COTABATO CITY, Philippines: It was mid-morning when two cars suddenly drove up and parked next to each other outside Notre Dame University, one of the oldest universities in Cotabato City.


Eight to 10 young men came out of the cars. One of them draped the black flag of Islamic State (IS) behind his back and walked up and down the street together with his friends.


“It was like a parade to show off the flag. People stopped to stare at them,” a local resident who witnessed the incident told Channel NewsAsia.


“The parade lasted about 10 minutes before they returned to their cars and drove off,” said the resident, who declined to be named.


The incident last month unnerved the community and left people worried that pro-IS groups on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines may be trying to stage another Marawi-style attack to take over a city.


“I must plan for an exit strategy, like get a job in another city in case the worst happens,” said the resident.


On May 23, pro-IS groups led by the Maute Group, founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, and Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) attacked Marawi, located some 155km away from Cotabato City.


It took the Philippine military five months before it could seize control of the city from the militants on Oct 17.


The siege killed more than 1,100 people, including 920 militants, 47 civilians and 165 troops, and displaced another 400,000 people.


Both Maute brothers and Isnilon were also killed.


But that has not ended the battle against militants in the region as those who have escaped have raised concerns where they have resettled. Among those cities where militants have sought refuge is the southern city of Cotabato.

 
COTABATO HEAVILY INFILTRATED BY MILITANTS FROM MARAWI


Concerns about the threat of spreading violence in the southern Philippines have been raised across the region, with comments from Singapore’s Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam typical of what has been said.


“You’ve got the situation in Marawi, you’ve got the situation in Rakhine State (in Myanmar), and it’s going to attract fighters, extremists, would-be terrorists to go to these places to fight,” he said in September. “And once they come to this region, then they will try to spread out to other targets too,” he added.


Analysts believe that while the situation in Marawi has been brought under control by the Philippine military, the threat is far from over.


“Cotabato City is in serious trouble. It is badly infiltrated by pro-IS groups,” said Professor Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.


“Many of the (IS) escapees from Marawi, including one Maute brother, are being sheltered in Cotabato City where they are actively recruiting new recruits,” Prof Banlaoi added.


The Marawi siege exposed the depth of IS penetration into southern Philippines, where it plans to set up a Southeast Asia caliphate.


Former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants told Channel NewsAsia in an interview that Mindanao is the only place in ASEAN where IS can carve out a wilayat, or province, given its porous borders, large ungoverned spaces and abundant guns, ammunitions and explosive materials available for sale in the black market.

PRO-IS GROUPS FLUSH WITH LOOTED CASH FROM MARAWI


“The pro-IS groups are trying to stage another Marawi-style attack in other cities. They have lots of money to fund more attacks as they looted billions of pesos from Marawi during the siege,” a senior security source told Channel NewsAsia.


Residents of Marawi typically do not trust banks and many of them stash their cash in vaults kept in their homes, according to the source.


“The money was looted from the vaults installed in the homes of individuals and there were many of them,” the source added.


Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año said IS gave the Maute group at least US$1.5 million for the Marawi siege.


As IS loses territory in the Middle East, its funds are expected to dwindle and some believe it will not have the same resources to fund attacks in Philippines.


But according to the security source, money and weapons looted from the Marawi siege are “more than enough” for IS groups to stage terror attacks in the Philippines.


“IS groups have more than enough money. They also receive funds from wealthy individuals in the country. Not only that, they also looted weapons from Marawi so they do have weapons as well,” the security source added.


While it would be difficult for the IS groups to take over an entire city like in Marawi, they have the capacity to take over parts of a city, according to the security source.
“I also expect IS-inspired lone wolves to target Metro Manila for attacks,” the source added.


PUSH FOR SUICIDE BOMBINGS


Inside buildings abandoned by IS militants in Marawi city, the military is finding a treasure trove of information on terror plots outlined in documents left behind by the militants.


“I am looking at three major scenarios based on confiscated documents found in various buildings in Marawi city,” said Prof Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.


“One of the activities they (IS) want is to promote suicide bombings by lone wolves, the use of IEDS (improvised explosive device) and the use of fire bombs,” added Prof Banlaoi.


