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Philippines Terrorism: The Role of Militant Islamic Converts
Philippines Terrorism: The Role of Militant Islamic Converts
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Philippines: Three More Years for the Bangsamoro Transition
The Philippines: Three More Years for the Bangsamoro Transition
Report 110 / Asia

Philippines Terrorism: The Role of Militant Islamic Converts

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).

Executive Summary

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.

Jakarta/Brussels, 19 December 2005

People of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region stage a peace convoy event to support the campaign to extend the term of the transition government in the region to 2025, Philippines on 21 March 2021. Benyamen Cabuntalan/Anadolu Agency via AFP
Q&A / Asia

The Philippines: Three More Years for the Bangsamoro Transition

President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a bill doubling the length of the political transition in the new autonomous entity in the southern Philippines. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Georgi Engelbrecht explains why the extension is welcome news.

What happened and why is it important?

On 28 October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a bill postponing the first parliamentary elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) from 2022 to 2025, thereby extending the political transition in the region for another three years.

The law amends Philippine Republic Act No. 11054, better known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law, that had formally created the new autonomous entity in the southern Philippines in early 2019, providing for a three-year interim period before holding the BARMM’s first parliamentary elections that would formally mark the end of the transition. Postponing the vote is tantamount to extending the term of the region’s caretaker government, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA, which combines both executive and legislative functions), until 2025, as the Organic Law stipulates that parliamentary polls in the region must be synchronised with national elections that take place every three years. The bill underwent intense deliberation and scrutiny in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the two chambers of the Philippine Congress, before lawmakers passed it and submitted it to the president.

The extension is the latest chapter in a bumpy yet overall promising peace process that aims to resolve the decades-long conflict in the country’s southern island of Mindanao. Pitching the Philippine government against various Moro secessionist groups, the war has killed at least 120,000 people. In 2014, twenty years of on-and-off negotiations culminated in a peace deal between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Mindanao’s largest insurgent group. The ex-rebels now run the transitional government, tasked with creating the new region’s institutions and drafting key legislation – the “priority codes”, as they are known – to govern the autonomous Bangsamoro. When the peace agreement was still being negotiated, the MILF had first proposed a six-year transition, arguing that a shorter timeframe would be insufficient to bring genuine change to the region after decades of war. The group later agreed to a compromise on three years. Over the last year, however, the MILF actively lobbied for extending the transition period, largely on account of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact in implementing the original roadmap.

While there were no immediate reactions to the presidential sign-off, the bill’s passage in Parliament clearly brought a sense of relief to the former rebels of the MILF and other BTA representatives, including members of the Moro National Liberation Front, the very first Moro rebel movement from which the MILF split in 1977. Many Bangsamoro communities, particularly those supporting the MILF, had reacted with similar enthusiasm to the prospects for extension; others were more lukewarm, expressing frustration with the implementation of the peace process. International actors – for example, UN officials who were sympathetic but not explicitly in favour of the extension – also released messages of support.

What is the rationale for extending the transition period?

The MILF’s campaign for an extension ... gained traction among national policymakers.

The decision is largely linked to the impact COVID-19 has had on the regional government’s capacity to implement the roadmap leading up to the elections. MILF leaders started advocating for a longer transition period toward the end of 2020, after a local peace advocacy group, the Mindanao Peoples Caucus, recommended postponing the elections in a “mid-term assessment” of the political transition. The non-governmental organisation cited the BTA’s inevitable birthing pains as one reason to give it more time, but also drew public attention to the challenges the pandemic had created. Indeed, the former rebels running the interim government had to put aside their institution-building in order to spearhead relief operations in the region while dealing with periodic lockdowns and steering a less operational Bangsamoro Parliament. The MILF’s campaign for an extension eventually gained traction among national policymakers.

Another part of the rationale for extending the transition was the absence of an electoral framework to guide parliamentary polls in the new autonomous region. The responsibility for designing and passing an “electoral code” to put in place the “parliamentary style of government” that the 2014 peace deal foresaw for the Bangsamoro lies with the interim government. At present, however, only a draft of the code exists – a major hurdle considering that this document is meant not only to lay out the election procedure, but also to delineate parliamentary constituencies. The delay is at least partly due to the pandemic, as the BTA had to reduce the number of parliamentary sessions to discuss the legislation, and had even fewer opportunities to consult communities and local officials in the region due to travel restrictions. Some observers, however, opine that as the party leading the BTA and tasked with the code’s drafting, the MILF might have had an inherent interest in dragging out the process, since extending the transition period means they now have another three years before facing voters for the first time. While that is difficult to corroborate, the fact remains that electing 80 parliamentarians without clear guidelines would have proven challenging.

