The Philippine military is in hot pursuit of the Islamic State (IS)-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) amid concerns the militant group aims to launch an urban siege akin to the recent devastating assault on the city of Marawi.
Last week, Philippine armed forces intensified air and ground assaults against two of BIFF’s known three factions operating in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces on the southern island of Mindanao. The armed exchanges have forced some 5,000 civilians to flee the escalating crossfire.
The fighting has emerged as a new frontline in Manila’s battle with the global terror group, as it bids to establish a “wilayah, or Islamic state, in Southeast Asia. In May, the IS-linked Maute Group laid siege to Marawi, exposing Philippine security forces’ limited urban warfare capabilities in a five-month-long battle.
The Philippine military claimed to kill IS’ reputed “emir” in Southeast Asia, Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon, as well as the two founding brothers of the Maute Group, Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, leaving a leadership vacuum.
Hapilon was known to have been instrumental in building a coalition of disparate local militant groups that have declared varying degrees of loyalty to IS. It’s not clear yet who IS will hand the regional emir mantle to next, though some analysts are looking towards the BIFF’s radical wing’s leader, Esmael Abdulmalik, as a potential candidate.
BIFF, a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel outfit that for decades fought a lethal battle for autonomy until agreeing to a 2014 peace agreement, has an unknown number of fighters. Many are known to be situated in Maguindanao’s inaccessible and inhospitable swamplands.
BIFF reportedly fought alongside and provided logistical support to Maute Group, Abu Sayyaf and foreign militants during the Marawi siege. It’s still unclear how many of the fighters who eventually fled that battle have since taken refuge with the BIFF.
Army Captain Arvin Encinas, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division which has jurisdiction over the two provinces where BIFF is active, told Asia Times military operations against the militant group would continue until it is completely neutralized.
The military launched ‘Operation Darkhorse’ against the group in January 2014, making a similar vow of elimination. The army captured the BIFF’s known main camp in Barangay Ganta, Maguindanao the following month, scattering the group’s fighters into different areas of central Mindanao.
“Military offensives against the terrorists are calibrated to minimize civilian displacement. We are closely coordinating with the local government units and the police in flushing out these rogue elements,” Encinas told Asia Times on November 20.
The military offensive comes after Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Jr, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, recently warned that Maguindano’s Cotabato City, a coastal settlement of about 300,000 people, “could be the next Marawi.”
Cotabato City, the seat of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, is around 80% Muslim and a major regional economic and political center. Located about four hours by car from Marawi, Cotabato City is now said to be on full alert for a possible IS-inspired attack.
The Marawi crisis displaced 400,000 civilians and left the symbolic Muslim city in shambles, with the government estimating its rehabilitation will cost more than US$1 billion. Overall, more than 1,100 people were killed in the Marawi siege, mostly Islamic militants.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who placed the entire island of Mindanao under martial law effective until the end of the year in response to the siege, said in September that Cotabato City could be a next flashpoint for IS-allied local militants.
Cotabato City, like other areas in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces, has already suffered from the horrors of war waged for decades by the MILF against government forces in a debilitating fight for autonomy and ethnic recognition.
In 2014, under the Benigno Aquino administration, the government and the MILF forged a final peace agreement with the main aim of replacing the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with a new so-called “Bangsamoro” autonomous region.
To date, though, Congress has not approved the enabling law that would allow for the autonomous change, although Duterte has repeatedly mentioned that it is a key legislative priority.
The MILF’s leadership has said that disappointment among ethnic Moro and other Muslims in the area over the delayed implementation of the landmark peace deal could provide fertile new ground for extremist groups like the BIFF to recruit new members.
BIFF is well-practiced at such recruitment drives. In December 2010, then MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato formed the BIFF to pursue an independent Islamic state in Mindanao in response to the MILF leadership’s autonomy deal with the government. At the time, MILF referred to Kato’s breakaway faction as a “lost command.”
Kato was known for launching a campaign against the government in 2008 in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces that displaced an estimated 600,000 civilians, the biggest internal displacement anywhere in the world that year.
He died in 2015 from a lingering illness and the group’s leadership is now divided into three main factions.
Esmael Abdulmalik, alias Abu Toraife, leads the radical Jamaatul al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar wing, known to be the most radical of the three. Abdulmalik has openly espoused IS ideology, while the other two factions, led by local imams, have been more equivocal in their stances, said army spokesman Encinas, citing military intelligence reports.
The three factions are not believed to maintain stationary camps and fight mainly through guerrilla tactics.
Philippine police chief General Ronald dela Rosa has ordered police stations in the Central Mindanao region to be on full alert for possible surprise BIFF or other militant attacks to divert military operations now underway against their cohorts in Maguindanao and North Cotabato. He has also recently instructed police forces to assist the military in their offensives against Islamic militants.
Security experts have warned that apart from the BIFF, other IS-aligned groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Ansar Khalifa Philippines are also likely regrouping and planning new attacks to leverage into and sustain the momentum of the world headline-grabbing Marawi assault.