“Moro Counter-terrorism” by Malcolm Cook

2017/55, 12 September 2017

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest insurgent group in Muslim Mindanao and the one that has been involved in peace negotiations with the Philippine government for the past two decades, has stepped up its ‘armed offensives’ against local Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups. This is a positive development for the counter-terrorism efforts in response to the ongoing Marawi City siege and a sign of the challenge these local Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups pose to the MILF.

The Maute Group at the centre of the Marawi City siege and the new Jamaatul Mujahiren Wal-Ansar group, now the subject of the MILF armed offensives, are recent splinter groups from the MILF. They come from the Maranao and Maguindanao heartlands of the MILF, are opposed to the slow-moving and uncertain peace process with Manila, and are attracting disaffected youth away from the MILF. By January 2016, the MILF had already organised a task force to counter Islamic State recruitment efforts in Muslim Mindanao. These local Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups pose a greater threat to the MILF and its leadership of the Moro insurgency than to the Philippine state and the wider region.
MILF counter-terrorism operations – on their own terms, for their own organizational interests, and with support from the Armed Forces of the Philippines – against local Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups may be more effective politically. MILF operations, unlike Armed Forces of the Philippines’ operations with foreign support from non-Muslim countries, cannot be framed as an outside attack on the Moro community.

These MILF operations are part of wider moves in the affected Moro community to isolate and delegitimize the local Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups. Sheikh Abu Hurayrah Abdulrahman Udasan, the grand mufti of the Philippines, had declared Islamic State haram (forbidden), the local Ulama Council covering Marawi City has issued a fatwa denouncing the Maute Group and the destruction of Marawi, and the 41 local government units in Lanao del Sur have declared the Maute Group as enemies of the Maranao.

The solution to the terrorist threat in the Philippines may well lie mostly within the affected Moro community. Manila and interested foreign governments should support from afar these Moro counter-terrorism developments.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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