Small Wars Journal

The Bangsamoro Insurgency: An International History

Wed, 09/21/2011 - 11:01am

The Republic of the Philippines.  Vibrant democracy.  Former American possession.  Predominantly Christian.  Not the type of place or conditions readily associated with Islamist-inspired insurgency.  Yet nowhere else in East Asia over the last forty years has an Islamist movement garnered greater public support amongst its base or enjoyed equal success; so much so that the central government actually recognized its claims as legitimate and initiated a peace-process to address the underlying issues.  For all the concern over Indonesia and its 243 million Muslims,[1] it is the Philippines that occupies center-stage in the Global War on Terrorism in Southeast Asia.

Despite this reality and the presence of significant numbers of U.S. personnel in the region advising the Armed Forces of the Philippines, few Americans know of this insurgency, and fewer understand it.  This paper seeks to provide a working knowledge of the so-called Bangsamoro insurgency’s origins to Americans involved in the region, or others interested in better understanding it.  As a primer there is nothing new or novel in this paper’s observations; however, it does place the Bangsamoro insurgency into the context of global Islamic political developments, a perspective other studies sometimes lack.  Because the development of Bangsamoro identity is the result of regional and global interactions centered on the Southern Philippines dating back over a millennium, its political manifestation since the 1960s is likewise a product of importation and adaptation of outside ideas; the Bangsamoro movement cannot be understood in isolation.

The Origins of the Bangsamoro Ideal

The term Bangsamoro is loosely translated as “Moro Nation,”[2] a term used by secessionists to identify the predominantly Muslim inhabitants of the Southern Philippines (centered mainly on the western side of the major southern island of Mindanao and the islands of the Sulu Archipelago) versus the majority Christian northerners.[3]  For all its currency however, Bangsamoro is a fairly recent construct with little historical justification.[4]  Prior to the arrival of the Americans in 1898, the inhabitants of the Philippines were generally considered part of the broader ‘Malay’ race occupying present-day Malaysia and Indonesia by Westerners;[5] the term ‘Filipino’ reserved only for local elites of Spanish stock born in the Philippines.[6]  The reality is more complex.  The modern Bangsamoro homeland consists of 13 historically distinct ethno-linguistic entities dominated by the Maguindanao and Tausog tribes,[7] each often pursuing competing local interests resulting in inter-ethnic conflict.  The common element is faith.  While conducting routine trade and interaction with the islands of present-day Indonesia and Southeast Asia these tribes imported Islam in the four centuries preceding Spanish colonization, producing an ‘other’ identity between these Muslim converts and their pagan neighbors to the north.  This identity was further reinforced after Spanish contact as the Spaniards first converted the northern tribes to Christianity, then pursued the forced conversion of southern Muslims in a series of wars to exert direct Spanish control.[8]

The United States recognized the cultural heterogeneity of the Philippines upon assuming control of the archipelago in 1898[9] and deliberately fostered a new ‘Filipino’ identity through education and civic government.  Ironically this would foster the development of the Bangsamoro ideal.  The Filipino identity was centered on the Christian, Tagalog-speaking communities of Manila and the north; integration was the process of bringing all inhabitants closer in line with this Filipino ideal using American-imported concepts of public education, representation, and mass media as the vehicles.  In the south these developments cut against Muslim sensibilities; the Moro insurgency of the first two decades of the twentieth century left the traditional sultan and datu leadership structure in shambles and replaced shari’a law with secular Western practices.[10]  Further, in order to facilitate the integration of Muslims into the new Filipino ideal, the government initiated an immigration policy bringing landless Christians from the north south to settle in Muslim areas;[11] a practice continued throughout the 1960s.[12]  These developments resulted in “marginality, dissatisfaction, and ultimately, among many, rejection of the Philippine nation-state,”[13] driving the development of the Bangsamoro identity in opposition to the imposed ‘Filipino’ identity.

The Political Origins of Bangsamoro Unrest

Despite discussions over Moro independence during the 1936 constitutional convention, the Bangsamoro identity—with Islam as its core—“was not used as a tool for political mobilization until the 1960s,”[14] because the requisite internal and international conditions did not support such a move.  In order to fully understand the Bangsamoro insurgency, one must place events in the Southern Philippines within a global—specifically pan-Islamic—context.