“The targets for attacks are Davao City, the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, to send a message of “retaliation,” he said. “The other targets are the provinces of Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, General Santos City and Zamboanga.”


Apart from recruitment, IS groups are also focusing on conducting training, particularly for bomb-making, he said.

 

HEAVY CLASHES IN JUNGLE


As urban dwellers brace for possible IS-inspired attacks, heavy clashes are taking place in the jungle marshlands in Maguindanao province between IS and the military.


Maguindanao is located just outside of Cotabato city. The military has joined forces with its former enemy, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group in Mindanao, to fight against the IS groups.


Abi, a MILF fighter, spent one month in the jungles fighting 500 IS militants in Datu Salibo, Maguindanao province from 3 Sep to Oct 2.


He described the IS fighters as “very well-trained and well-armed.”


“There were many IS fighters and they were very well-trained, well-armed and well-organised. They had many guns, ammunitions, explosives and bombs. They rigged a large area with bombs,” said Abi, shaking his head with disbelief as he recounted his experience.


“These IS fighters are experts in making bombs. They also had snipers,” said Abi as he sat beneath a tree on the outskirts of Cotabato City. He also saw fighters as young as 13 years old.


“The fighters were dressed in black and sported long beards and long hair. They flew the black flags of IS in their area,” said Abi.


“Every single fighter had a bullet-proof vest on … they must have a lot of money to be able to afford those vests,” said Abi.


As he was speaking, Abi threw a quick look around his surroundings.


“IS spies are everywhere. There are many of them. One needs to be careful,” he said.


“IS is offering people 100,000 pesos (US$1,950) to join them. They also promised new recruits they would get a monthly allowance of 30,000 pesos,” said Abi. “Many people on Mindanao island have been recruited by them.”


According to the military, clashes in Datu Salibo erupted on Aug 2 when the pro-IS Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) tried to hoist the black flag of IS in the area.
BIFF is a splinter group of MILF.


“Heavy fighting ensued. Air support was also called in,” Lieutenant-Colonel Gerry Besana, Joint Task Force Central spokesman, told Channel NewsAsia.


“Fifty one BIFF members were killed … while the MILF lost 20 men,” said Besana. While there is a lull in military operations, the battle is not yet over. “We expect operations to resume within the next 15 days,” Besana added.

 

MILF PROVIDES MILITARY INTELLIGENCE TO COUNTER IS


The participation of MILF in the fight against terrorism in Mindanao has provided crucial mass support, said Prof Banlaoi.


“And having the MILF on your side is already a good advantage. They provide military support, intelligence support, they know the terrain, they know people in the terrain as they are fighting their former brothers,” he added.


According to Prof Banlaoi, at least 21 militant groups have pledged allegiance to IS. Of the 21, four are deemed to be the most dangerous.
The four are:
(a) Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters
(b) Abu Sayyaf Group faction previously led by the late Isnilon Hapilon
(c) Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM)
(d) Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP)

As IS territories began to crumble in the Middle East, the global terror group called on its followers to make their way to the southern Philippines, the new land of jihad.
Malaysian police have arrested at least five men for attempting to travel to southern Philippines to join the pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)
“To date, we have arrested one Malaysian, two Indonesians, two Bangladeshis who tried to make their way to southern Philippines to join the pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG),” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of counter-terrorism division of Special Branch, told Channel NewsAsia.


Special Branch is the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police.


And while more suspected extremists are being held, there are claims that new destinations are in the spotlight.


Indonesian Ali Fauzi, a former MILF fighter and member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terror network behind the 2002 Bali bombings, told Channel NewsAsia, Indonesians were heading for Zamboanga city and Basilan island in southern Philippines.


“I’ve heard that a group is heading towards Zamboanga, Basilan island and its surrounding area,” Fauzi told Channel NewsAsia.
“They (militants) feel much safer there as many locals will protect them,” he said.

 

Part 2 of 3

Islamic State’s grip widening in southern Philippines, says MILF leader.


CAMP DARAPANAN, Philippines: From the air, Mindanao island in the southern Philippines is a stunning mass of lush greenery surrounded by sparkling blue waters, an unexpected stunning sight.


But on the ground, the lush beauty gives way to harsh realities. Mindanao is the poorest region in Philippines.


