MILF and terrorism: Hypocrisy, lies, truth

Maria A. Ressa
For now, it remains an agreement to agree – a philosophical framework that will require much work to turn into reality. It marks another stage in the evolution of the MILF.

Maria RessaFor nearly a decade, both the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were at best hypocritical – at worst, lying – about the MILF’s links to terrorism and al-Qaeda.

The MILF admits it had a close working relationship with Muslims in the global diaspora who would later become notorious as terrorists – from al-Qaeda to its arm in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The relationship began before either al-Qaeda nor JI was even formed – in bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where for a time there was a special “Moro” sub-brigade.

“Our situation is similar to the United States in Afghanistan,” MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told me last year. “The Americans and Osama bin Laden, they were friends. They were siding with each other when the Russians were invading Afghanistan. They were even sharing the same troops, see? In other words, sometimes you cannot choose your friends.”

The man who powered these links and began sending Filipino fighters to Afghanistan in 1980 was the MILF’s founding chairman Salamat Hashim. When he died in 2003, then military chief Murad Ebrahim took over as its leader until today. Murad said he met bin Laden.

“I met him personally in Afghanistan,” Murad said in 2006. “We have our people in Afghanistan fighting side by side with the Afghan Mujahideen at that time because we are all over the world – the Muslim countries contributed some people to join the fighting in Afghanistan.”

By the mid-1990’s, the MILF allowed al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups to train and set up camps in the Philippines. That cemented the relationship that began in Afghanistan. Aside from JI and al-Qaeda, there were others: Iran’s Hezbollah used the same networks as al-Qaeda to funnel money, create front organizations and recruit people for its plots.

Murad admits the MILF received funding from bin Laden. “He has been coordinating with us his activities,” said Murad. “He was helping the depressed communities. So we welcome this because it’s in the name of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO)” – an NGO set up by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa.  

In 2006, the United States identified Khalifa as a senior al-Qaeda leader and froze the funds of IIRO in Indonesia and the Philippines, saying these bankrolled al-Qaeda’s network in Southeast Asia. The US was finally able to do this because a year earlier, the MILF effectively severed ties with terrorist groups.

The year 2005 was pivotal. By that point, JI had helped regenerate the terrorist foundations of the Abu Sayyaf and broker an arrangement which brought the group to central Mindanao in MILF camps. JI also helped link the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), led by Christian convert Ahmed Santos, with the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF, partly using the networks laid down in the mid-1990’s by al-Qaeda. The ceasefire with the MILF was holding, but the pressure to sever its links to terrorism was increasing.

In June 2005, JI leaders Dulmatin, Umar Patek, the top commanders of the Abu Sayyaf and Ahmed Santos from RSM were at the camp of the MILF’s 105th base command led by Ameril Umra Kato. That was when the MILF made its decision.
 
Santos wrote in his diary dated June 27, 2005: “It was around 7 in the morning. A letter addressed to Al-Harakatul al-Islamiyah [the formal name of Abu Sayyaf] was handed over from Chief of Staff Sammy Al-Mansoor of MILF Central Committee. The Mujahideens were forced to immediately leave the place, and an ultimatum of 3 days was given.”

Santos’ diary gives a long account of how he felt betrayed by the MILF and the hard journey that he, along with members of the Abu Sayyaf and JI, faced in finding their way back to Jolo. Little had been written about it publicly, partly because it was tricky: if the MILF publicly says it kicked them out, then it would have to admit they were there in the first place.

The MILF leadership maintains it was only complying with the terms of the ceasefire and the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG). “The military was very persistent in saying that there are JI and Abu Sayyaf militants here,” said Iqbal, MILF’s chief negotiator. “So to comply with the requirements of the AHJAG and the ceasefire, we made an arrangement with the International Monitoring Team that our entire combat forces in the area were withdrawn and then allowed the Armed Forces of the Philippines to come in and interdict and isolate or probably kill the Abu Sayyaf.”

Understanding with the NPA

Iqbal admits the MILF had an “understanding” with the communist New People’s Army.  He said the MILF chose them over the Abu Sayyaf.  “The Abu Sayyaf has no political agenda,” said Iqbal. “We have a political agenda, and we have to follow the rules of engagement of both international law and Islamic law.”

For nearly a decade, the MILF kept the JI card, its special operations group and links to the Abu Sayyaf as options – but kept far enough away for plausible deniability. Revolutionary groups and guerrilla armies around the world use tactics like this to level the playing field against larger and better armed forces of government. The problem, of course, is that the world changed after 9/11 and these links began to damage the cause of the revolutionary MILF.  If it wanted to stay legitimate, it needed to act – and it did in 2005.

That decision in 2005 still creates ripples today. In 2011, Umra Kato, the MILF commander who sheltered the Abu Sayyaf, RSM & JI leaders, broke away from the MILF and formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement. As expected, the group is against any peace deal.

On Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, rebel leader Murad Ebrahim set foot for the first time in the Philippines’ seat of power, Malacañang Palace. He signed a landmark framework agreement that recognizes an area called the Bangsamoro, a recognition of his people’s identity. It replaces the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which both sides agree has failed.

For now, it remains an agreement to agree – a philosophical framework that will require much work to turn into reality. It marks another stage in the evolution of the MILF. – Rappler.com

With excerpts from Maria Ressa‘s latest book, “10 Days, 10 Years: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK.”

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.