Conditions radically changed in 1941 with the Japanese occupation of the islands.  As in other colonial possessions—Indonesia and Malaya included—the Japanese occupation authorities sought to develop competing identities within their newly acquired territories to disassociate the local power-base from their former masters while dissuading resistance to Japanese administration.[15]  Religion played a key role in this process.

Following the war, an independent Republic of the Philippines unwittingly facilitated the further development of Muslim autonomy by tolerating a major black market economy centered on the Southern Philippines conducting illicit trade in American cigarettes through traditional Muslim trade routes with Malaysia and Indonesia.[16]  Along with trade however, these cross-border contacts facilitated Philippine Muslims’ integration in a wider Islamic world undergoing radical change.

The same post-colonial forces responsible for Philippine independence were also transforming the Muslim world.  Across Africa, the Middle East, and South/Southeast Asia newly independent Muslim states were emerging from collapsing European empires.  Just as it did during the centuries before Magellan, and again at the turn of the twentieth century,[17] trade and pilgrimage from the Arab core through the Straits of Malacca was importing new ideas into the Muslim communities in Southeast Asia.  What scholar Bruce Lawrence terms Islamic revivalism and reformism began to transform communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, and ultimately the Southern Philippines.  Lawrence defines revivalism as “the affirmation of Islamic identity and values” while reformism was “the product of the colonial presence” that sought to blend the secular nationalism of the West with Muslim identity.[18]  Revivalism came first, initially penetrating the Southeast Asian Muslim community in the first decades of the twentieth century through the movement of students to Arab universities in, among other places, Egypt; and by pilgrims exposed to contemporary Arab thought as a byproduct of their hajj to Mecca.[19]  This strain of thought exhorted Muslims to return to the roots of their religion, purging the faith of impurities as a reaction to the challenge of Western colonialism.  As such, it became a lighting rod for the anti-colonial struggle throughout Muslim Southeast Asia,[20] particularly in Indonesia.  Revivalism, however “was timid on the question of the state… [it] provided no comprehensive blueprint for political organization,”[21] which limited its intellectual usefulness as an engine for political change.  Revivalist thought primarily manifested itself in increased Muslim religiosity—the self-expression of one’s personal faith[22]—rather than in political action.  This is one explanation for the lack of political momentum behind Moro separatism prior to World War II.

The concomitant rise of independent Muslim states and reformism began to change this dynamic in the Southern Philippines.  The perceived success of secular Islamic governments throughout the Muslim world convinced some Bangsamoro that independence was possible.  Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt personified secular Islamic reformism during the 1950s and 60s, with its strong emphasis on the borrowed Western concept of ethnic nationalism.  The Philippine Government unwittingly fueled the Bangsamoro separatist movement during this period by enacting educational reform exposing Muslim youth to imported Islamic education.  200 Southern Philippine Muslims received scholarships to attend al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, with reciprocal visits by Egyptian teachers and Indonesian graduates of the university to preach and educate in the islands.  These 200 graduates would then return to teach in Islamic education centers and madrasas funded by Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) members Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.[23]  As a result, Bangsamoro exposure to outside pan-Arabic and Islamic ideas surged.

Compounding the heightened religious awareness were a series of internal threats to Philippine Muslims.  Thousands of college graduates educated in the north returned to communities with little economic opportunity.  Moreover, a recently concluded peace settlement with communist insurgents in the north resulted in increased migration of landless Christian peasants awarded land titles in the south.[24]  The situation was primed for ethnic conflict.

Rise of the MNLF

Although the history of Muslim insurgency in the Southern Philippines extends back centuries, the proximate cause of the current Islamist-inspired movement can be traced directly back to the 1968 Jabidah massacre.  In response to a territorial dispute with Malaysia, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos directed a covert action against Malaysian authority in the territory of Sabah.  All the commandos involved were Muslim, and evidence suggests that these operatives mutinied when informed that their targets were fellow Muslims (diplomatically claimed by the Philippine Government), resulting is a government crackdown and the death of all but one.[25]  This event initiated a chain of events both within and outside the Philippines that resulted in the emergence of a full-scale insurgency.

Externally, the political leader of Sabah—Tun Mustapha, a Tausog with relatives in Jolo—began arming small groups of Bangsamoro to fight the Philippine Government.  This led to the creation of the first violent separatist group—the Moro Islamic Movement (MIM)—which conducted low-intensity violence against Christians in Mindanao.[26]  The Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War further fueled the insurgency as OIC states consciously sought out pan-Islamic causes to support as an extension of the Arab reaction to what it perceived as Western hostility to Islam.