Four out of the top five poorest regions in the Philippines were in Mindanao in 2015, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority (PSA).


In June this year, Filipino Senator Sherwin Gatchalian was quoted by ABS-CBN News as saying that extremism in the southern Philippines can be traced to poverty and the only way to counter it is by ensuring that families have enough for their basic needs.


Insurgencies and armed conflicts have ravaged the island for 40 years, killing more than 100,000 people.


The latest large-scale armed conflict was the five-month siege of Marawi city by pro-Islamic State (IS) groups that ended last month, leaving 1,132 militants, soldiers and civilians dead, flattening buildings and displacing more than 200,000 residents.


The attack, led by the pro-IS Maute Group and Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was the fiercest fighting the Philippines government has faced in many years.
It also marked the most serious assault by the global terror group in a bid to get a foothold into Southeast Asia, raising the black flag of IS in Marawi, unsettling governments across the region.


The separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group in southern Philippine with 12,000 members, has warned of an increased IS presence in Mindanao following the Marawi siege.


At Camp Darapanan, the headquarters of MILF, the group’s leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, told Channel NewsAsia that it was crucial for on-going peace talks to succeed, as an antidote against the rising threat of violent extremism.


Murad, a former military commander who said he favours peace over war, warned that IS was exploiting the protracted peace talks to recruit people to join the group.

 

“DELAY IN PEACE TALKS DRIVING PEOPLE TO ISLAMIC STATE”


The 69-year-old spent decades fighting in the harsh jungles of Mindanao. Still, he has regularly been described as a moderate leader committed to peace.


But there are no mistaking his credentials. Heavily armed bodyguards suddenly appeared from nowhere to surround the garden when he arrived for an interview with Channel NewsAsia, followed by respectful handshakes and greetings extended by men in the vicinity.


Murad said a successful outcome to peace talks in Mindanao was of “great importance” for the stability and security of the whole of Southeast Asia.
“If the problems in the Philippines worsened, Malaysia (and) Indonesia will be affected,” said Murad.


“The longer this peace process takes, the more people are going to be radicalised,” he added.


“What we see now is … they (pro-IS groups) are capitalising on the delay of the peace process. They try to influence young people (by saying) tens of years have been spent on the peace process but nothing happened,” said Murad.


“They try to get young people to join their group, saying that only by means of violence, could we achieve our aims,” he added.

 

MILF OPPOSED TO ISLAMIC STATE


MILF has publicly voiced its opposition to IS and is fighting alongside the Philippines’ military against pro-IS groups.


“For us, we are really determined to oppose this group (IS) … any radical groups. We don’t believe their activities will help in achieving our aspiration of Bangsamoro (people of Moro), (which is) a political aspiration for self government and self determination,” said Murad.


The MILF and the central government have been negotiating for greater autonomy and wealth sharing in Mindanao in peace talks that started in 1997. The talks have yet to conclude.


MILF, with its vast network of men and control over territory in Mindanao, has detected an increase in the number of IS militants in southern Philippines following the loss of the terror group’s territories in the Middle East.


Western analysts recently said they expect IS fighters, driven from Syria and Iraq, to move to Libya and the Philippines.


‘We feel that after the Middle East, … where they (IS) are losing ground, they increased (their) penetration into the southern Philippines. We have information they (IS) want to strengthen their forces in southern Philippines because they see southern Philippines as a very strategic area,” said Murad.


“If you look at southern Philippines, it is at the center of several countries in the Pacific rim like Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand … they want to form a wilayat, a province of the (Islamic) Caliphate,” said Murad.


During the siege of Marawi, IS called for people to wage jihad in the city, drawing foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East to the Philippines.
“According to our monitoring, there were three Middle Eastern-looking people in Marawi … there were five men from Malaysia and about seven to eight from Indonesia,” said Murad.

 

WEAK RURAL GOVT CONTROL FACILITATES IS INFILTRATION


The government’s weak control in parts of Mindanao – in the highlands and rural areas – is leaving the southern Philippines open to further penetration by IS, said Murad.


“They (IS) … know government control over areas, especially in the highlands … in rural areas, is not strong, particularly in Mindanao. Many areas are not well-protected.

