By Fernando Cabigao Jr

THE PHILIPPINE south has seen countless Moro separatist movements formed throughout many administrations. In truth, the history of insurgency among Moros dates back to Spanish rule.

The goal of the Muslim separatist groups is to establish “Bangsamoro,” literally translated into “Moro nation,” an Islamic state and government that is independent from the Philippine government.

Probably the most known Muslim separatist groups in the country are the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

MNLF is the mother group of ASG and MILF while BIFF is a breakaway faction of MILF. MNLF, however, is not the oldest known separatist group in the country. One Moro separatist group that precedes MNLF is the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM).

THE FIRST BATTLE OF BUD DAJO. American troops pose for the camera after the massacre of more than 1,000 Filipino Muslims who took refuge in Bud Dajo, a volcanic crater on the island of Jolo | Photo from the US National Archives

THE FIRST BATTLE OF BUD DAJO. American troops pose for the camera after the massacre of more than 1,000 Filipino Muslims who took refuge in Bud Dajo, a volcanic crater on the island of Jolo | Photo from the US National Archives


Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM)

The massacre of 64 Muslim trainees of the Philippine Army on March 18, 1968, upon the order of senior army officers, triggered the formation of MIM. The trainees were executed after backing out of a mission to invade Sabah. The commando group that was supposed to invade Sabah was named “Jabidah.” Thus, the execution of the 64 Muslim trainees was referred to as the “Jabidah Massacre.”

About two months after the massacre, the MIM was formed by former Cotabato governor Datu Udtog Matalam. It declared the establishment of an Islamic state in Mindanao and Sulu.

In her 2013 dissertation, “The Liberation Movements in Mindanao: Root Causes ad Prospects for Peace,” Marjanie Salic Macasalong writes that the MIM manifesto cited the “systematic extermination” of the Muslim youth as seen in the Jabidah massacre and the “policy of isolation and dispersal” of the Muslim communities as some of the reasons for MIM’s separation from the rest of the Philippines.

The MIM also formed its own military unit called the “Blackshirts,” which was composed of young Moros who had undergone training in the Middle East and nearby Muslim countries. The Blackshirts fought against the ILAGA (Ilonggo Land Grabbers’ Association), group of militant Christian settlers who grabbed lands from the Moros through “force and killings.”

MIM did not last long, however. After reportedly meeting with then President Ferdinand E. Marcos, Matalam yielded to the Philippine government.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)

MNLF flag

MNLF flag

In 1969, University of the Philippines Professor Nur Misuari, along with other Moros, formed the MNLF. Three years later, MNLF was officially established.

According to Andrew T. H. Tan’s A Handbook of Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia, the secular ideology of MNLF was traced to Misuari’s left-leaning ideology. Yet while MNLF does not embrace Islamic fundamentalism, Tan wrote, but it “religiously adheres to the concept of Moro nationalism.”

On Dec. 23, 1976, MNLF and the Philippine government signed an agreement in Tripoli, Libya that gave full autonomy to 13 provinces and nine cities in Mindanao. But what became known as the “Tripoli Agreement” did not push through.

In 1977, MNLF was granted an observer status as a non-state actor by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC recognized MNLF as the sole legitimate international representative of Filipino Muslims. MNLF reportedly received financial support from OIC members such as Iran, Libya, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia.

Macasalong writes that in 1973 to 1974, MNLF was reported to have at least 15,000 armed personnel. By 1975, that number had doubled to 30,000. MNLF also garnered support from half of the Moro population in Mindanao.

Yet by 1994, MNLF’s combatants were estimated to have dwindled to 14,000, according to Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines by Soliman Santos, Paz M. Santos, and Octavio Dinampo. By 2010, MNLF’s fighting force had decreased further to 5,800 members. By then the organization had broken up into at least three factions.

In 1986, then President Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino had met with Misuari to discuss the resumption of talks with MNLF. This meeting led to the Jeddah Accord on February 3, 1987 that aimed to discuss the granting of full autonomy to Mindanao, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Palawan subject to democratic processes.

On Aug. 1, 1989, President Cory Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. (R.A.) 6734, which created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). In a plebiscite, only the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi opted to join the newly created ARMM.

On Aug. 14, 2001, during a plebiscite for R.A. 9054, which amended R.A. 6734, the province of Basilan and the City of Marawi joined the ARMM region.

On Sept. 2, 1996, the Ramos administration signed the final peace agreement with the MNLF to implement the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. Misuari became ARMM’s third governor, a position he held until 2001. Parouk Hussin, part of the so-called Council of 15 within MNLF, succeeded Misuari as ARMM Governor, and remained as such until 2005.