Internally the massacre prompted mass student protests and increased activism.  Violence increased throughout 1968-71, with increased government control of southern towns and villages.  Simultaneously, a small group founded by Nur Misuari—the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—trained and equipped with Libyan weapons in Sabah and Malaysia prepared to commence full-scale operations.[27]  With violence spiraling out of control, in July 1971 all sectors of Bangsamoro society published a manifesto calling for government intervention, an action the government treated as a threat to Philippine sovereignty.[28]  The Marcos regime retaliated in 1972 by declaring martial law and restructuring the lucrative black market trade, denying the Bangsamoro elite traditional laizze faire and awarding control to the army.  In a stroke Marcos intensified the insurgency by directly challenging local elite and engendered a strident independence platform heretofore constrained only by the economic benefits of illicit trade.  From 1972-1972 the 30,000 strong MNLF—funded by Malaysia and Libya—tied down 70-80 percent of the Philippine military, inflicting an average of 100 casualties per month.[29]  The MNLF movement itself however was woefully uncohesive; outgunned, it quickly lost popular support because of spiraling civilian casualties.  Moreover, in the mid 1970s a turn of Malaysian policy induced by that country’s own Islamist challenge—the Dakwah movement[30]—and the electoral defeat of Tun Mustapha in Sabah deprived the MNLF of critical outside support.

The Marcos regime exploited the MNLF’s loss of momentum with a multi-faced strategy.  While maintaining military pressure the Philippine President directed relief and reconstruction operations in the worst affected areas while establishing the Southern Philippines Development Authority to address Bangsamoro social and economic concerns.  Marcos also reached-out to non-MNLF Muslim leaders—further exploiting the wedge between the MNLF and populace—and realigned his foreign policy to court international Muslim favor.

First Interregnum

Marcos’ approach combined with the shifting international environment finally brought the two sides to the negotiating table.  In 1975 the government and MNLF leaders entered negotiations in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia while the Philippine military sent negotiating panels to insurgent field commanders.  While MNLF leaders debated, international Muslim leaders—anxious for resolution—endorsed ‘autonomy’ as the basis for Philippine-MNLF negotiations at the 5th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), damaging insurgent aspirations for independence.  Local cease-fires and presidential guarantees of immunity for MNLF leaders eventually resulted in a Libyan-brokered peace-treaty on 23 December 1976—the Tripoli Agreement—that accepted MNLF grievances subject to a local plebiscite.[31]

Fundamentalism and the MNLF/MILF Split

The Tripoli Agreement proved to be little more than a cease-fire with long-term implications.  Fighting resumed in 1977 despite the government’s adoption of a Code of Muslim Personal Laws—incorporating shari’a courts into the national system—in part due to another major influx of Christians into the region, and partly over significant disagreements over the settlement’s implementation.[32]  Relying on his almost unlimited powers, Marcos sought to manipulate the plebiscite process in his favor; a move strongly resisted by the MNLF.  The political deadlock prompted Misuari to address the MNLF’s concerns to the 8th ICFM, which voted to continue negotiations.[33]

The 8th ICFM’s decision compounded by the movement’s earlier decision to accept autonomy rather than outright independence prompted an irrevocable split in the MNLF, separating Misuari’s supporters from hard-line elements led by Salamat Hashim, a Maguindanao.[34]  This splintering of the movement dramatically shaped the course of the Bangsamoro insurgency over the next decade, first because it split Muslim political and financial supporters into opposing camps, with Libya continuing to support Misuari while Hashim established himself in Cairo.  Most significantly however, the split coincided with the emergence of fundamentalist undercurrents throughout the Islamic world; a development that would shape the future character of the political process, and which may only be understood in the larger context of pan-Islamic fundamentalist thought.

Islamic fundamentalism emerged in the 1970s as the result of a number of factors including the emergence of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and as an intellectual and popular reaction to secular states’ perceived failure to crush a vulnerable Israel in the 1967 Six Day and 1973 Yom Kippur Wars.[35]  It essentially filled the political void in Islamic revivalism, offering an alternative to the secular nation-state inherited by Muslim countries from the West.  At its core, fundamentalism rejects the Western concept of a separation of church and state, arguing that because Islam is “both the spiritual and the political, the private and the public domains… to talk about a mosque-state division in Islam is to talk about dividing Islam.”[36]  In this regard, fundamentalism—like its antithesis, communism—is an all-encompassing ideology; and like its communist antecedent, fundamentalism is politically divided between radicals, bent on reforming the prevailing political order, and moderates, who are content to work within the present order.[37]  In the fundamentalist case radicals wholly reject the legitimacy of existing states[38] on the grounds that nationalism is simply a recurrence of the Arab tribalism prevailing at the time of Mohammed;[39] tribalism the prophet vehemently opposed and only overcame by the unification of believers under the political banner of faith.  Moderates on the other hand are content to build Islam in one state for the foreseeable future.  Both share in common a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the shari’a tradition.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, fundamentalism is not inherently violent—although many fundamentalist movements employ violence as a means to their end—but is certainly anti-progressive and anti-modern.