Mindanao is also very porous. They (IS) can easily come in,” said Murad.


“And it is easy to buy weapons here,” said Murad.


Add to that, infiltration by Malaysian and Indonesian IS militants were difficult to detect because “they look just like us,” said Murad.


Former MILF fighters told Channel NewsAsia in an earlier interview that the southern Philippines was the only place in Southeast Asia that IS could establish a province as the country was awash with weapons, armed groups and ungoverned spaces.


Asked whether IS will succeed in carving out a wilayah (territory) in southern Philippines, Murad said “no.”


“Given the problems in Mindanao, they (IS) can strengthen their forces. But to create a successful wilayah, I don’t think so,” said Murad.

 

FEARS OF ANOTHER MARAWI-STYLE ATTACK


The Philippines government has now declared the end of fighting in Marawi. As the government set out to rebuild the city, MILF warned there are signs pro-IS groups are attempting to stage another “Marawi-style” attack in other parts of Mindanao.


“After the Marawi attack, we really sense pro-IS are trying to launch attacks in other cities,” said Murad.


“We identified radical groups moving silently into Cotabato city. They were not armed and were probably doing reconnaissance,” said Murad.


Cotabato City is a 30-minute car ride away from MILF’s headquarters and serves as the regional seat for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).


“We … deployed our own forces in strategic areas on the outskirts of Cotabato city, just to send a signal we will defend Cotabato City if they (pro-IS groups) attacked,” said Murad.


The ARMM is predominantly Muslim and comprises five provinces and two component cities in Mindanao.

 

SPLINTERING INTO RADICAL GROUPS


Meanwhile, the protracted peace talks have disappointed some of MILF’s young members, causing them to break away to form radical groups with some pledging allegiance to IS.


“History has shown that every time the peace process fails, you will have splinter groups They always end up being more radical,” said Murad.


Amongst them is the pro-IS Maute Group founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, leaders of the Marawi siege. Both were killed by the military.
“The Maute was (previously) with the MILF,” said Murad.


Murad traced the rise of the Maute Group to the breakdown of the 2015 peace process when the Philippines’ legislature failed to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to establish the new autonomous Muslim-majority region called Bangsamoro.


The BBL would have greater powers than the existing ARMM which it would replace.


“The Maute Group surfaced after the failure of the BBL in the last administration … they split from MILF in 2015 … formed their own group under their own name,” said Murad.


Another MILF splinter group is the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) which pledged allegiance to IS in 2014, according to the Jakarta-based Institute For Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).

 

TIES SEVERED WITH JEMAAH ISLAMIYAH SINCE 2001
In the mid-nineties, the MILF allowed the regional terror group, JI, to set up a para-military training camp in its territory, a decision that sometimes returns to haunt the group in peace negotiations.


Murad did not shy away from answering when asked why JI was allowed into its territory.


“JI from Indonesia volunteered to fight with us during the height of our fighting, especially at the time (when) there was this all-out war against MILF,” said Murad.


“So when they (asked to) set up their own camp, we permitted them. But after we resumed the peace process, we courteously asked them (JI) to leave the Philippines,” said Murad.


“We said that since we are already in the peace process, there is no need for us to have this (JI) training camp,” Murad added.

Murad said JI’s departure from its land started in 2001.


An official from the government-run Coordinating Committee on Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH) told Channel NewsAsia that Mount Caracao, where the JI camp was located, is verified “100 per cent free of JI” since 2013.

 

OPTIMISM UNDER DUTERTE
After years of disappointment, Murad is optimistic a revised draft BBL, the cornerstone of the peace negotiations, will be passed under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.


“We are optimistic it (BBL) will be passed as long as the President continues to support the law,” said Murad.


“President Duterte … is the first president from Mindanao. He understands well the problems in Mindanao. He acknowledges there has been injustices committed against the Bangsamoro people,“ Murad.


Duterte, has vowed to fast-track a revised draft of the BBL for passage through the legislature.


The draft BBL was filed in the Lower House of Congress on Sep 29 this year.


To date, the ceasefire agreement signed by the MILF, as part of the peace negotiation, has been holding well.


Asked whether MILF will resume fighting should the BBL once again fail to pass through the legislature, Murad said: “We will cross the bridge when we come to it.”