Why has the proposal been controversial?

The decision on whether or not to extend the transition has generated intense debate both in Mindanao and in Manila throughout 2021. Some critics argued that the MILF’s bid to postpone elections was driven by self-interest and would undermine democratic development in the Bangsamoro, highlighting that the move would result in another three years without “a popular mandate” since existing BTA members were appointed (by the president), not elected. Lawmakers who voted against the extension bill in Congress picked up this line of reasoning, even suggesting that the region hold a plebiscite on a potential extension.

More generally, the controversy stemmed from the Bangsamoro’s complex ethnic and political landscape. The region is a fragmented entity comprising non-contiguous provinces, a variety of ethno-linguistic groups, and a plethora of clans and guerrilla outfits. Kinship ties and Islam often bind diverse communities. But they also bring about loyalties to different movements, of which the MILF is the largest but hardly the only one. The ex-rebels are influential in central Mindanao among the Maguindanao and Maranao communities, but less so in the island provinces of the Sulu archipelago, a historical bastion of Moro nationalism populated by the Tausug ethnic group. Other areas are dominated by political clans. Finding consensus on any political issue in such a jumbled environment is by definition an arduous task; doing so on one as important as the final stretch of the peace process, even more so. Militant groups still active in the region have also tried to discredit the former rebels by attacking their religious credentials.

In this highly factious polity, the MILF campaigned hard to try to build a consensus, win public support and lobby for the proposal in Manila. Many non-MILF members of the BTA, including Moro National Liberation Front representatives, were already convinced of the need to extend the transition period, which gave the MILF campaign an added layer of legitimacy. In addition, among powerful Bangsamoro clans, the governors of the provinces of Tawi-Tawi (led by the Sali clan) and Lanao del Sur (led by the Alonto-Adiongs) were relatively consistent in supporting the bid, while the MILF’s outreach managed to sway other clan leaders. Perhaps even more decisive was the support of another veteran Moro lawmaker, one of Maguindanao’s congressional representatives, Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu. The former provincial governor, who remains highly influential in Maguindanao province, sponsored the extension bill in the House of Representatives, promoting and defending it during interpellations until it passed.

The former guerrillas’ campaigning faced opposition from other influential local politicians across the region, however. One of the extension’s fiercest opponents was Abdusakur Tan, governor of Sulu province and a long-time critic of the MILF, who had campaigned against creating the BARMM in the past and strongly opposed resetting the 2022 parliamentary elections. Speaking on behalf of the Tausug ethno-linguistic group, Tan repeatedly criticised the interim government and its track record on the grounds that BARMM was neither inclusive nor “felt” by his people. Another sceptic was Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, the outspoken mayor of Cotabato City, BARMM’s seat of government, who argued that seeking extension was the MILF’s poor excuse for its weak performance at the government’s helm.

The Philippine government ... has ... been quite supportive of the MILF’s plea for a longer transition period.

The Philippine government, including the security establishment, has on the other hand been quite supportive of the MILF’s plea for a longer transition period. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, for example, personally endorsed the proposal. President Duterte has been more ambivalent. While he backed the call for an extension at first, he appeared to have second thoughts after influential Moro politicians visited Manila several times in early 2021, articulating their concerns about the BARMM’s “governance issues”. The president’s hesitation was also likely the result of conflicting legal opinions, with his advisers providing contradictory views regarding the need for a plebiscite to postpone elections. It is also plausible that Duterte was hedging his bets in the run-up to the 2022 presidential election: as the president’s party faces an uncertain political future with Duterte barred from running for a second term, ties to local Bangsamoro powerbrokers are vital in securing votes. Whatever the case, Duterte’s spokesperson emphasised that the president would remain “neutral” and leave the decision in the hands of Congress. The president also resisted a last-minute attempt by Moro elites opposing the extension to convince him to veto the bill.

What are the implications for the Bangsamoro peace process?