1979 proved a crucial year for both the Bangsamoro insurgency locally, and fundamentalism globally.  The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran provided Misuari with another supporter as he continued to resist the Marcos regime,[40] while the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan galvanized Muslim militants worldwide and provided the impetus for renewed Bangsamoro resistance in the Southern Philippines.[41]  Capitalizing on the revolutionary momentum initiated by the mujahidin resistance to the Soviets, Hashim moved his partisans to Pakistan, establishing key links with pan-Islamist militants worldwide.[42]  There, 600 of his followers underwent structured military training, with 180 going on to conduct active operations against the Soviets.[43]  This cadre returned to the Philippines and established training camps and programs to indoctrinate a new generation of insurgents, led by bloodied commanders.[44]

Throughout the early 1980’s Misuari’s MNLF continued to suffer battlefield setbacks, resulting in increased ICFM pressure to return to the negotiating table.  By 1982 the situation was so dire that the MNLF agreed to join with local communists of the National Democratic Front (NDF) in a joint insurgent campaign, alienating large segments of the religious public and their leaders, the ulama.[45]  In 1984 Hashim perceived the opportunity to establish a separate entity, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to prosecute an independent Bangsamoro agenda.  Unlike the secular MNLF, the MILF demanded total independence and the adoption of fundamentalist political ideals to recast the Bangsamoro homeland into a moderate fundamentalist entity.[46]

The MILF enjoyed tremendous popular support initially, attributed by its leaders to the movement’s twin pillars of Islam and independence.  In reality, the deteriorating situation caused by conflict and a decade of martial law was the real source of popular support.[47]  Marcos attempted to undercut MILF support by lifting martial law, but was himself ousted in 1986 as a result of mounting national backlash against his rigging of elections.[48]


The ouster of Ferdinand Marcos and inauguration of Corazon Aquino provided impetus for a new round of peace negotiations.  Although both the MNLF and MILF were engaged, the MILF broke off talks as a result of the government recognizing Misuari’s MNLF as its negotiating partner—thanks in large part to that movement’s close association with many government elite.  The MILF responded by reinitiating military operations, and establishing a shadow government in the south with the ultimate goal of Islamization, build-up, and self-reliance.[49]  Drawing on the political and cultural capital of its Islamist credentials, the MILF was able to expand its base from the urban poor and ulama to include growing numbers of urbanites and professionals disillusioned with the MNLF and the peace process.[50]  Throughout the late 1980s, sporadic fighting continued between rounds of failed negotiations, with the government pursuing legislative and constitutional solutions to Muslim grievances.  The MNLF and MILF enjoyed a period of tacit cooperation while improving their own political positions.  The 1989 establishment of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) prompted hope for a final settlement that degenerated into conflict over the results of further plebiscites and elections.[51]

Rapprochement:  SZOPAD

By 1990 the insurgency entered its third decade and all parties sought a settlement.  Real progress was imminent as the country went to the polls in 1992.  The opposition candidate—Fidel Ramos—visited Libya and secured Muammar Quadaffi’s cooperation in finding a peaceful settlement to the Bangsamoro issue.  Upon his election in May, Ramos initiated a National Unification Commission (NUC) that opened peace talks with the MNLF and MILF backed by Libya, Indonesia, and other OIC nations.[52]  Progress was slow, but by 02 September 1996 an official peace agreement between the government and the MNLF was reached, establishing the Southern Philippines Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD).  Although the MILF denounced the agreement, it publicly agreed to support peace, observing an intermittent cease-fire through 2000.

A subsequent election named Misuari governor.  Corrupt and fond of large-scale projects such as mass transit at the expense of simple local projects designed to address grass-roots concerns such as health and education, Misuari’s administration quickly lost popularity and the support of many in and outside the MNLF,[53] paving the way for a new type of group and a new type of tactic.

