MANILA, Philippines – The country's top terrorist leaders – linked with Islamic State (ISIS), Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute – are dead, along with nearly a thousand militants in Marawi and nearby areas. But the government claims the "remnant groups" are capable of invading other areas to establish a wilayat or an Islamic caliphate and the military cannot address the threat without its martial law powers.
In his letter asking Congress to extend martial law for another 12 months, President Rodrigo Duterte said the primary threat comes from armed groups linked with international terrorist network Daesh or ISIS although he also named the communist New People's Army as new targets of the proposed martial law extension.
But Duterte singled out one armed group in his letter painting the dire situation in Mindanao. A faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) led by a relatively unknown leader – Esmail Sheikh Abdulmalik – who goes by the nickname "Commander Turaifie."
No other terrorist was named in the letter.
If Duterte is to be believed, Turaifie is a possible successor of Hapilon himself as the top leader of ISIS in the entire Southeast Asia, presumably the one who can unite the remnant groups.
"The Turaifie Group has likewise been monitored to be planning to conduct bombings, notably targeting the Cotabato area. Turaifie is said to be Hapilon's potential successor as Amir of Daesh Wilayat in the Philippines and Southeast Asia," Duterte said in his letter.
But Turaifie appears to be a low-level operative, based on Rappler interviews. He is also believed to be operating only in Maguindanao although there is concern he can "grow big" if he is able to recruit the populace who are increasingly becoming disillusioned with the peace process.
Turaifie drew government attention in April 2017 – just a month before the Marawi siege – after he posted a video of himself pledging allegiance to ISIS.
It appears it was the primary reason the military, and even the police, took notice. They refer to his faction as the ISIS group within the BIFF.
Turaifie is a former commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) but a source privy to the organization told Rappler "he wasn't high-ranking."
"Hindi naman kalakasan si Turaifie," said one officer based in Central Mindanao.
The Turaifie Group also suffered heavy casualties in recent military campaigns. It has since been weakened, according to Rappler interviewees. It is now reduced to, according to an officer's description, a "strike-and-hide" group.
It was the target of at least two military air strike operations in North Cotabato in November.
Turaifie has reportedly formed a new group, the Jamaatul Mujahideen Wal Ansar, but the military considers it as one the factions of BIFF.
But Turaifie's group isn't the bigger problem in Central Mindanao as far as the military is concerned. It's the another BIFF faction led by Esmail Abubakar or "Commander Bungos."
"Mas extreme si Commander Bungos. Sila talaga yung gumagawa ng pag-atake sa detachment (Commander Bungos is more extreme. It's his group that's behind attacks on detachments)," a military officer said.
Military officers in Western Mindanao told Rappler in previous interviews it's Bungos they were afraid could attack nearby Cotabato City to replicate the Marawi siege.
After Marawi, the military has been watching the city as a possible target of ISIS-linked groups. There are concerns about the recruitment of residents to carry on what ISIS wanted in Marawi – an Islamic caliphate – but the military leadership has not confirmed this.
BIFF and the peace talks
The BIFF was formed after the collapse of the peace talks with the Arroyo administration in 2008. Turaifie is among those who joined the late Ameril Umbra Kato after they were disillusioned with the government.
When peace talks with the MILF resumed under the Aquino administration, the military knew it had to eliminate the BIFF as the main threat to the talks. The group was weakened but proved resilient. It's notorious for the spate of roadside bombing incidents that targeted government troops.
The BIFF also coddled foreign terrorists like Zulkifli bin Hir or Marwan, who was killed in a tragic 2015 police raid that killed 44 elite cops. The backlash from the botched police operation resulted in a crackdown on the BIFF, killing its high-profile members like Abdul Basit Usman.
Kato's death a few months left the group further weaker and factionalized.
BIFF members continue to recruit former colleagues from the MILF, however, capitalizing on growing disillusionment among its members because of the continued delay in the implementation of a peace agreement that will create the Bangsamoro region. – Rappler.com