The Philippines

The Evolution of Muslim Insurgency

Filipino soldiers take part in joint exercises with U.S. Special Forces, March 6, 2003. (Photo: AFP)

A contingent of nearly 2,000 U.S. troops will arrive in the Philippines next month [April] to take part in joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises. The Americans will find themselves with an opportunity to help Filipinos combat a plague of banditry and terror posing as Muslim activism. Or, if the Americans fail to appreciate the historical, cultural, political, and religious bases for the troubles in the southern Philippines—and how the United States itself helped foster those troubles over the past century—the troops will make matters even worse.

Balikatan 03-1 will be the newest in a series of at least 17 military exercises planned between the United States and the Philippines for 2003. Like last year’s Balikatan 02-1, this year’s exercises will involve a sizable deployment of U.S. troops to Muslim areas in Mindanao. The exercises are aimed at extirpating Abu Sayyaf, a group that both the United States and the Philippines consider terrorists.

This will not be the first time American soldiers have forayed into Mindanao to combat Muslims. While the current exercises no doubt find their justification in the ongoing international war on terror, another, more traditional war waged a century ago occasioned a similar influx of U.S. troops. The U.S. incursion then played a part in fostering the conflict justifying the U.S. incursion now.

The Philippine-American War lasted from 1899 to 1902, although the Americans kept fighting Muslims in Mindanao until 1914. “Pious paternalism and brutal pacification” marked U.S. policy toward the Philippines, with the latter predominating. Between 1903 and 1906, American soldiers killed more than 3,000 Muslims in Mindanao. After hostilities, the Americans sought to reinvent themselves as a paternal power under whose tutelage progress and prosperity for the Muslims would be brought about.

Heretofore, Philippine Muslims had remained largely divided along ethnolinguistic clan lines. Spanish conquistadors had arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century but were unable to subjugate the Muslims in Mindanao. While nationalist history, both Muslim and Christian, tends to depict a unified Muslim resistance primarily motivated by religion, more recent scholarly work suggests that Spanish incursions into Muslim territory did not succeed in fostering in the various ethnic groups an overarching identification as Muslim. Instead, traditional interclan rivalries were pursued, often with Spanish help.

As Thomas McKenna argues in his book, Muslim Rulers and Rebels, it was the Americans who set about to unify the disparate Muslim clans. Ironically, the chief instrument of Muslim ideological subordination proved to be religion. Najeeb Saleeby, a Christian doctor who had come to Mindanao as part of the U.S. colonial apparatus, took an interest in the “Moros” (after “Moors”). He noted that these Muslims “have so little religion in their heart that it is impossible for them to get enthusiastic and fanatic on this ground.” Nevertheless, Saleeby believed that religion could be “encouraged and promoted” as a way to bind the Muslims to their leaders and render them more amenable to U.S. administration, as conducted through their datus (chiefs).

In general, Saleeby’s prescriptions were taken to heart by the colonial administration. But history remade what the Americans had worked so intently to cultivate. Three events in particular—Christian immigration to Mindanao, sectarian violence, and martial law—transformed the kind of pliable, sanitized Islam the colonial administration had propagated into a basis for discrimination and, eventually, rebellion.

A trickle of Christian Filipinos was encouraged southward under a U.S.-initiated homesteader program. It was not until after Philippine independence in 1946, however, that the trickle became a flood. The new homesteaders were largely tenant farmers in search of their own land, as well as resettled Huks (former communist insurgents). The rate of Christian immigration was sufficiently intense that, as Jacques Bertrand notes in Pacific Affairs (spring 2000), whereas “in 1912 the Moros owned most of the land in Mindanao and Sulu, [by] 1972 only 30 percent had land...[and by] 1982 the Moros represented only 17 percent of total landowners.” At the same time, Filipino Muslims became subject to increasing discrimination and marginalization.

A number of violent incidents, perceived at least to be motivated by religious discrimination, likewise fostered a growing sense of grievance. Two events in particular well represent a series of violent outbreaks during the late 1960s and the ’70s. In 1968, 14 to 28 Muslim military trainees of the commando group Jabidah were executed on the island of Corregidor. It soon came out that they were part of a secret military operation to invade the Malaysian island of Sabah. While the reasons behind their execution remain unclear, the Jabidah Massacre became for Muslims “both a provocation and metaphor” (McKenna). It figured centrally in an emerging Moro oppositional consciousness.

The emergence of the Ilaga (“rats”), a Christian group that terrorized Muslims, also fueled Muslim grievance. Ilaga violence reached its bloodiest in June 1971 with the massacre of 65 men, women, and children in a mosque.

Martial law provided a third and more sustained source of grievance. President Ferdinand Marcos justified declaring martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, by purporting that the Muslim secessionist movement threatened the country’s stability. However, as McKenna argues, martial law turned out to be more a cause of the separatist movement than its consequence. The brutality of the military fomented resentment among the Muslim populace. As the government military campaign intensified, ordinary Muslim solidarity with the rebellion increased.