International Terrorism in Bangsamoro:  From Afghanistan to Yousef

Diplomatic efforts were not the only external developments affecting the Bangsamoro question during the 1990s.  Starting in the late 1980s and accelerating through the mid-1990s, the nexus of local and pan-Islamic militancy born of the Afghan war was transforming the Southern Philippines into a bastion of international Islamic terrorism.  In 1987 the Philippine police exposed a large cell of the Abu Nidal terrorist group, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began funneling weapons to both major Bangsamoro movements.  The following year, an obscure Saudi fundamentalist—Osama bin Laden—dispatched his brother-in-law to the region to develop a support network for the operations of his own organization, al-Qaida.  Funding would follow, as al-Qaida “effectively united with other groups, backed them, found common cause, and linked them into a global network.”[54]  In 1991 Iraqi terrorists even sought to target Americans in Manila as retaliation for Operation Desert Storm, although the plot was foiled.[55]

The introduction of trans-national terrorism again transformed the environment in which Bangsamoro unrest manifested itself.  It shifted the source of funding and material assistance for both the MNLF and MILF away from state sponsors such as Libya—facilitating the peace process—toward international terrorist organizations using civic organizations as fronts.[56]  It also sparked the growth of new Bangsamoro movements employing new tactics towards familiar ends.

Al-Qaida money and support directly facilitated the creation of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in 1991 by a former Bangsamoro mujahidin veteran of Afghanistan, Ustadz Abdurajak Janjalani, as an al-Qaida affiliate committed to establishing a pure Islamist state based on the precepts of Salafi Wahhabism.[57]  Capitalizing on militant discontent with Misuari and the MNLF, Janjalani’s movement offered a radical alternative to the more moderate MILF.  Importing international explosives experts provided by al-Qaida and using ASG sanctuaries as training areas, Janjalani’s group rapidly established itself as a significant local terrorist cell, receiving covert Libyan support.[58]  This group’s terror attacks between 1991 and 1996 would hamper, but not stop the peace process.

Even MILF, publicly committed to supporting the SZOPAD agreement, began to resort to terror to advance its political agenda.  Mimicking al-Qaida’s methods, the group expanded from a traditional guerilla movement to diverse areas including international crime and legitimate business enterprises to compensate for reduced funding from the OIC nations.[59]  MILF also increased its direct association with al-Qaida, receiving increased funding and technical assistance in the form of imported trainers from elsewhere in the Muslim world, and even exported members to train in camps located in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan.[60]  Of particular significance was the increased cooperation between MILF and regional terrorist organizations including Malaysia’s Kampulan Mujahidin and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiya (JI).  Because of their close physical proximity and kinship, the intersection of all three movements complemented the rise of the others; an example being JI fund-raising for MILF in exchange for training.

Of greater international concern should have been the wider al-Qaida network in the Philippines that facilitated spectacular attacks against Western targets.  The ARMM/ SZOPAD served as a virtual sanctuary for international terrorists—particularly the cell belonging to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11 among other high-profile attacks, and Ramzi Yousef—who used the Philippines as a safe-haven after conducting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and in preparation for further attacks both against and using jetliners as weapons.[61]  Unfortunately, after capturing Yousef and a number of his associates as a result of the botched Oplan Bojinka operation to down major jetliners in 1995, both Philippine and U.S. investigators failed to appreciate the extent and significance of the al-Qaida network in the region, allowing crucial nodes to remain in place until 1996.[62]

International Terrorism in Bangsamoro:  From Yousef to 9/11

Following Yousef’s capture, the Philippines decreased in importance for al-Qaida as bin Laden centered his emerging network on Sudan and then, the radically fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan.  Although contacts continued between the organization and both MILF and ASG, the funding stream was reduced prompting increased MILF/ASG conflict over support.  By the late 1990s however, support for ASG virtually evaporated as the organization resorted increasingly to criminal activity in the wake of Janjalani’s death in 1998.[63]  By 9/11, the ASG retained no discernable ties to international terrorism.[64]

MILF’s connection with international, and especially, regional terrorist groups on the other hand was increasing.  In addition to continued al-Qaida support, during the mid-1990s Hamas and the Tamil Tigers both sought sanctuary in the ARMM/SZOPAD[65] and JI also greatly facilitated MILF establishing its own terrorist organization—Special Operations Group—in 1999;[66] the ultimate manifestation of MILF’s dual game of overtly supporting peace in the SZOPAD while pursuing its own political agenda.

