Does the MILF really have ties with terrorists?

MANILA, Philippines – Does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) maintain ties with terrorists?  

This was a question that Senate Majority Leader Alan Cayetano had pounded on at the Senate probe on the Mamasapano clash after wanted terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, was located and eventually killed in a known MILF bailiwick.

Cayetano even went as far as blaming the MILF for the Mamasapano clash, asking why MILF territories were becoming "a haven for terrorists in Asia."  

MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal denied that the MILF coddled Marwan who, he said, sought refuge in the territory of its breakaway group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Chief Peace Adviser Teresita Deles also defended the MILF, stressing that while the MILF did have "flirtations" with the once feared Jemaah Islamiyah, the organization has already vanquished ties with terrorists. (READ: ARMM Gov holds back tears, defends Moros)

Findings of a comprehensive report by Indonesia-based think tank Institute for Policy Analysis for Conflict (IPAC) released on Thursday, March 5, made the same assertions as Deles and Iqbal – that while certain members of the MILF had provided refuge to terrorists, the MILF as an organization had expelled terrorists as early as 2005 when they entered into formal peace talks with the government.  

The report chronicled Marwan's career from his beginnings in Malaysia to his involvement in the Ambon conflict in Indonesia, and how he found his way into the corners of the Mindanao conflict. 

Marwan 'suspicious' of MILF

In an interview with Rappler Talk, IPAC Director Sidney Jones said it is not accurate to say that the organization continues to maintain ties with terrorists. 

"I don't think it is correct because I think what we saw repeatedly was that Marwan and the people around him were actually very worried about staying with the MILF because they believed they would be betrayed by the MILF," Jones said. 

She added: "There's a question of how much leaders could have tried harder to find out whether there were members of the MILF who were providing refuge but I think the overall message was clear that these individuals were not welcome. Marwan himself did not want to be with the MILF because he was afraid that if he was with them, he would be turned in." 

After fleeing to Mindanao from Indonesia, Marwan joined a small group of jihadists that included Bali bombers Umar Patek and Dulmatin who turned out to be staying in the Philippines as well. Marwan was initially under the protection of Ismail Sulaiman alias Abu Hashim, an MILF commander in Pikit, North Cotabato, but he was eager to leave because he got bored and frustrated that Abu Hashim would not let him join firefights. 

Marwan and his small group were protected by Mugasid Delna alias Abu Badrin, a commander of the MILF's Special Elite Force and the organization's then main liaison with foreign jihadists. Abu Badrin had been a close friend of Umar Patek on the Afghan border. 

The report said the Pawas group's contact with the outside world was only limited to certain individuals, including then leader of the MILF's 105th Base Command Ameril Umbra Kato and his commander Abdul Basit Usman. Umbra Kato broke away from the MILF after it entered into peace talks with the government and formed the BIFF. Usman joined him.  

Through Kato's men, the Pawas group was able to make contact with the kidnap-for-ransom Abu Sayyaf Group. The report said:  

In May 2003 a few senior JI members, including Zulkanaen, had met (Khadaffy) Janjalani, Isnilon Hapilon and Abu Solaiman in Jolo to discuss JI-ASG collaboration. Zulkarnaen, according to one person present, urged that ASG move to Mindanao so they could be protected by JI members in Jabal Quba. Janjalani agreed but Raddulan Sahiron objected, on the grounds that he did not trust some of the MILF whom he believed would sell their own friends to the government in exchange for cash rewards.

Their fears were not unfounded.  

When the Pawas group and the ASG contingent went back to Datu Piang, Maguindanao, they asked for Usman's help to scout for possible places to stay near Kato's area. But every time they moved to a new place, they came under attack from the Philippine army.

The attacks proved to be difficult for Marwan, who suffered panic attacks. The report said he once panicked so badly that he started shooting at his own friends, though no one got hurt. (READ: Marwan not 'world class terrorist,' says report)

Despite their concerns, the Pawas group still decided to stay in Maguindanao and set up a camp in Talayan town in July 2005. But just after settling down, they were attacked from both land and air for over a month, making them realize that the area was no longer safe for them. According to the IPAC report: 

Janjalani and Patek realised Mindanao was no longer safe. The fact that ground troops could reach their camp in Talayan meant that the MILF had abandoned them – the military could have only reached Talayan through MILF territory. The MILF had indeed agreed to help Philippine authorities through the mechanism known as the Ad-Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), designed to “isolate and interdict” criminals, kidnap-for-ransom groups and rogue elements suspected of hiding in MILF areas. In September 2005, the Pawas group left for Jolo. 

The Pawas group left for Jolo in September 2005 but Marwan was left behind in Pikit, again under Abu Hashim's protection. He eventually moved to Jolo in July 2007 after a few scares that he would be caught. It was the news that one of his friends, JI member Usamah, had been shot dead by his own wife's relative that convinced him to leave. 

At around this time, Dulmatin and Umar Patek had already left Jolo. This caused authorities to set their sights on him, "driven in part" by the $5 million bounty on Marwan's head.  

Afterwards, Marwan was forced to leave Jolo after the ASG blamed him for the death of senior Abu Sayyaf commander Doc Abu. Operations against him intensified after 2010, and in one of the operations, authorities thought they had killed Marwan but killed Doc Abu instead. (READ: Marwan's ties that bind: Ren-ren Dongon

Marwan was detected in Lanao del Sur, where he was reportedly involved in several bombings. He moved back to Maguindanao in 2013 under Kato's protection. By that time, the BIFF, led by Kato, had already splintered from the MILF.  

The police Special Action Force and the military would go on to conduct at least 9 operations against Marwan. It was "Operation Exodus" in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that killed him – but at the cost of at least 65 lives – 44 SAF troopers, 18 MILF combatants, and at least 3 civilians. (READ: Why SAF didn't trust military)

During the Senate hearings, it was revealed that Marwan was hiding in an area controlled by the BIFF but surrounded by an MILF-controlled area. 

The MILF claimed the SAF violated ceasefire mechanisms by failing to coordinate the operation. The SAF, meanwhile, has accused the MILF of overkill

How to move forward?

In the report, IPAC questioned the wisdom behind conducting a counter-terrorism operation while a peace process that is already almost 20 years in the making was already in its advanced stages. 

This is coupled with the fact that the IPAC report shows that Marwan was not the master bomber and world-class terrorist that he was made out to be. 

Jones said the only way to move forward is to strengthen coordinating mechanisms between the MILF and the government through the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), and not to abrogate the peace process. 

"Working through the AHJAG would have been one way to go forward. If the SAF did not want to go through AHJAG since they were afraid Marwan's whereabouts would leak, then they would have think through – what would have happened if he had gotten away one more time?" Jones asked.

"Was it still not important not to think about the timing of all of this and the fact that we are were coming to a critical point where we could go over the hump and finally get an agreement through the Philippine Congress? I think coordination is critical," she added.

The passage of a proposed law creating a new autonomous region in the South has been imperiled by  the Mamasapano clash as lawmakers questioned the sincerity of the MILF in the process. 

Jones said it would be a "quadruple tragedy" if the peace process would be put to waste. 

With the threat of ISIS also a concern globally, Jones said the peace process becomes more imperative. 

"Terrorism is not going away in the Philippines," Jones said. " It's going to be centered probably in areas that are in or near MILF majority so you will have splinter groups like this. You will have the ASG or parts of Sulu probably joining the new Bangsamoro substate."

"You will face the possibility that there will continue to be extremists that the new government will have to deal with and the only way to address that is to have very clear coordinating mechanisms to ensure that these rogue elements aren't allowed to function."  Rappler.com