Mapping the Philippines Conflict – A Question of Moro Identity and Independence


The Global War on Terror Begins

On 11 September 2001, the terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, hijacked four American domestic flights with the intent of destroying major American landmarks, three of these attacks were successful (Kean, 2004). Nine days later President George W. Bush declared the Global War on Terror (GWOT) for the first time. He called on fellow states to assist the United States to fight this GWOT and the states who harbour terrorists (Bush, 2001). President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines took up this call and in 2002 the United States (U.S.) begun Operation Enduring Freedom in the Philippines (Castro,2010). With this renewed cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines, the ‘second front’ in the GWOT was launched in Southeast Asia (Woon, 2011). However, in reality, this fight has been raging for hundreds of years, from Hassan Ibn al-Shabbah’s Order of Assassins in the Middle East, Hugues de Payens’ Knights Templars in Europe, the Triads in China and the Thuggees in India, terrorist activities were not new to the twenty-first century (Sinclair, 2004). This modern ‘War on Terror’ has, and continues to be, directed towards Islamic driven terrorism.

Regional Context – Islam and the Philippines

Islam arrived in the Philippines between the tenth and twelfth centuries through trade between Arab nations and the Philippine islands (Ileto, 1971) with converts beginning to develop a ‘Moro’ identity, coming from the Spanish word ‘Moors’, during Spanish rule (McKenna, 1998). Ethnic conflict on the island, between the Islamic and Christian populations, can be traced back to the development of the Moro identity, with the Muslim population living predominantly in the south and the Christians historically living on the northern island (McKenna, 1998). This conflict was further exacerbated in the 1960s. The majority Christian government encouraged poorer inhabitants of the northern and central islands to migrate to the majority Muslim southern islands (McKenna, 1998). With northern migrants arriving in the south by the thousands, social conflicts between the Christian migrants and Muslim southerners began to erupt (McKenna, 1998). The Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM), the first attempt to organise Muslim Filipinos in order to create a separate Islamic nation from the majority Muslim islands, has been traced by many to the unexplained execution of 28 Muslim recruits by officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) (McKenna, 1998). Known as the Jabidah Massacre, the killings were seen as the final straw in the ethnic armed conflict that inspired many Muslim Filipinos to fight for independence.

7th Bangsamoro Week of Peace march – 12 March 2018

Conflict Parties and Issues

Primary Conflict Parties

Moro National Liberation Front

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has been the longest running core party to the separatist cause. Dating back to 1972, its first major clash with the government was an escalation of scattered revolts that turned into an all out war and enabled the MNLF to exercise control over the entire separatist movement (McKenna, 1998). In theory, MNLF consists of various organisational wings including an armed wing, a tribunal, and a congress, however in practice it is more centralized under its leader, Nur Misauri (Bale, 2017). Its major strongholds are situated in the Muslim majority southern islands of the Philippines, labelled the ‘Bangasmoro’ region (MNLF, 2017). In recent years, MNLF has been less active in the armed conflict due to the Mindanao Final Peace Agreement of 1996 which established a Special Zone of Peace and Development, allocated Philippine National Police vacancies to MNLF members, and integrated MNLF forces with the AFP (GRP and MNLF, 1996) within the framework of self-governance to the Bangasamoro region in Mindanao.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front

Developed in 1978, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is a breakaway faction of the MNLF. Originally called the ‘New MNLF’, members of the MNLF created MILF as a result of disagreements over MNLF leaders dropping their demands for independence in favour of self-governance (South and Joll, 2016). The MILF has worked within many of the MNLF strongholds on Mindanao, Sulu, Basilan, and Palewan islands (McKenna, 1998). The group was very active in the 1980s and 1990s, however, the post-9/11 GWOT led to international pressure for both sides to negotiate and has led to an increase in cooperation between MILF and AFP (Economist, 2017; South and Joll, 2016).

Abu Sayyaf Group

Created in 1981 by Abdurajak Janjalani, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is made up of recruits from MNLF dissidents and has primary strongholds on the Basilian and Jolo islands (UNSC, 2011, Castro, 2010). This group, consistent with MNLF and MILF, has stayed loyal to the original MIM goal of creating a separate Islamic nation in the Southern Philippines Islands. Differing from the other conflict groups, however, ASG has tied itself to the global jihad (Paddock, 2017; Villamor 2017) and has attempted to achieve its goals through terror tactics such as kidnapping, ransoms, and executions (UNSC, 2011). In 1997, ASG was added to the United States list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) (DOS, 2017).

Armed Forces of the Philippines (Government of the Philippines)

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was founded as the ‘Philippine Revolutionary Army’ on 22 March 1897 by General Emilio Aguinaldo’s ‘revolutionary government (AFP, 2017). Since the eruption of the conflict in 1972 the Government of the Philippines (GPH) has been willing to negotiate with MNLF and MILF and this has been noticed by the international community: ‘Philippines main political and military goal is to end the long war against the local insurgent groups’ (Castro, 2010). This has provided an important base of communication between the conflict parties.