The Post-9/11 Response to Bangsamoro

In 2000 a hard-line President—Joseph Estrada—was elected and promptly ended three years of government-sponsored relief and reconstruction programs initiated at Hashim’s request, triggering the resumption of major MILF operations against the government.[67]  The MNLF however remained committed to peace.  In April 2001 a potentially explosive situation failed to materialize as the movement itself expelled Misuari as governor over corruption charges.[68]

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States had profound implications for both sides of the Bangsamoro dispute.  The Philippine government—now headed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—perceived the benefits of American aid to combat Muslim separatism and quickly aligned itself with Washington, offering bases for combat operations against Afghanistan and intelligence-sharing.  In return she secured American financial and logistic support as well as training in combating the ASG, which continues to struggle for survival.[69]

The MILF situation was trickier.  Despite clear ties to al-Qaida, the Arroyo government lobbied hard to exclude the group from both the U.S. and United Nations’ lists of terrorist organizations.  These efforts were critical to the ongoing peace process; the government regarded Muslim grievances as legitimate, and recognized the MILF as a military extension of Bangsamoro political aspirations.  While international labeling of the group as terrorists would have irrevocably ended the government’s efforts towards negotiations, international acquiescence enabled the Arroyo administration to continue its pursuit of a negotiated end to the long-running insurgency.[70]

Given the new international environment, MILF seemed inclined to bargain.  Immediately after 9/11 the group publicly disavowed all association with al-Qaida, and by dropping its long-standing demand for independence in favor of autonomy, visibly increased its efforts toward working through the political system by participating in and winning local elections.[71]  In 2003 the latest cease-fire was brokered by Malaysia, anxious to emerge as a political as well as economic leader in Southeast Asia and a model Muslim democracy.  Despite the presence of peacekeepers as monitors however, sporadic fighting continues.  2007 and 2008 agreements on the boundaries of ancestral domain were viewed as preliminaries toward a comprehensive peace,[72] but as of early 2011 no such agreement has been reached.

Following an abortive rebellion by Misuari and a splinter cell of supporters in November 2001, MNLF seemed committed to observing the 1996 agreements.  Then in 2005 the group resumed small-scale fighting in Sulu—ostensibly as retaliation for operations against the ASG.  In 2007 Misuari returned to the helm of MNLF and the same year, was implicated in further attacks against government forces.[73]  The MNLF remains a weak and divided movement, with many supporters tacitly supporting either the MILF or ASG agenda.

Although peace remains elusive, mainstream MNLF and MILF are decreasingly a military threat and increasingly a political force in the Southern Philippines.  Of greater concern are the remnants of ASG and fringe groups of the MNLF and MILF—including Special Operations Group—with possibly enduring ties to both al-Qaida and regional terrorists such as Indonesia’s JI.[74]


For all its indigenous allure, the concept of Bangsamoro can be woefully inadequate as either an identity or comprehensive term for analyzing Muslim unrest in the Southern Philippines.  While Bangsamoro implies unity, the reality is that the Muslim movements in the region are fragmented, often competing, and nearly impervious to central control.  Further, although the central element of commonality remains faith, local politics and tribal identity do play a role in manifesting local politics through violence.  Despite governmental efforts to address the underlying causes of the insurgency—economic opportunity, basic quality of life, and an autonomous ethno-religious homeland—history suggests that external political and intellectual Muslim movements over the coming decade may decisively influence the ultimate fate of peace in the region.

[1] From the CIA Fact Book < > accessed 26 January 2011.

[2] Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia (Boulder, CO:  Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003), p. 34.

[3] Eric Casino, Case Studies of Islam in Asia:  The Moro’s of the Philippines (unpublished; cited with author’s permission), p.11.

[4] Abuza, p. 34.

[5] Donna J. Amoroso, “Inheriting the ‘Moro Problem’:  Muslim Authority and Colonial Rule in British Malaya and the Philippines” from Julian Go and Anne L. Foster (Editors), The American Colonial State in the Philippines (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2003), p. 118-21.

[6] Casino, pg. 10.

[7] Abuza, p. 34; Amoroso, pg. 126; Casino, pg. 1-2.

[8] Abuza, p. 34; Casino, pg. 4; Soliman Santos Jr., The Moro Islamic Challenge (Quezon City, Philippines:  University of the Philippines Press, 2001), pg. 185.