Resetting the elections and thereby doubling the transition period’s length should bring welcome breathing space to the new autonomous region after months of political uncertainty. Even if the decision is not a perfect solution and could have come earlier, it gives much needed time to the BTA to complete its roadmap, avoiding a hasty election in a fractured political landscape. The BARMM’s Chief Minister and MILF Chairperson Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Balawag Ebrahim promised that all Bangsamoro people “stand to benefit” from the extension, stressing the MILF’s aim to be inclusive.

Three more years should allow the MILF-led interim government to further strengthen institutions, pass key legislations that are still in the pipeline and develop a capable bureaucracy with better-trained civil servants, thereby ensuring the BARMM does not become another “failed experiment” like its predecessor, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which was created in 1989 but proved unable to bring lasting peace and development to the region. Delaying parliamentary elections should also enable a more mature political scene in the new autonomous region. Indeed, all the BARMM’s nascent political parties, including the MILF’s United Bangsamoro Justice Party, will benefit from extra time to boost their capacities and better articulate their political vision.

The extended transition period ... gives the central government and the MILF an opportunity to address some of the most urgent challenges in the peace process.

The extended transition period also gives the central government and the MILF an opportunity to address some of the most urgent challenges in the peace process, including disarming former rebels and ensuring the socio-economic development of war-torn areas in Mindanao. Referred to as “normalisation”, this aspect of the peace process is not directly linked to the political transition, but the vision of the 2014 peace agreement foresaw both tracks running in parallel. The holistic approach has been meandering as of late, however, with many projects falling behind schedule, and the pandemic diverting funds from the central government toward combating COVID-19. Manila and the ex-rebels also need to resolve misunderstandings about the compensation package for former fighters and technical details on the decommissioning process. Recent efforts of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process to secure more funding are a welcome step in this regard, but given the high expectations for a peace dividend among the Bangsamoro population, both Manila and the MILF need to redouble their efforts. More time should be a powerful impulse to invigorate the process. The extension should not result in complacency, however, as slow implementation of both tracks might again nurture disillusionment and breed discontent in the Bangsamoro population.

Finally, a longer transition period could help the autonomous region in decisively asserting itself as a source of stability by curbing ongoing violence in pockets of the Bangsamoro. Communal conflicts over land and clan feuds, known as rido, have plagued the region for decades. Bangsamoro ministries are trying to tackle the challenge, but more time could allow them to develop more systematic approaches in addressing clan violence. Similarly, the interim government needs to confront the challenge of armed groups still operating outside the peace process. Jihadists and other militants that favour a violent solution to the region’s ills are on the retreat, but could quickly tap frustration among civilians and disgruntled MILF fighters alike should the BARMM not live up to expectations.

What happens next?

In the immediate term, perhaps nothing too significant. COVID-19 permitting, the Bangsamoro Parliament will continue its regular sessions while the MILF-led interim administration will carry on with day-to-day governance, focusing on pandemic relief (with infections once again surging) and moving ahead with deliberations on the priority codes.

More broadly, the extension raises the status and political capital of the MILF. But the former rebels still have the arduous task of building trust and legitimacy, especially among those who opposed the extension. While the parliamentary elections stand postponed, local elections – which are held countrywide – for gubernatorial and mayoral posts will go ahead as planned in 2022. Some of the region’s political clans have already reached out to the MILF for support, with the MILF backing their candidacies. But whether the MILF can fully bridge the gap created by the extension debate remains to be seen. Some consider its endorsement of candidates to be premature or even counterproductive.

The tense political climate resulting from the heated extension debate has also raised concerns about the peacefulness of the 2022 polls, following a number of violent incidents in the last weeks. Aware of the rifts between the MILF and some of the Bangsamoro clans, Duterte hosted a meeting of the two sides a few days before he enacted the extension bill, proposing a peace covenant to be signed between the parties at a later stage. This pact, if it materialises, would oblige all parties to abstain from violence in the 2022 Bangsamoro local elections.

With the current BTA members ending their term in 2022, a crucial development to watch for is whether Duterte will take the initiative to reappoint members of the Bangsamoro Parliament. Prior versions of the extension bill left the task up to Duterte’s successor. But according to available information, the final text stipulates that the current president “may appoint the eighty new interim members of the BTA who shall serve up to 30 June 2025 or until their successors shall have been elected and qualified”. Whether the Philippines’ first-ever president to hail from Mindanao will use this prerogative remains unclear, but it provides him with an opportunity to influence politics in his home region even beyond his term.