 

Part 3 of 3

A rocky road to peace in the southern Philippines: Pressures on the MILF leadership


CAMP DARAPANAN, Philippines: For 20 years, peace talks have been taking place in the southern Philippines between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group on Mindanao island with some 12,000 men in its fold.


Guided by its leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the MILF is seeking a degree of autonomy from Manila. If the peace talks come to a successful conclusion, the MILF will become a major leader in a new political entity that will be known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region that will replace the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The ARMM comprises five predominantly Muslim provinces – Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – on Mindanao.


“The MILF will be at the helm of the Bangsamoro (new political entity) that will replace the current ARMM once the BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) is passed,” Professor Benedicto Bacani, executive director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance (IAG), told Channel NewsAsia.


However, analysts say that even if the peace talks reach a successful conclusion, the MILF will have to work hard to unify a region where other groups also have a strong voice and where Murad’s conciliatory strategy has come in for criticism.


“He is a moderate leader committed to peace,” said Prof Bacani. “Murad has steered the MILF towards a pragmatic and political road. This has helped move the peace process.


“On the other hand, this strength is a weakness for some who consider Murad as having compromised with the government (too) much.”


Murad’s predecessor, Hashim Salamat, was known as a fierce ideologue who split away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the mid-seventies, establishing the MILF in 1984.


Since then, the MILF has established itself as the dominant force in the region – but its influence does not spread everywhere.


“The general perception is that the MILF is strongly supported only in Maguindanao … It needs to reach out now, more than ever, to the Maranaos who feel that the MILF has not done enough to prevent or help resolve the Marawi incident with less loss of lives and property,” said Prof Bacani.


Maranaos refer to the inhabitants of the city of Marawi. which was attacked by pro-Islamic State groups who laid siege to it for five months before the government took back control on Oct 17. The MILF publicly condemned the attack.


“The island provinces (Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi) are dominated by the MNLF (rather) than the MILF,” Prof Bacani added.

 

NEED FOR INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP


The MILF’s patchy influence in the southern Philippines could have implications for the group’s ability to lead the region should there be a successful outcome to the protracted peace talks.


“In order to boost its legitimacy as a representative of the majority of Muslims, the MILF has to demonstrate its leadership and capacity to build alliances with other groups​. Such legitimacy cannot be imposed by the central government,” said Prof Bacani.


“The MILF has yet to unveil its concrete plan to raise confidence that its brand of governance is better than administrations that preceded the MILF.”


Inclusive leadership is seen as essential as Mindanao’s cultural and social make-up comprises many clans and traditional leaders, as well as the MNLF.

 

DIMINISHING INFLUENCE


While Murad faces the challenge of bringing together a group of disparate voices, he is also facing difficulties holding his own organisation together.


The failure of successive peace talks has seen MILF splintering into radical, new groups which have shunned peace and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) instead.
“Every day that the peace process is delayed, the MILF is weaker, has less popular legitimacy and is less able to implement the (peace) agreement,” said Prof Zachary Abuza of the US National War College in Washington DC.


“Murad has staked his entire career and reputation in the peace process. He is pragmatic and moderate. He has abandoned the group’s maximalist goals (of independence). In the mid-2000s, he tried to purge or isolate hardline opponents who were against the peace process,” said Prof Abuza, who specialises in Southeast Asia politics, insurgencies and terrorism.


“Most Moros believe the government is unable and unwilling to give them meaningful autonomy.”


DUTERTE BEST HOPE FOR SUCCESSFUL PEACE TALKS


Such dynamics are raising questions about whether there can ever be a successful outcome to the peace negotiations.


However, peace negotiators and the MILF remain optimistic – not least because the perception is that President Rodrigo Duterte, who is the first president to hail from Mindanao, is sincere in pushing for a successful conclusion to the talks.


“Duterte has a better sense of the Mindanao conflict and how best to resolve it. He is the first president to open the door for charter (constitutional) change or shifting the country’s political system to federalism to accommodate the aspirations for self governance of the Moro people,” said Prof Bacani.


“But it is equally important that the Moro people themselves have a united and strong voice in the political processes that seek to implement the peace agreements.”