[9] Amoroso, pg. 118-19.

[10] Ibid, pg. 135-41.

[11] Ibid, pg. 138; Abuza, pg. 35.

[12] Ibid, pg. 36.

[13] Amoroso, pg. 143.

[14] Ibid, pg. 142.

[15] Examples from other Muslim communities include Robert Hefner, Civil Islam (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2000), pg. 41; and Hermawan Sulistiyo, “Greens in the Rainbow” from Robert Hefner (Editor), The Politics of Multiculturalism (Honolulu, HI:  University of Hawai’i Press, 2001), pg. 293-4.

[16] Abuza, pg. 36.

[17] Specifically the ‘modernist’ ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh.  See Giora Eliraz, Islam in Indonesia (Portland, OR:  Sussex Academic Press, 2004), pg. 1-2.

[18] Bruce Lawrence, Shattering the Myth (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1998), pg. xv.

[19] For more on this transference of thought and religious interpretation from the Arab core to the Muslim hinterlands, see Giora, pg. 1-17 and 56-65.

[20] Abuza, pg. 33.

[21] Hefner, pg. 40.

[22] Mehran Kamrava, The New Voices of Islam (Berkley, CA:  University of California Press, 2006), pg. 5.

[23] Abuza, pg. 36-7.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, pg. 37.

[26] Ibid, pg. 36-7.

[27] Ibid, pg. 38; Kristina Gaerlan and Mara Stankovitch (Editors), Rebels, Warloards, and Ulama (Quezon City, Philippines:  Institute for Popular Democracy, 2000), pg. xiv.

[28] Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xiv.

[29] Abuza, pg. 38.

[30] For more on this Malaysian Islamist movement see Shamsul A.B., “Identity Construction, Nation Formation, and Islamic Revivalism in Malaysia” from Robert Hefner and Patricia Horvatich (Editors), Islam in an Era of Nation-States (Honolulu, HI:  University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), pg. 207-27.

[31] Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xvi-ii.

[32] Abuza, pg. 39.

[33] Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xvii-iii.

[34] Abuza, pg. 39-40; Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xviii.

[35] Lawrence, pg. 51.

[36] Ibid, pg. 67.

[37] Ibid, pg. 104.

[38] Kamrava, pg. 8.

[39] Lawrence, pg. 68.

[40] Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xix.

[41] Abuza, pg. 90-91.

[42] Ibid, pg. 91.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid, pg. 39-40; Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xix-xxi.

[46] Ibid, pg. 40; Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xxi.

[47] Abuza, pg. 40.

[48] Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xx-xxii.

[49] Abuza, pg. 41.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Gaerlan and Stankovitch, pg. xxii-xxiii.

[52] Ibid, pg. xxiii-xxv.

[53] Abuza, pg. 41-3.

[54] Ibid, pg. 90.

[55] Ibid.

[56] For more on this strategy see Abuza, pg. 91-9.

[57] Ibid, pg. 94, 99-100.

[58] Ibid, pg. 100-1.

[59] Ibid, pg. 96.

[60] Ibid, pg. 96-7.

[61] Ibid, pg. 101-8.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid, pg. 111.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid, pg. 90.

[66] Ibid, pg. 95-9 and 136-8.

[67] Ibid, pg. 46.

[68] Ibid, pg. 43.

[69] Ibid, pg. 202-3.

[70] Ibid, pg. 207-10.

[71] Ibid, pg. 47.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Abuza, pg. 110-15 and 202-12.

About the Author(s)

Major Mark Snakenberg is currently assigned to Headquarters, United States Army Pacific, Executive Engagements Services Directorate.  His previous assignments include AC/RC Cavalry Team Chief, Support Battalion, 196th Infantry Brigade; Commander, C Company, 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment (Operation Iraqi Freedom V); Assistant Operations Officer, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division; Chief of Operations, 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment (Operation Iraqi Freedom III); and Platoon Leader/Executive Officer, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment (Operation Iraqi Freedom).  He holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Indiana University.


There’s a lot to dispute here. A lot of it is in details, and disputing one by one would seem petty, and consume a great deal of time. Overall, though, I’d question the entire thesis: the extent to which this insurgency is “Islamist inspired”, and the extent to which it is generated by any wider global trend. Certainly there’s been some influence from “global Islamic political developments”, but at root everything at the core of this fight is local, driven by land and settlement, power and patronage.

