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Philippine Muslim Group's Violent Streak Raises Specter of New War

By Carla Babb January 12, 2018

The Philippines, still recovering from battles last year against a group of Islamic State-inspired, anti-government Muslim rebels, is confronting a rise in violence by another band from the same region and with a similar ideology.

A new conflict would prolong decades of struggles between Muslim separatists and the Philippine government.

Muslim militants on the southern island Mindanao believe the majority Catholic country has taken an unfair share of resources despite five centuries of Muslim settlement. Rebel-linked violence has killed about 120,000 people in Mindanao since the 1960s.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a group often known by its acronym BIFF, has killed 10 to 25 people since early December in surprise attacks and bombings, media reports say.

Eleven people, including nine rebels, have died in incidents since Dec. 25, a local infantry unit spokesman said Friday, and about 300 families are living in emergency shelters to avoid the rebels.

"I think they have enough numbers now to conduct atrocities within the area," said the spokesperson, Capt. Arvin Encinas. "That's why we are strengthening our efforts, to ensure the safety and security in our constituent area of Mindanao."

A roadside bomb killed a soldier Wednesday and on Sunday troops found the bodies of six rebel gunmen following clashes involving 80 rebels and a military reconnaissance post, reported.

Battle two months ago

The rise in attacks comes two months after troops ended a war with another Muslim rebel group in Mindanao.

Fighting then against the Maute Group killed at least 1,127 people, including more than 900 militants, before it was called off in October.

"BIFF is also trying to get some attention, because they are now starting the small attacks and some explosions in other parts of Mindanao, but we still don't know how big the capability of BIFF is compared to the Maute Group that caused the siege in Marawi," said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman.

In December, the presidential website said the Armed Forces of the Philippines cited "continuing threats posed" by BIFF as a reason President Rodrigo Duterte should extend martial law in Mindanao through 2018.

Congress later granted the extension of that law, which first took effect in May to help with the battle in 2017. Martial law lets troops and police officers eliminate threats through curfews, road checkpoints and the bypassing of due process to capture rebel suspects.

What they're fighting for

The BIFF split off from a larger rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in 2008 because it didn't recognize the front's peace talks with the government.

It's now divided into three factions, including a violent one, the infantry unit spokesman said. The sub-group pledges allegiance to Islamic State, the world terrorist sponsor based in Iraq and Syria.

BIFF accuses the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of being a "sell-out" to the government because it signed a peace deal in 2014, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of Philippine advocacy organization Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

Both advocate Muslim autonomy in the southern Philippines, and some BIFF members want all-out independence.

A government commission is working now to formulate an autonomy law after senators shied away following a Moro Islamic Liberation Front attack that killed 43 soldiers in 2015.

Casiple said BIFF has about 200 to 300 people, mostly farmers and a few people who are middle-class and higher. Their ranks fluid because the fighters "co-exist" with the liberation front due to historic clan relationships, he said.

Wider threat

They operate normally in two Mindanao provinces near the 270,000-person city of Cotabato. The president fears BIFF might attack elsewhere in Mindanao, a largely impoverished island of about 21 million, analysts say.

"The president himself is quoted as saying that the post-Marawi situation is still dangerous, and one of things he cited in his request (for martial law) was BIFF, the possibility that the BIFF may attack other cities," Casiple said.

BIFF lacks the scale now of the 5-year-old Marawi rebel group. But its supporters can unite as a stronger force as needed, due to family links in their core region, Atienza said.

Officials still monitor Abu Sayyaf, another of the total 20 Muslim rebel groups in the Southern Philippines, in case it links up with BIFF. Islamic State had chosen an Abu Sayyaf leader as its emir in Southeast Asia in 2016, the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group says. But he was killed in Marawi.

BIFF, like other rebel groups, may flourish because of the "porous border" and "weak government" of the southern Philippines, said Enrico Cau, a Ph.D. student of international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Those factors let in supporters from Indonesia and Malaysia to support the Muslim rebels in their 2017 fight.

"We don't know what happens once they are recognized as an Islamic State," he said. "Will they receive funding (and) will the delays in the peace process bring new recruits to the group because they get tired of not seeing any progress and start fighting to get what they want?"

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