The Philippines: The Next Safe Haven for Terrorism

Just as the Taliban’s association with Al Qaeda provided a safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan, the relationship between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has the potential to create many of the same difficulties on the Philippine island of Central Mindanao.

Recently, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process urged the Philippine Congress to approve the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. Secretary Teresita Quintos-Deles stated:

“[The] process can help us arrest the spread of extremism around the globe by showing clearly that an Islamic movement can address its grievances and pursue its interests through a legitimate mode of democratic political engagement.”

Although the advisory board believes the law is a model that can be implemented globally, in reality, the Philippine’s history of appeasing Muslim secessionists has demonstrated that a repeated capitulation to insurgent groups breeds more violent factions and further demands for autonomy.

In response to the recent terror attacks in Indonesia, Filipino President Benigno Aquino III claimed there is no “imminent, credible” terrorist threat in the Philippines. Those statements came on the same day two men wearing Islamic State insignia were killed in the historically violent and insurgent-laden area of the Southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The fighting occurred in the province of Lanao del Sur, an area that currently falls in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and has been described as “a dysfunctional system of governance that empowers despotic warlords and permits criminals and extremists to wreak havoc in the Philippines and beyond.”

Ironically, the ARMM was created in response to almost two decades of intense conflict between the Government of The Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) — headed by Nur Misuari. After the MNLF entered into the ARMM agreement with the government, several militant groups have since broken away from the MNLF — most notably is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Hashim Salamat founded the MILF in 1984 and viewed the ARMM agreement as a compromise. Unlike the MNLF, which was dominated by “secular ethno-nationalists,” Salamat was educated in Egypt and drew inspiration from the Islamic scholars Qutb and Mawdudi — both known for their rejection of secular nationalism. Violence between the GPH and the MILF lasted for three decades.

In 2000, President Joseph Estrada launched an “all-out-war” campaign against the MILF. Fourteen years later, however, the government signed yet another peace agreement that would see the formation of a new autonomous region known as Bangsamoro — replacing the ARMM.

A timeline summary of the Islamic Insurgencies and terrorist groups operating in Central Mindanao. (Anthony DeChristopher)
A timeline summary of the Islamic Insurgencies and terrorist groups operating in Central Mindanao. (Anthony DeChristopher)

In response to the Bangsamoro arrangement, MNLF chief Nur Misuari, declared the formation of the United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik and led 100 MNLF fighters on a 23-day siege of Zamboanga City in 2013. Furthermore, in January 2015, the Philippine police’s Special Action Force conducted a surprise raid in Central Mindanao targeting a Malaysian bomb maker known as Marwan. Although Marwan was killed, the disastrous raid resulted in 44 special forces members killed while engaging in firefights with both his security detail and MILF fighters — thus ending a three-year ceasefire with the MILF. Suffice to say, there is still a long road ahead to resolving many pervading grievances.

Unfortunately for the government, these grievances are in addition to contending with the most recent group to assume the mantle as the primary insurgency in the Philippines — the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). The group’s stated goal is to establish an Islamic state governed by strict Shariah laws. Before his death in April 2015, BIFF founder Ameril Umbra Kato made similar condemnations against what he claimed was a compromise by the MILF. The Aquino administration has repeatedly condemned BIFF violence. Unfortunately, the government’s history of accommodating insurgencies has all but nullified this type of familiar rhetoric.

The most disturbing result of this Filipino policy has been the transformation of Central Mindanao into a safe-haven for members of various terrorist organizations. Since the 1990’s, the Abu Sayaff Group and Jemaah Islamiyah have facilitated the supply of weapons and IED-making materials into MILF-controlled territory. From 2013 to the present, Central Mindanao has seen the rise of the Black Flag Movement with groups like Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao and Ansar Khalifa Philippines. Most of these groups have since declared allegiance to the Islamic State — a trend that Asia Foundation’s Steven Rood believes “hints at transnational links between Southeast Asian militant groups.”

Contrary to the claims made by Secretary Deles, the Bangsamoro Basic Law is not ready to be implemented “globally” or “help curb the growing threat of religious extremism.” The government’s policy of acceding to insurgents is a case study in failed counter-insurgency. The precedent the government established with the MNLF has ensured future insurgencies that the government is willing to both negotiate and give political legitimacy to an organized group of Islamic insurgents. These concessions will undoubtedly serve as motivation for current and future insurgencies, and a commitment to this failed policy has the potential to transform Central Mindanao into the de facto clearinghouse for South East Asian terrorists.

Feature Image: AP

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