There are some issues here that deserve to be specifically contested. One is this:

<i>the proximate cause of the current Islamist-inspired movement can be traced directly back to the 1968 Jabidah massacre</i>

This is a myth that has gained traction primarily through repetition, though it’s been effectively discredited by a number of scholars (most effectively by Thomas McKenna) and is not taken seriously by anyone with field experience in Central Mindanao. Jabidah did have a huge impact on Nur Misuari and other Manila-based Muslims, who were already on the way to a radicalism that owed more to the left student politics of UP than to the Middle East. They had a lesser impact on Muslim leaders in Mindanao. The conflict that exploded in Mindanao in the early 70s, though, was not initiated by Misuari and the MNL, or by Udtug Matalam and his Muslim Independence Movement, or for that matter by the Philippine armed forces. The conflict began among largely informal militias formed by Muslims and by Visayan settlers in Cotabato and Lanao, and at this level most of those fighting were barely aware of Jabidah.

The core of the Central Mindanao insurgency, and the key to understanding it, lies in understanding the impact of externally sponsored settlement in Cotabato and Lanao. Settlers had been arriving for decades, but two things changed in the 1960s. First, the pace of settlement surged, to a point where many areas that had once had a majority Muslim population suddenly had a settler majority. Second was the emergence of a settler political elite. In the early days of settlement most arrivals were poor, settled on unused land, and were not perceived as a threat. By the 60s that was changing, with a new type of settler arriving, with money in hand and ambition to go with it. The settler elite began establishing a power base and by the ’71 provincial elections was converting the settler majority in many areas to victory in local elections, including the governorship of Cotabato.

The initial outbreaks of violence had their own invariably local causes. Each side believes to this day that the other was the aggressor and they were victims who took up arms only in self defense. Except to the extent that settlement was in itself considered a form of aggression by the indigenous populace, it’s not possible to determine “who started it”. What is certain is that news (generally distorted) of the fighting spread instantly, leading both sides to form militias and often to strike preemptively. What’s also certain is that the Philippine military universally took the side of the settlers, creating the impression of a genocidal anti-Muslim campaign. An incident in the town of Buldun, which began with conflict between settler loggers and indigenous locals and ended with the Philippine Army shelling the town for 4 days did more to enhance that impression than Jabidah.

I believe that external influence and the impact of relifious and philosophical differences is also highly overstated in the account of the MNLF/MILF split. Certainly there was conflict between Nur Misuari’s Libyan-influenced Islamic Socialism and Hashim Salamat’s more purist Islamic Egyptian-influenced thinking. A greater influence, I suspect, lay in the long-standing gap between the Tausug Misuari and the Maguindanao/Maranao elite factions that had never been comfortable being led by a Tausug commoner like Misuari. It didn’t help that as MNLF leaders were bought off with lucrative government posts, thejuiciest spoils were going to Misuari’s inner circle. As is often the case in the Philippines, all the talk was of lofty principles but power and patronage were actually driving events.

This was also a bit startling:

<i>The ARMM/ SZOPAD served as a virtual sanctuary for international terrorists—particularly the cell belonging to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11 among other high-profile attacks, and Ramzi Yousef—who used the Philippines as a safe-haven after conducting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and in preparation for further attacks both against and using jetliners as weapons</i>

That's simply not true. These cells were based in Manila, not Mindanao, and had very little contact with the Mindanao organizations or with the Muslim community in Manila. The safe haven was in the Philippines, but it wasn’t in the ARMM, and despite occasional claims, Yousef’s group was in no way an Abu Sayyaf cell.

To avoid running on (bit late for that)…

I absolutely agree that “the Muslim movements in the region are fragmented, often competing, and nearly impervious to central control.” I also believe that the supposed “governmental efforts to address the underlying causes of the insurgency—economic opportunity, basic quality of life, and an autonomous ethno-religious homeland” have been tepid, ineffective, and generally a very thin show of effort with little or no impact. I do not agree at all with the claim that “history suggests that external political and intellectual Muslim movements over the coming decade may decisively influence the ultimate fate of peace in the region.” I would say the opposite: this local conflict has been exploited by external actors, with varying (and generally limited) degrees of success. The roots of the conflict, however, remain absolutely local, and the conflict can only be addressed by a major change in the local pattern of governance… something that looks very unlikely to happen. That suggests that both the conflict and the external attempts to exploit it will continue for some time, but confusing causes with effects is not going to help any search for a solution, and the causes – and any possible solutions – lie in the local, not the global.