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Commentary: With friends like that, the MILF needs no enemies

by Rina De Jesus

ICC GenSan City (18 November) -- First it was renegade commanders with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Then it was militants from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) -- or their trainees -- causing alarming problems for the government of the Philippines. But such extremists are also causing headaches for the MILF mainstream and impeding the quest for greater autonomy for the Moros, the Muslim minority that makes up about 5 percent of the population in the Philippines, which is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Officially, the MILF repudiates terrorism, in general, and Islamist terror groups like JI and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), in particular. MILF leaders view such groups as a threat to Muslim as well as Christian interests in the Philippines and as an impediment to desperately needed economic development in Moro regions.

But what is true of the MILF leadership, its mainstream membership and supporters is not true of a small group of MILF fighters. Some have actively partnered with violent jihadist groups. Others have provided sanctuary to foreign JI terrorists wanted for crimes in other countries.

The current upheaval in the southern Philippines began when renegade commanders, who have close ties to JI, raided Christian and mixed Muslim-Christian villages in Mindanao. Ostensibly, they were protesting a Supreme Court decision ordering a review of the constitutionality of the draft peace agreement initialed by MILF and government leaders. But the protest took an illogical form. Renegade MILF Commanders Bravo and Kato, with their men, burned homes and shops and killed about 50 civilians, many of them hacked to death with machetes. Many more civilians suffered injuries. Even more were deprived of their livelihoods. Muslim states, represented in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, condemned the butchery of the MILF rebels.

Moro civic leaders also condemned the violence by the rogue MILF units, as did the MILF leadership. The front's leadership blamed the raids on two of its own commanders but dismissed them as "renegades." The disavowal did not extend too far: The MILF leadership categorically refuses to hand Commanders Bravo and Kato over to the government, as Manila demands. And so the government has dispatched more troops to Mindanao to root out the rogue elements. Nearly a half a million residents of Mindanao have been displaced by the subsequent fighting, the worst in five years.

The MILF leadership has similarly failed to take action against other radicals in its midst. It is no secret that Commanders Bravo and Kato have long-standing ties with JI. Impartial observers, like the respected International Crisis Group of Brussels, have confirmed this fact. Both Bravo and Kato have provided safe haven to internationally wanted JI militants. The marsh areas of Maguindanao number among the hide-outs of JI operatives, whom local residents have fed and sheltered.

Is it mere coincidence that Maguindanao is where new fighting erupted in the southern Philippines in early September, after a week of relative peace gave rise to hopes that the peace process could get back on track? Meanwhile, Philippine security officials are seeing JI's hand in an early September explosion in Mindanao. An improvised explosive device, similar in make to the bombs used by JI terrorists in the past, blew up in Isulan, the capital of the Mindanao province of Sultan Kudarat. No one was injured in the blast, apparently because the explosives went off prematurely. In another corner of Sultan Kudarat Province, police found two more bombs and defused them before they could hurt anyone. According to police, the explosives, found outside a clinic in Tacurong City, similarly bore "the signature of Jemaah Islamiyah" and the Moro militant groups that JI operatives have trained.

Evidence shows that JI operatives began infiltrating the MILF in the late 1990s. They held training sessions in the MILF's own camps in the southern Philippines. Some of those trainers, specialists in the art of bomb-making, have remained in the Philippines with the help of MILF members.

MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim has warned that terror groups like JI and al-Qaeda could exploit the current upheaval in the southern Philippines. Expressing his fear that "the younger generation [of Moros] would be more radical," Murad recently used the threat of radicalization to underscore the need for government concessions in the peace process. While agreeing with the MILF leader's argument, observers point out that the same logic applies to Murad and other mainstream MILF leaders -- particularly regarding the need to eject the JI, ASG and other terrorists in their midst. (MW/ICC GenSan) [top]

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