Secondary Conflict Parties

Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a multinational Islamist movement (UNSC, 2011); Al-Qaeda, a movement that eventually gave rise to a ‘global jihad’ or ‘holy war’ against all governments that do not subscribe to their interpretation of Islam (FBI, 2001); and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a terror organization based in Iraq and Syria (Cockburn, 2015), have provided and received training, funding, tactical organization, and cooperative attacks with MNLF, MILF, and ASG. All three are designated FTOs according to the U.S.A (DOS, 2017).

The U.S. supported the Philippine government and army since it took over the island from the Spanish until 1992. This support was reinstated a decade later due to the launch of the GWOT in the Philippines under the codename Operation Enduring Freedom (Castro, 2010). In 2002 President Bush pledged $100 million in resources (financial, logistical, etc.) and allocated 650 American Special Operations personnel to Mindanao to train AFP soldiers to fight terrorist organizations (Castro, 2010).

Conflict Issues

The main objective of all primary conflict parties (MNLF, MILF, and ASG), excluding the AFP, is to create an Islamic state within the Muslim majority southern islands of the Philippines. However, the methods being deployed to achieve this goal has separated the groups into two main camps of government opposition: Islamic Separatism and Islamic Terrorism.

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

Islamic Separatism

The core Islamic Separatist groups within the conflict include the MNLF and MILF. These organizations can both attribute their development and ultimate goal to be the creation of an Islamic state from the majority Muslim islands in the Philippines (Castro, 2010). While their techniques and the timelines for accomplishing this goal have varied, including the use of terror tactics at times, they have both been relatively open to negotiations with GPH. An important distinction that must be made between Islamic Separatism and Islamic Terrorism is the dedication to which both MNLF and MILF have to the Christian population of southern Philippines, with the groups stating that non-Muslims living within the territory would not be subject to Sharia law (South and Joll, 2016). These organisations avoid civilian casualties when possible and attempts to mitigate their Christian population’s fears of being targeted.

Islamic Terrorism

The core Islamic Terrorist group is the ASG. The ASG has directly tied themselves to the global jihad and have firmly placed themselves as an Islamic Terrorist organisation target in the GWOT through a strategy of strictly terror tactics (UNSC, 2011). Currently, they are the only conflict group that has been placed on the FTO list (FBI, 2001). ASG has a history of using techniques such as kidnapping, ransom for funding attacks, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and executions of prisoners as a means for achieving their goals; an approach denounced by Islamic Separatist groups (Abuza, 2005). As an active member of the global jihad, ASG has received funding, recruits, and training from both al-Qaeda and Islamic State and their sub-groups (Paddock, 2017; Villamor, 2017). Whereas MNLF and MILF have been a part of on/off negotiations since 1970s, the Philippines Government has not attempted to negotiate with ASG due to its indiscrimination of terror tactics. This has created a stand-off between the two groups.

Mediators and the Peace Process


Prior to the attacks of 9/11, the main attempts at mediation between MNLF, MILF, and AFP was done by the governments of Libya, Somalia, Senegal, Saudi Arabia, and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) (Uppsala, 2017a,b,c). Private negotiations were also completed at a local level by Father Eliseo Mercado, a priest and expert on Muslim relations in the Philippines, who has been an active member in negotiations with the Islamic Separatist groups. Upon the onset of the GWOT, the Philippine conflict received immense support and pressure from the international community to conduct negotiations. Specifically, Malaysia, Brunei, Libya, and Japan have been prominent regional supporters of the peace process, with Malaysia funding and hosting multiple negotiation sessions (Uppsala, 2017a,b,c). On an international level, Turkey, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have all made attempts to further the peace process. Track two and three mediators such as the International Monitoring team, Third Party Monitoring Team, Asia Foundation, Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, Conciliation Resources, Muhammadiyah, OIC, Archdiocese of Cotabato, and the Community of Sant’Egidio have all supported and pressured both the AFP and Islamic Separatist groups to negotiate for peace (Uppsala, 2017a,b,c).

The Peace Process

To date, the conflict parties, GPH/AFP, MNLF, and MILF (but not the ASG), have all taken part in the peace process (Castro, 2010). A major part of this process has involved the ‘development agenda’, in which the GPH agreed to invest in development of impoverished areas in MNLF/MILF controlled communities (GPH and USA, 1999). This has enabled the government to address poverty-related violence and has improved the living conditions of individuals who may otherwise turn to ASG for funds and protection, though the implementation of this has varied between administrations (Abuza, 2005). This dedication to the peace process has resulted in three agreements between the GPH and MNLF: the Tripoli Agreement of 1976, Jeddah Accord of 1987, and the Mindanao Final Peace Agreement of 1996 (MNLF, 2017), and one agreement between the GPH and MILF, the ‘Terms of Reference of the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Peace Implementing Panels’. The multiple agreements have resulted in the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the dedication of funds towards development in the region. However, the peace process was not without its difficulties, a number of Framework of Agreements were agreed upon and failed due to poor implementation and lack of trust on both sides (Abuza, 2015). In 2004, the MILF and AFP reached a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS), where both conflict parties agreed that neither could back down or win the conflict (Abuza, 2005). This was a major push towards reaching an end to the conflict through peaceful methods. Secret peace talks were held in 2011 to build the trust between MILF and GPH (South and Joll, 2016). These talks were a result of the increasing pressure post 9/11 for the Philippines to settle the conflict peacefully and ‘changing attitudes to exploring non-military solutions in Mindanao by governments in Manila and dominance of oligarchic political elites’ (South and Joll, 2016) which has allowed for the GPH and MILF to come to an agreement after almost forty years of negotiating.