Misuari, however, was supposedly so bitter over losing his gubernatorial post that he led a mutiny in Jolo in the runup to the 2001 ARMM elections. The escapade, which left some 100 people dead, earned Misuari years of incarceration in a police compound in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. He was released in 2008.

MNLF operates in Basilan, Davao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, North Cotabato, Saranggani, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and in the Zamboanga peninsula. The organization remains divided, with one faction still headed by Misuari.

It is the Misuari group that is believed to have been involved in the September 2013 siege in Zamboanga City that lasted for three weeks. The incident left nearly 250 dead, including 200 MNLF fighters, 20 government soldiers, five policemen, and 12 civilians.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)

MILF flag

MILF flag

MILF is s breakaway group of the MNLF. It was formed in 1984 when Salamat Hashim, then MNLF vice chairman and the chairman for foreign affairs, accused the MNLF leadership of straying from its Islamic basis, methodologies, and objectives and instead evolving toward a Marxist-Maoist orientation.

The breakaway group thus distinguished itself from MNLF by assuming the name “Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” emphasizing Islam as the basis for all its affairs and activities.

In July 2008, MILF and government representatives announced that they had reached an agreement. In its October 14, 2008 decision, however, the Supreme Court declared the proposed memorandum of agreement between MILF and the Philippine government as unconstitutional.

After Benigno ‘Noynoy’ S. Aquino III became President in 2010, the government and MILF began to work again on a peace pact. On March 27, 2014, the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), the final peace agreement between the two parties, was signed. The bill on the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which will create the Bangsamoro entity, is still under Congress’s scrutiny. But the passage of BBL is now in peril because of strong public outrage over the death of 44 Special Action Force (SAF) officers in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last month.

The SAF had been in pursuit of two terrorists, one of whom they managed to kill. The SAF, however, ended up exchanging gunfire with members of MILF and BIFF. Aside from SAF officers, the dead included MILF and BIFF members, as well as civilians.

Stanford University’s “Mapping Militant Organizations” website says that in 1998, MILF had around 90,000 members, based on data from MILF’s Luwaran newsletter. By 2008, however, MILF had just around 15,000 fighters.

MILF Founding Chairman Salamat Hashim

MILF Founding Chairman Salamat Hashim

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)

What would become known as BIFF broke from MILF in December 2010. Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, former commander of the MILF’s 105th Base Command, refused to accept the MILF leadership’s talks with the government toward autonomy instead of independence.

A November 2013 article posted on the U.S.-based Combating Terrorism Center website estimates BIFF to have around 300 fighters, which is far from Kato’s claim of 5,000. BIFF operates in areas under the MILF. The article, however, notes that despite its small size, BIFF has not shirked from engaging the Philippine armed forces, citing as an example a weeks-long clash with the Army in late 2012 in Maguindanao that resulted in the temporary displacement of nearly 40,000 people.

In February 2014, the Philippine Army launched a weeklong offensive called “Operation Darkhorse” against BIFF to reduce its capabilities to launch attacks in Central Mindanao. During the operation, the army seized four BIFF camps and a makeshift explosives factory in Maguindanao. A total of 52 BIFF fighters and one soldier died from the fighting.

Abu Sayyaf Group

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is the most radical and violent among the Moro separatist groups in southern Philippines. It is included in the list of terrorist groups of the United States National Counterterrorism Center.

ASG broke from MNLF in the early 1990s. Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who was one those who lost confidence in the MNLF leadership, founded the fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf in 1991. The group reportedly has links with terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and Al-Qaeda.

In his “four basic truths” about the ASG, Janjalani explained that the group aims to serve as a bridge and balance between MILF and MNLF. During Janjalani’s leadership, the ASG’s goal was the establishment of purely Islamic government.

After Janjalani’s death in December 2008, his brother Khadaffy Janjalani took over as head of ASG. The group was less stable under Khadaffy Janjalani, but it became even more fragmented following his death in 2006. According to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group has about 400 fighters.

ASG operates mainly in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. It has become notorious for kidnapping foreigners and locals alike, including medical personnel and teachers, as well as for bombings, assassinations, and extortion.

Under the present administration, the group has had several encounters with government forces, including one on July 28, 2011 in Sulu that claimed the lives of seven marines, five of whom were beheaded. An encounter on Oct. 18, 2011 in Al-Barka, Basilan left 19 soldiers dead, while another on July 26, 2012 in Sumisip, Basilan also killed 19 soldiers.

In February 2013, the MNLF attacked the ASG in Sulu which led to the death of more than 20 combatants. The clash happened after the release of two Filipinos held hostage by the ASG. – PCIJ, March 2015

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