Authorities are warning Filipinos to remain vigilant as Islamic State-aligned militants active on the southern island of Mindanao are allegedly preparing new attacks in retaliation for recent setbacks against government troops.
Since May, the military claims to have killed at least 57 members of the Islamic State-linked Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in separate gun battles across Mindanao’s restive Maguindanao province. The onslaught comes after last year’s four-month-long siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-aligned local groups.
The BIFF pledged allegiance to Islamic State after splitting from the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim armed group in the Philippines that signed a peace agreement with the government after four decades of rebellion that took over 120,000 lives.
The Senate approved the so-called Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) on July 23, hours before President Rodrigo Duterte was to deliver his third State of the Nation Address (SONA). Observers had anticipated the leader would sign the law ahead of his speech and point to the deal as one of his administration’s key accomplishments.
However, the House of Representatives failed to approve the measure because of a leadership squabble that installed former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the new House Speaker. The next day, the House of Representatives approved the BOL, the first legislative measure approved under Arroyo’s speakership.
The president asked for time to study the measure before signing it. Some media reports claimed that Duterte has signed the law on Thursday, but as of 6:20 pm the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process could not confirm the reports.
Duterte recently reiterated he would not renege on his commitment to enable Filipino Muslims “to chart their own destiny that will establish just and lasting peace in Mindanao.”
Duterte, who hails from Mindanao and has professed to have an ethnic Moro bloodline, has consistently warned that new large-scale war could erupt in Mindanao if the Bangsamoro law is not quickly enacted. He has also cautioned that more disgruntled Muslims in the region might join Islamic State-inspired groups if the pact is delayed.
The MILF’s leadership regards the BOL, a reconciled version of the Bangsamoro Basic Law drafted by the MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Commission, as “largely compliant to the letter and spirit” of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), an earlier negotiated peace-for-autonomy deal.
The CAB is a final peace agreement between the government and MILF that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with a new, more autonomous political entity to be known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The hard-negotiated pact will provide for a 75%-25% wealth-sharing arrangement that will favor the new Bangsamoro region over the central government, among other autonomy-devolving measures. But there are still many spoilers waiting in the wings, not least the BIFF.
There are at least 23 Muslim armed groups, largely based in Mindanao, that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and are reportedly poised to strike again after last year’s surprise and devastating siege of Marawi, according to government intelligence reports.
The BIFF is the most active among the groups, the same government intelligence estimates. This month, the BIFF tried in vain to occupy and raise the black Islamic State flag at the town hall of Datu Paglas in Maguindanao, known otherwise for its export-quality Cavendish bananas.
Army Captain Arvin Encinas, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division, said troops repelled the Islamic militants’ attempt, which he described as a diversionary “tactic” amid ongoing military operations to crush BIFF forces in the region.
Eight BIFF members, including a top sub-leader identified as “Commander Marrox”, were killed in the ensuing July 4 firefight. A junior military officer was killed, while more than a dozen soldiers were wounded in the gun battle.
Marrox was reputedly a key subordinate of BIFF commander Karialan, whom the military said engaged troops in the infamous Mamasapano clash that left 44 elite police force members dead in a botched 2015 raid.
Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana Jr, the 6th Infantry Division’s commander, urged in a statement for BIFF fighters to surrender. He claimed their “ranks have been weakened” with the killing of their comrades while describing them as a “menace of society.”
While the BIFF is strongly opposed to the MILF’s peace-for-autonomy deal with the government, it could aim to leverage any setbacks to enacting the deal to recruit new disenfranchised MILF members, analysts say.
The rebel group is making its disruptive presence felt. In April, authorities claimed the BIFF was responsible for an explosion outside a Catholic church in Koronadal City in South Cotabato province that injured at least two civilians. Another bomb was found and detonated in another part of the city on the same day.
Earlier this week, bomb experts detonated a powerful improvised explosive device allegedly planted by the BIFF along a highway in Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat province, a province which neighbors on Maguindanao and thus hints at a possible spread of the conflict.
Lieutenant Colonel Harold Cabunoc, commander of the region’s 33rd Infantry Battalion, one of the units that has battled the BIFF in Maguindanao, told local media that Islamic State supporters have been recruiting new members in local mosques, luring them with offers of as much as 100,000 pesos (US$1,867) as well as weapons.
The military claims it is now conducting “surgical operations” against the BIFF in Maguindanao province, including through the use of air assaults. The military has ensured that the armed operations will have only a “minimal impact” on civilian communities.
The MILF has in certain instances helped the military to flush out the BIFF from its sanctuaries, even though some of its rebel members are known to be related to MILF members through intermarriage. The BIFF has in the past and will undoubtedly in the future aim to discredit the pending MILF-government deal as selling out local interests.
Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, Mindanao’s first and only Catholic bishop, told Asia Times that Islamic State ideology will spread fast in Mindanao if the government fails to enact a peace pact that is acceptable to all Bangsamoro people and not just those represented by the MILF.
The Catholic leader said if the law is not enacted or if its implementation fails to address past state injustices against the Bangsamoro people it will fuel radicalism among the region’s youth.
“A good Bangsamoro law will be an antidote to Islamic radicalization,” the prelate said, while hopefully suggesting that Mindanao was at a “golden juncture” on “the cusp of peace.”