A Filipino soldier lies on a mattress in a house as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Islamic State-aligned Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines July 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva
A Filipino soldier lies on a mattress in a house as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Islamic State-aligned Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines July 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a decades-old rebel group recently subdued by a Philippine government peace agreement, is back on the war path – only this time against fellow Muslim militants rather than its traditional state armed forces adversary.

The on-off battle, now quietly entering its second month, threatens to emerge as the next Philippine front in IS’ jihadist bid to gain a permanent autonomous foothold on the southern island of Mindanao, long a hotbed of insurgent and criminal activity.

The IS-aligned, foreign fighter-backed Maute Group’s four-month-old siege of the southern city of Marawi has drastically and suddenly changed the country’s security landscape, as Mindanao emerges as a magnet for foreign jihadists from neighboring regional and Middle Eastern nations.

The IS-sponsored death and destruction at Marawi, however, has sparked a backlash among local Muslim communities who fear the armed conflict could spread. The Marawi siege has laid waste to one of the Philippines’ most important Muslim cities, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents.

MILF is fast emerging as a local counterforce to that threat, an ironic voice of moderation after plunging the region into decades of debilitating civil war. “Violent extremism is not acceptable in Islam,” Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s peace implementing panel chair, said in a recent statement.

In August, the MILF dusted off its rusting guns to launch an offensive against the IS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the little-known Jamaatul Muhajiren Wal-Ansar in Mindanao’s violence-prone Maguindanao province, the MILF’s strategic hub located about four hours away from Marawi. The fighting has been concentrated mostly in remote villages in the province’s District 2.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces raise their fists during a show of force inside Camp Darapanan, Maguindanao province, southern Philippines March 27, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Stringer 

The BIFF splintered off from MILF in 2010 in opposition to the latter’s peace overtures with the government and later declared its loyalty to IS. The Jamaatul Muhajiren Wal-Ansar (JMWA) is a new Musilim militant group that cut away from the BIFF. The military claims that both IS-linked groups combined have a mere 150 fighters.

Military reports claim that at least seven MILF fighters and about three dozen IS-aligned group militants have been killed in recent fighting, the latest skirmish occurring on September 17. The MILF has claimed the JMWA had encroached on its controlled territory and spread a false interpretation of Islam.

It’s not altogether clear if the MILF’s motivations for launching the fight are driven more by political, religious, tactical or personal imperatives. While certain MILF members have known ties to the IS-linked Maute Group, including through marriage, MILF leaders have been consistently critical of the Maute Group’s IS-inspired scorched earth tactics.

Under its 2014 peace agreement with the government, signed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a new “Bangsamoro” area of Muslim self-rule will be established in part of the southern Philippines. Since MILF laid down its arms, other Muslim rebel groups, including Maute and Abu Sayyaf, have gained in strength.

Captain Arvin Encinas, spokesperson for the Philippine Armed Forces’ 6th Infantry Division that has security jurisdiction in Maguindanao, told Asia Times that government troops are not actually fighting alongside MILF fighters on the ground.

“The military has been providing the MILF rebels with aerial and artillery fire support,” he said. “Our troops are stationed away from the MILF rebels who are battling the IS-inspired groups. We don’t want to give the terrorists room to escape.”

Encinas lauded the MILF for neutralizing IS groups lodged in Maguindanao, a historically tumultuous area that has been on high alert for possible spillover effects from the Marawi fighting. President Rodrigo Duterte has placed all of Mindanao under martial law to guard against the spread of extremist-driven instability.

Encinas claimed the joint government-MILF operations have mitigated the risk of a Marawi-like scenario erupting elsewhere in Mindanao, a threat he characterized as increasingly “remote.” Security experts, however, believe the risk of IS militant extremism spreading is still clear and present in light of the terror group’s stated aim of establishing a wilayah, or province, in the region.

“The threat is very serious because pro-Islamic State groups in the Philippines have the intention to wreak havoc on behalf of the Islamic State and have developed strong capabilities to mount terror attacks, including suicide terrorism and vehicular terrorism,” Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told Asia Times.

The Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, an independent think tank, said in a recent report that four Philippine militant groups have established clear links with IS militants in Asia, namely the Abu Sayyaf Group, Maute Group, the BIFF and the Ansar Khilafah Philippines.

The report cited the September 2, 2016, night market bombing in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, that killed 14 people and wounded over 60 others as evidence of the militant groups’ violent, destabilizing designs for the region.

“It means that more deadly violence in the Philippines involving alliances of pro-Islamic State groups is a matter of when, not if. It may also increase the possibility of cross-border extremist operations,” the report said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives a pep talk to troops fighting the extremist Maute group in Marawi, Philippines August 24, 2017. Photo: Presidential Palace via Reuters/File Photo 

Banlaoi notes that violent religious extremism is now a cross-border problem that Manila must fight with the help of different stakeholders, even with strange bedfellows like the MILF, an ethnic Moro group that has long fought for autonomy though a so-called Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.

MILF peace panel chair Iqbal stresses that the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) and the full implementation of its autonomy-granting peace agreement “are examples of concrete steps that can provide long-term solutions against violent religious extremism.”

The BBL, however, was not among the 28 legislative priority bills approved by parliament in August, with Malacanang later insisting it remains a high policy priority of Duterte’s administration after the MILF decried its exclusion.

On September 21, the 45th anniversary of late strongman Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law, a nearly nine-year period attended by massive state-sponsored abuses, Duterte visited Marawi for the fifth time amid demonstrations against his lethal drug war and calls to lift martial law.

Duterte told troops amid the latest military push to fully recapture Marawi that martial law in Mindanao “would be lifted after Marawi is liberated” from the Maute Group, which he claimed was also involved in the illegal drug trade. But its unclear how many militants have slipped away from Marawi and now lay in wait for a next urban warfare target.