Dealing with MILF: It's knowledge, not intelligence

For all the anger over the death of 44 Special Action Force commandos on one side, and the sober appeals at the other end, we chose to sidestep one elementary fact for us to better understand the context of the MILF-BIFF alliance at the January 25 encounter: we really know very little about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  

A quick search of the best historical studies on this resilient organization only yields a few. There are sections in the now out-of-print book by Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria, Under the Crescent Moon that detail its origins as a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Anthropologist Thomas McKenna’s Muslim Rulers and Rebels gives us some insight into the role played by imams in the reorientation of the separatist movement and a glimpse on why ordinary Maguindanaos joined the rebellion. 

Local and non-local “security specialists” release short briefs on the organization, but these should not be taken seriously given their inability to do independent fieldwork and their laziness to anchor their assertions on historical fact. Their statements look very quaint on TV talk shows or the occasional Rappler piece, but they should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

And forget the pundits.

What we truly know about the MILF is extremely thin. And this accounts for several questions and contradictions that – until today – remain unanswered. A couple is worth citing here.

There is some information on the political biography of the late MILF chairman Salamat Hashim, but beyond some general information there is hardly anything about this Cairo-educated Maguindanao scholar. Thus, the puzzle as to why Salamat wrote a letter to George W. Bush, the most hated president in the Muslim world, to mediate in the peace talks in 1996 remains unexplained.

Of the MILF Central Committee and its prominent leaders Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim, the scholar Mohagher Iqbal and their ex-comrade Eid Kabalu, we know nothing about: where they were born, where they got their education, how they ended up in the Middle East, or did they fight in Afghanistan, etc. I doubt if many of us have read Iqbal’s two works, Bangsamoro: A Nation Under Endless Tyranny and The Long Road to Peace (written under the pseudonym Salah Jubair), for if we did we could have gained some insight on how the MILF views the world and its struggle.

Our relative ignorance extends even to the organization itself. Yes, we know the MILF already had differences with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as early as 1978. However, we do not know why Salamat was able to bring to his fold the largest number and most combat-experienced units of his old organization (echoes of Umbra Kato and the BIFF leaving the MILF in 2008).  

Equally fascinating from a strategic point of view is how the MILF in turn kept its organizational cohesion (well until 2008). While the coalition built by the MNLF unraveled once Marcos offered largesse to the traditional politicians who joined the rebellion, the MILF’s relationship with Moro elites appear to be very durable if we go by its ties with the powerful Mastura family of Sultan Kudarat.

Army and camp

And there is, of course, the issue of their well-armed army.

This is rather significant given that the smuggling routes for weapons (and other commodities) go through the Tausug and MNLF-control Sulu archipelago. How then did the MILF manage to tap these maritime Southeast Asia connections for its benefit? One report mentions that MILF snipers possess one of the best American-made (!) sniper rifles. How did this organization get these?

But then here is yet another contradiction: the pride over its weaponry is negated by its bad choice of strategy.

Unlike the New People’s Army, which relies mainly on mobility as part of its strategy, the MILF has stood pat and informed us where its territory is and where its boundaries end. This is rather foolhardy for an army to announce where it is located. In fact, the MILF is bottled up in a couple of areas in Maguindanao province and on the southern edge of Lanao del Sur, displaying their camps, uniforms, guns and checkpoints. This kind of quasi-trench warfare remains a puzzle to many. 

Finally, there is the MILF’s relationship with terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, prominently the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). In the series of reports on Mindanao and Indonesia, the International Crisis Group has pointed out that from 1996 to 2000 the MILF entered into “a reciprocal arrangement” with the JI wherein the latter sent some of its Afghan war veterans as “trainers of a new generation of mujahedeen” in camps inside MILF territory.  

But following closely the pragmatic path laid down by Salamat Hashim, Iqbal and Ebrahim cheerfully welcomed the visit of former US ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney to Camp Darpanan in February 2008 – the first senior American official to visit the camp. A WikiLeaks report also had Kenney assuring the MILF leadership of American support during that visit. Murad of late has hinted to United States Agency for International Development officials that should the Bangsamoro bill be passed, the MILF looks forward to USAID implementing a version of the successful Livelihood Enhancement Program that helped MNLF veterans return to and benefit from their old agricultural and fishing endeavors.

Addressing contradictions

And then the organization turns an about face and hosts Zulkifli bin Hir (or Marwan), one of the masterminds behind the Bali bombing and who, before his death, had already trained 300 new experts on making improvised explosive devices. 

I once listened to an American colonel explain how his engineering unit was finally able to convince an Iraqi neighborhood, not to throw garbage on the streets. He did so by not asking for more trucks, shovels, cement or even additional security. Instead he requested for an anthropologist who studied Iraqi social life. The scholar explained to him and his men that the streets may look messy because of the garbage, but the insides of Iraqi homes are exquisitely spotless. 

The challenge for the engineering unit then is to convince the Iraqis that the streets were an extension of their homes. In six months, the colonel said, the area looked different.

Maybe this is how we should approach the MILF, especially now that it wants to talk peace. Send in the anthropologists, the historians along with the public administration folks and the economic advisers. Then together with their own intellectuals tease out the answers to some of the contradictions listed above and solve them together. – Rappler.com

  

Patricio N. Abinales is from Mindanao.