Senior Fellow Zachary Abuza noted that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has waged a secessionist campaign in the southern Philippines since 1978, when they broke away from the secular Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Their avowed goal is to establish an independent homeland for the Moro peoples that will be governed by sharia (Islamic law). Though initially armed and supported by the Libyan and Malaysian governments, by the early 1990s, the MILF had lost much of its state support. To that end, the MILF forged a tentative relationship with Al Qaeda, receiving money through Saudi charities, as well as limited military training, though while trying to build up its self reliance. While they always remained focused on the “near enemy” and the establishment of their own homeland, they were willing to take advantage of the support that transnational groups offered them; in exchange, they had to give some assistance to groups, such as Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), in pursuance of the war against the “far enemy.” While the MILF is not a transnational group that seeks to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate (known in Southeast Asia as Nusantara Raya), they have given assistance to groups such as JI and the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG).

Map of Philippines
Map of the Philippines
(Courtesy: University of Texas)

Since 2002, the JI, arguably the most lethal of all of Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates, has perpetrated three deadly bombings in Indonesia—in Bali (October 2002), the JW Marriott in Jakarta (August 2003) and at the Australian Embassy (September 2004). Despite the MILF’s denial of ties to JI, credible evidence soon emerged that several JI members involved in the three bombings were trained in MILF camps. The MILF has thus become a potential threat to security in Southeast Asia and is left with very few defenders, especially in the U.S. government.

Abuza argued that these developments have important consequences for the ongoing peace negotiations between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the MILF. So far the talks have yet to demonstrate substantial success. The MILF’s lack of military strength—not to mention other resources—will likely keep them involved indefinitely. But the GRP has used the peace process as a tool to fragment and sow dissension within the ranks of the MILF. If there is any hope of a breakthrough in these talks, the GRP will need to become more sincere and effectual—unlikely in light of the current scandals surrounding Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The situation is further exacerbated by growing support for the idea among U.S. policymakers of including the MILF on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Such a move would seriously hamper the negotiations, according to Abuza.

The MILF ultimate goal is to establish a Muslim-dominated independent state while expanding the territory. Abuza pointed out that this objective is likely to shift as a new generation of MILF leaders emerges. JI and ASG have already created a new generation of jihadi extremists—there is every risk that they will either infiltrate the MILF or form alliances with hard-line members of the MILF who are skeptical of the peace process. This would not only undermine the legitimacy of the MILF, but could prepare the ground for potential sectarian violence among Christians and Muslims in the south.

In summary, Abuza observed that a successful peace process is crucial for both the GRP and the MILF. If the peace process fails to proceed, he argued, not only will the conflict endure but also the MILF will become more radical. As a result, this will pose a threat to regional security and make it even more difficult for the GRP to address the problems of the south. In addition, the MILF’s credibility with its rank and file will be undermined, especially with the new generation's members who are already impatient with the MILF's failure to bring its promise to reality. On the other hand, if the peace process is successfully implemented, the MILF must be poised to confront potential factions in the organization and effectively police their territory.

Zachary Abuza is associate professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston. A leading specialist in Southeast Asian security issues and militant Islam, he has published more than one dozen articles in top area studies journals, including Asian Survey, Contemporary Southeast Asia, and Harvard Asia Quarterly. Abuza frequently lectures on Southeast Asian politics at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute and briefs various U.S. government agencies on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.

Latest Publications

Gaza at the G7: The Daunting Divide between Rhetoric and Reality

Gaza at the G7: The Daunting Divide between Rhetoric and Reality

Thursday, June 20, 2024

The ongoing war in Gaza was only one of several items on the agenda for last week’s summit of leading Western economies, known as the Group of 7 (G7). But, given the global attention on Gaza and coming on the heels of the Biden administration’s most recent push to achieve a cease-fire — including sponsorship of a U.N. Security Council resolution toward that end — questions around the prospects for a negotiated pause in fighting and hostage agreement dominated the discussions.

Type: Analysis

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

After Ukraine’s Peace Summit, Widen Consensus With ‘Middle Powers’

After Ukraine’s Peace Summit, Widen Consensus With ‘Middle Powers’

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Last weekend saw the broadest, highest-level international endorsement yet for the principles of Ukraine’s peace proposal to end Russia’s invasion. Ukraine’s first peace summit, in Switzerland, drew 101 countries and international institutions, of which more than 80 signed a declaration endorsing “principles of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine.” As Russia counters any such vision with disingenuous and unserious offers to negotiate, Ukraine and its allies could more energetically draw “middle powers,” such as India, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, into the coming round of efforts to shape a viable, just peace process.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

In Pyongyang, Putin and Kim Tighten Ties, Pledge Mutual Defense

In Pyongyang, Putin and Kim Tighten Ties, Pledge Mutual Defense

Thursday, June 20, 2024

As President Vladimir Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine grinds on, the Russian leader needs friends and supporters wherever he can get them. To that end, Putin traveled this week to North Korea for the first time in nearly 25 years, looking to deepen cooperation with the rogue regime and, chiefly, to get more ammunition for his war on Ukraine. Putin and Kim Jong Un inked what the North Korean leader called “the most powerful treaty” ever between the two countries. While strengthened ties between two of Washington’s most enduring adversaries are of unquestioned concern for the U.S., Beijing is also wary of the implications.

Type: Question and Answer

Global Policy

How Disruptive Technologies Are Changing Peace and Security

How Disruptive Technologies Are Changing Peace and Security

Thursday, June 20, 2024

The global landscape of violence and conflict is transforming at a rapid pace, as disruptive technologies revolutionize how wars are waged. For years, security forces and intelligence agencies have been steeped in the dynamic threats posed by new technologies and they regularly use advanced tools to respond to those threats. Diplomats and peacebuilders, however, may often neglect threats from disruptive technologies due to an overreliance on historical power dynamics; a lack of creative thinking fostered by elite, risk-averse cultural pressures; and a disconnect from local communities where violence occurs. Tech illiteracy hampers understanding of how emerging technologies are used and how they can exacerbate conflicts.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

As Taliban Poppy Ban Continues, Afghan Poverty Deepens

As Taliban Poppy Ban Continues, Afghan Poverty Deepens

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Afghanistan, historically the leading source of the world’s illegal opium, is on-track for an unprecedented second year of dramatically reduced poppy cultivation, reflecting the Taliban regime’s continuing prohibition against growing the raw material for opiates. The crackdown has won plaudits in international circles, but its full implications call for clear-eyed analysis and well considered responses by the U.S. and others. The ban has deepened the poverty of millions of rural Afghans who depended on the crop for their livelihoods, yet done nothing to diminish opiate exports, as wealthier landowners sell off inventories. The unfortunate reality is that any aid mobilized to offset harm from the ban will be grossly insufficient and ultimately wasted unless it fosters broad-based rural and agricultural development that benefits the most affected poorer households. 

Type: Analysis

Economics

View All Publications