Philippines Terrorism: The Role of Militant Islamic Converts
Asia Report Nº110
19 Dec 2005
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Terrorist alliances in the Philippines are in flux in a way that could affect the peace process between the Arroyo government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF is distancing itself from partnership with the extremist Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), pushing individual JI members increasingly toward the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). MILF members unhappy with concessions by more moderate leaders may seek to join militant alliances. The ASG and JI are working increasingly with the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), militant converts to Islam based in Manila and northern Luzon, who are a vehicle for more experienced terrorist groups to move into the country’s urban heartland. As it pursues peace, the government needs a better security/human rights balance: improved police anti-terrorism capacity but also humane detention and speedier, more transparent prosecution of suspects.
The RSM is the radical fringe of the Balik-Islam movement, literally “return to Islam”. Members call themselves “reverts”, not converts, for two reasons. First, they maintain that all humans are born free of sin into Islam, but, misled by parents or guardians, may be brought up in other traditions. When they revert to Islam, they are cleansed of sin. Secondly, they argue that Islam was the country’s original religion, whose spread was forcibly reversed by Spanish colonial intervention. A powerful symbol of this frustrated destiny is Rajah Solaiman, Muslim overlord of Manila at the time of the Spanish conquest. Filipino workers returning from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are the most important source of adherents for the more ideological forms of activist Balik-Islam.
Ahmed Santos, the RSM leader arrested in October, converted to Islam in 1993, and married into the top ranks of the ASG before RSM was formally established in January 2002, apparently to divert military attention from the Basilan-based ASG. In 2004 and 2005, members of his new group took part in two bombings in the capital region that reflected intertwined relationships between the converts, the ASG who directly handled them, their Indonesian mentors and the MILF commanders who sheltered all three groups.
Several counter-terrorism “successes” have inadvertently deepened the nexus between foreign jihadis, Abu Sayyaf, the RSM, and more militant MILF members. One is pressure on the MILF through its peace talks with the government to stop harbouring foreign terrorists, whether members of JI or other Indonesian groups. This, as noted, has led the foreign fugitives to find other partners. Secondly, pressures ranging from widespread arrests to the collapse of JI’s administrative structure in Mindanao have forced foreigners into far greater direct cooperation with their hosts. Thirdly, the U.S.-Philippine “Balikatan” manoeuvres on Basilan island forced the core of ASG to flee to the Mindanao mainland (by way of Sulu), bringing it into more direct contact with militant MILF commanders seeking new alliances in the face of the moderate Al-Haj Murad’s rise to leadership.
The fate of the peace process remains tied to how counter-terrorism strategies are pursued but is complicated by a number of factors. First, while the ethnically Maguindanaon-controlled leadership of the MILF is willing to act against rogue commanders of the same ethnicity who support and protect foreign terrorists, it is not willing to do the same against ethnic Maranaos, for fear of splitting the movement. Secondly, the steady deterioration of the government’s 1996 agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) may undermine MILF confidence in its own peace process and drive some disaffected members into militant alliances. Thirdly, if MILF moderates are perceived as giving away too much for only limited concessions, militant leaders may break openly with them. Finally, efforts of various militant groups to build a united front strategy, using real and perceived human rights violations by the Philippines government against suspected terrorists as a recruiting argument, may help build a defensive bulwark around those who are actually committing acts of terror.
To the Philippines Government:
1. Exchange and integrate comprehensive databases on persons of interest with other countries in the region; the databases should include full information on cohort and kinship connections and actual or potential antagonisms, so Philippine and Malaysian officials have a keener appreciation of JI and like-minded groups, and Indonesians and Malaysians know enough about the MILF and ASG to ask jihadi detainees the right questions.
2. Craft carefully, in consultation with civil liberties experts, an anti-terrorism law that, to reduce well-founded fears of abuse, contains safeguards such as:
a) limits on pre-trial detention;
b) regular judicial review of individual cases; and
c) guarantees of access to legal counsel.
3. Provide for a single national identification system to facilitate law enforcement efforts to identify and track suspects.
4. Accelerate the judicial process in Philippine terrorism cases, ensure that trials are transparent and evidence is made public, and bring Ahmad Faisal, alias Zulkifli, and Ahmed Santos to trial as matters of priority.
5. Expand the mandate of the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) to cover MILF and MNLF personnel in collusion with identified terrorist groups or individuals, and require MILF to provide a full accounting of disciplinary action taken against commanders with proven terror ties as well as its own list of terrorism suspects.
6. Create a new senior cabinet-level position in the Philippines overseeing the peace process, empowered to liaise and build consensus with key stakeholders in Congress, the security forces, local politicians and civil society groups, and to manage a full-time, permanent peace panel with enhanced diplomatic status.
Jakarta/Brussels, 19 December 2005