The Transformation of the Philippines Conflict

Transformation of the Conflict

Due to the length of the conflict, key conflict parties have transformed: evolving combining, separating, and working together for training, operations, financing, and more. The transformation of primary conflict parties: MNLF, MILF, and ASG can provide a roadmap into the evolution of the global conflict – as ethnic conflicts turned to religious conflicts and religious conflicts turned into terrorism. The Philippines conflict has been described as entering a ‘de-escalatory’ phase since the GWOT was declared in 2001, with the decline of militants from 1,200 in 2000 to 390 in 2006’ (Castro, 2010). This ‘de-escalatory’ phase may be attributed to a multitude of factors including an increase in AFP-MNLF-MILF cooperation; international pressure towards peace negotiations; a shift in Philippine public support for the ongoing conflict; and U.S. financial, military, logistic, and technical support for the AFP.

AFP – MNLF – MILF cooperation

In a post 9/11 environment, both Islamic Separatist groups attempted to further their association from ASG, identifying it as the single terrorist organisation in the Philippines (Villamor, 2017; Woon 2011). By denouncing ASG’s methods and leaders, the Separatist groups officially aligned themselves with GPH and AFP. Currently, AFP soldiers are fighting ASG in collaboration with MILF. As MILF fighters are more familiar with the terrain of the southern islands, their knowledge has allowed AFP to be more successful in their operations against ASG. We can see in figure one the transformation of the conflict group relationships, as the peace process continues to gain more support the conflict groups continue to cooperate on a scale once unimaginable in 1985.

Public influence over the conflict

At the beginning of the conflict, the Philippine media granted the conflict representation in the form of extreme violence of the Muslim population, providing a negative view of the conflict (Woon, 2011). This influenced the Philippine public’s opinion on the conflict which transferred to political pressure to not negotiate with such violent groups. MILF leaders, understanding the power of public opinion and the difficulties of turning from an armed conflict group into a political entity, have organized workshops and trainings in order to educate members on how to govern the state (South and Joll, 2016). MILF has made it part of their mission to engage with civil society actors and participate in community consultations in order to socialize and gain low-level approval of the peace process (South and Joll, 2016). This has enabled the change in perspective of the Philippine public. As we can see in figure one, MILF has successfully shifted the public’s attention via their public outreach and community consultations from a media driven narration of the conflict to a MILF-GPH driven narration.

International pressure to negotiate

Since the declaration of the GWOT there has been a large push towards negotiation by the international community (Castro, 2010). Multiple states such as Malaysia, Libya, Japan, Turkey and Brunei have offered support and resources to the Government of Philippines, MILF and MNLF for negotiation, resulting in the development of multiple agreements (Uppsala, 2017). We can see in figure one, the growing number of international actors that have taken part in placing pressure on the conflict groups to resolve the conflict through peaceful means. This pressure not only includes international actors, but regional powers, non-government organizations, and grassroots initiatives such as those of Father Eliseo Mercado. South and Joll state that the recognition of the state of Bangsamoro by the international community, and the community’s support for negotiations is a key factor in the success of the peace process to date (2016).

U.S. Support

Originally a U.S. protectorate, the Philippine Government has received millions in U.S. support towards their military capabilities. This was briefly removed for a ten-year period between 1992 and 2002, and resumed post 9/11 (Woon, 2011). The increase in U.S. funding, training, and other resources as part of Operation Enduring Freedom for the AFP allowed for an increase in capability and capacity against both the Islamic Terrorist and Islamic Separatist groups.

The denouncing of ASG by Islamic Separatist groups combined with the increased support and pressure by the international community and U.S. support has dramatically transformed the landscape of this conflict. However, it may also be argued that the war is escalating. With more players involved since 9/11, and the categorization of ASG as a terrorist organisation means that the government cannot negotiate as it did with MNLF and MILF. Many members of the MNLF and MILF are still in arms against the AFP (South and Joll, 2016). MILF members are still in negotiation with GPH over land rights (MILF, 2017), and MNLF continues the fight for separatism (MNLF, 2017). It could be described that the current situation as a MHS but moving towards a positive solution.


Further analysis of this conflict may focus on how the MNLF and MILF were transformed from conflict parties against the AFP to conflict parties in collaboration the AFP as well as the minute details that caused earlier negotiations between the parties to fail. This analysis may assist in turning the ASG into a legitimate conflict actor if it can be separated from the Global War on Terror.


By Allison Pitre

(ed. Marie Hoffmann)


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