MILF gets preachers to thwart ISIS recruitment efforts

Philippines' President Benigno Aquino reviews a military platoon at the 80th founding anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, on Dec 21, 2015.
Philippines' President Benigno Aquino reviews a military platoon at the 80th founding anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, on Dec 21, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Philippine military welcomes Muslim rebel group's move to counter 'distortions' of teachings

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has formed a task force to counter purported efforts by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to recruit fighters in the restive southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Mr Mohagher Iqbal, the spokesman for the group, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that recruitment videos released last month by local Islamist groups which have pledged allegiance to ISIS were "authentic".

But he said the 12,000-strong MILF, which signed a peace deal with the government in March 2014 after fighting a decades-long secessionist war, has yet to verify whether there is already a "formal ISIS organisation" in Mindanao.

Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the Philippine military's spokesman, told The Straits Times that the creation of the MILF task force is a "welcome development".

"Any effort aimed at controlling extremism, especially within their organisation, is a welcome development," he said.

Mr Iqbal said the task force consists of Islamic preachers tasked to counter ISIS' "distortions" of the Quran and Islamic teachings.

KEEPING THE PEACE

A mixture of strategic and ideological disputes are at play here. The MILF leadership is portraying itself as a partner for peace and a bulwark against radicalisation in Mindanao.

COUNTER-TERROR EXPERT RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN

He believes ISIS has been gaining ground, especially among Muslims in the Philippines who are frustrated over political wrangling that has derailed efforts to create an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao.

Counter-terror expert Richard Javad Heydarian, of De La Salle University, said that the MILF, in creating the task force, may be taking steps to prevent extremists seeking to sabotage its peace deal with the government from recruiting "loose cannons" from within its ranks.

"A mixture of strategic and ideological disputes are at play here. The MILF leadership is portraying itself as a partner for peace and a bulwark against radicalisation in Mindanao," said Mr Heydarian.

Brig-Gen Padilla said earlier that security forces were "well aware of the emerging threat (from ISIS), and have been conducting operations to prevent terror acts anywhere in the country".

But he dismissed as "propaganda" the recruitment videos released by Muslim extremists in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the past month.

"There remains no credible and direct connection to the bigger group in the Middle East up to this time," he said.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino had hoped a Bill creating the Muslim region - the cornerstone of the MILF peace deal - would become a law before he steps down in June this year.

But a botched operation to arrest Malaysian extremist Zulkifli Hir, alias Marwan, last year provided opportunities for opposition lawmakers to stonewall the proposed law.

More than 40 police commandos who fought hundreds of Muslim fighters, including some who belonged to the MILF, were killed in that operation, provoking public outrage and fuelling opposition to the Mindanao peace pact.

With the campaign season for this year's elections set to kick off later this month, the Bill will likely be passed on to the next Congress, where it will again go through a series of hearings.

Recent intelligence reports suggest that the Philippines is becoming a breeding ground for Islamist fighters seeking to join ISIS.

Two videos released in the past month sought to show the militants' purported strength.

A three-minute video posted on Dec 20 showed a group of men, clad mostly in black and with the ISIS flag as their background, coaxing Muslims to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS.

A spokesman said that they were members of Ansar Khalifa Philippines, a group believed to be sheltering at least three South-east Asian extremists who have returned after fighting with ISIS in Syria.

The video also showed footage of what appeared to be a training camp on a clearing in the middle of a jungle somewhere in Mindanao.

A second video, released early this month, claimed that four battalions of militants from the Philippines and Malaysia have merged into a single unit under a leadership council now being steered by Abu Sayyaf ideologue Isnilon Hapilon.

The council is said to be paving the way for the declaration of a South-east Asia "wilayat", or province, of ISIS.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'MILF gets preachers to thwart ISIS recruitment efforts'. Print Edition | Subscribe