. Both sides blamed each other as clashes resumed between the army and rebels, leaving many wondering: why did the talks falter, and how did the ceasefire collapse so quickly?

Since the breakdown of peace negotiations earlier this year, NPA attacks against government troops have occurred more frequently (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

The trigger for the collapse was a result of the peace process reaching a major sticking-point over the release of political prisoners. As the dialogue moved forward, the CPP-NPA had made it clear that the release of imprisoned members was a pre-condition for the continuation of talks, whereas President Duterte maintained he would not release more prisoners until a formal joint ceasefire agreement had been signed. Tensions surrounding the issue were already boiling over before the NPA lifted its unilateral ceasefire on 1 February. Duterte followed-suit two days later after a series of NPA attacks on Philippine troops, immediately terminating the government’s ceasefire and accusing the ‘terrorist’ rebels of ‘wanting another fifty years of war’.

Whilst unsatisfied demands for a prisoner amnesty served as the trigger for the breakdown of talks earlier this year, there are several more deeply-rooted factors which contributed to the failure of dialogue and restrict the chances of ending the insurgency should talks resume.

First, the factional nature of the NPA – with armed units present in almost every province across the Philippines – and a lack of centralized operational leadership, makes it difficult for the largely symbolic figureheads of the CPP and NDF, responsible for negotiating with the government, to control the activities of their fighters. Whilst a ceasefire is imposed from above, realities on the ground make it easy for violent clashes to occur in a local context. This often leads to further attacks and retaliatory violence, dealing a hammer blow to peace talks at the national level.

Second, a lack of trust exists between both sides. This makes progress difficult to sustain as firmly opposed positions have been reinforced over five decades of conflict. For example, as soon as the talks collapsed in February, both the government and CPP-NPA quickly reverted from making careful diplomatic overtures and returned to using divisive language describing each other as the ‘enemy’. As the months have passed, heated rhetoric has replaced the co-operative tones voiced last year, indicating the fragility of progressive dialogue and the difficulty of reversing long-held suspicions.

President Duterte came to power in 2016 promising to negotiate an end to the Philippines’ long-running internal conflicts, yet conditions appear only to have deteriorated. The government is now firefighting on multiple fronts: the army is still battling ISIS-aligned militants in Marawi, whilst at the same time Congress is trying to finalize a long-awaited peace deal with Moro separatist groups. And now, a resurgent communist insurgency is threatening to inflict further bloodshed.

The only way of resolving the conflict without a peace accord being signed is to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, which would undermine recruitment and support for the NPA through improving the livelihoods of the Philippines’ rural poor. This approach alone however would take decades, and without an accompanying peace deal, may not end the violence in its entirety.

To prevent further internal strife, the government and the NPA have a strong imperative to return to the path of negotiation. Duterte is unpredictable, so his declaration that the peace process with the NPA is over does not necessarily signal the end of the road. If there is a lull in rebel attacks and conditions are deemed right, talks may be restarted in the near future.

After five decades of armed resistance, the cycle of conflict will be difficult to break; yet the revival of the peace process represents the only viable path forward. Unless momentum is regained soon, the Philippines’ long-running Maoist insurgency may prove intractable for another generation.