Certain opportunities provided growing Muslim grievance an outlet and enabled the emergence of the Filipino Muslim insurgency movement. Scholarships positioned the leaders of the Moro separatist movement by enabling them to articulate the frustrations of the larger Muslim community. Nur Misuari, founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), was awarded a scholarship from the Commission on National Integration, which, ironically, was created to incorporate young Muslims into the larger Christian nation. The University of the Philippines in the late ’60s no doubt also provided Misuari an education in political activism.

A specific political opportunity allowed for the development of the MNLF. In 1968, Datu Udtug Matalam founded the Mindanao Independence Movement. The MIM was originally intended as a form of retaliation against establishment political powers that had sidestepped Matalam in his re-election bid for governor of Mindanao and had personally insulted him by failing to pay him condolences after the killing of his son by a National Bureau of Investigation agent. Publicly, however, the MIM was represented as a direct response to the Jabidah Massacre. The MIM became a lightning rod and platform for young, disenchanted Muslims. Both Misuari and Hashim Salamat, leader of the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which grew out of and broke off from the MNLF], associated with it in various capacities.

Finally, a number of international connections enabled the emergence of various Moro rebel groups. Malaysia, furious at Marcos for having tried to invade Sabah, readily lent its support to the rebels. After the Jabidah Massacre, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi provided the them with weapons through Sabah. Cigarette smugglers with a bone to pick with Marcos provided financial, logistical, and military support. And the war in Afghanistan spawned Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajack Janjalani, providing him with weapons and perhaps a funding source in Osama bin Laden.

While the combination of grievance and opportunity may explain the emergence of Muslim rebel groups, other factors account for their staying power. Muslim insurgency can be seen as an innovative way of continuing patrimonial politics on a local level. The emergence of the rebel movement had created an elite to counterbalance the datu (chieftain) establishment. Traditional datu politicking could now be contrasted with a politics “employing Islamic renewal as a cultural frame for political behavior” (McKenna).

In this vein, the MILF has proved to be effective, exerting influence through an underground “shadow government” and, above ground, through a body of clerics, the ulema. Religious identity has become a source of political power for the MILF.

This dynamic was amply displayed in the elections of 1986, the first “free” elections since martial law had been declared. While the MILF officially boycotted the elections, its network was nonetheless utilized. Rebels doubled as party representatives for UNIDO (the United Nationalist Democratic Organization), a coalition organized around Corazon Aquino. This allowed the rebels to reap the political payoff of having supported the winning candidate. The MILF also leveraged its religious cachet to win political recognition.

As the case of the Abu Sayyaf illustrates, Muslim insurgency can also be used as a cover for banditry. The Abu Sayyaf makes a point of gesturing toward an oppositional Moro identity, by, for instance, demanding that crosses be removed from public view. But its modus operandi of kidnapping for ransom suggests that profit, rather than Islam, is its predominant motivation.

On the one hand, the MNLF and MILF seem to acknowledge this. They try to distance themselves from the Abu Sayyaf and have even pledged to cooperate with the government in the group’s eradication. Still, the links among the groups remain unclear. Considered a “lost command” of the MILF, the Abu Sayyaf may not be lost at all. There has been speculation that the group merely provides a cover for “legitimate” rebels moonlighting for profit. Moreover, charges that the Abu Sayyaf is paying a part of the ransom money to the military have delegitimized the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in a way that conflict with the “legitimate” rebels, the MILF and MNLF, never has.

Thus American soldiers have been brought in under the Balikatan agreements to do what the AFP has been unable to do: neutralize a nettlesome band of no more than a few hundred brigands. The first round of Balikatan military exercises (02-1) was somewhat of a success. While the Abu Sayyaf remained at large, it also ended up largely decimated, with one of its top commanders, Abu Sabaya, left to the crocodiles. The joint operations managed to kick the Abu Sayyaf out of Basilan, its former base. More important, thanks to the civic and humanitarian projects that accompanied the operations, a sense of peace and order was re-established on the island.

However, even if continued Balikatan operations succeed in wiping out the Abu Sayyaf, what is to stop another group from taking its place? There is no shortage of groups whose activities and connections could get them labeled “terrorist.” The Pentagon Gang is one such group. Like the Abu Sayyaf, it appears to have splintered from the MILF. The real question, therefore, is whether terrorist activity can be substantially reduced without addressing the Muslim insurgency movement.

While the MILF may remain a “legitimate” insurgency group, its membership is particularly volatile. A string of attacks in the past week illustrates this point. The explosion of a car bomb outside an airport, the massacre of 14 villagers in a farming community, another bomb attack in an open-air market, and the destruction of two power-transmission towers and five power pylons all took place in areas of traditional MILF activity. And on Tuesday [March 4], a blast ripped through Davao airport, killing at least 21. Since the attacks followed the military bombardment of an MILF stronghold in Pikit, Cotabato, which left close to 200 rebels dead, the military has fingered the MILF for the rampage. However, the group has denied responsibility for the attacks.

So far the administration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has resisted U.S. pressure to brand the MILF a terrorist organization. The administration fears, quite rightly, that a terror tag will only drive the rebel group from the peace table and incite retaliatory attacks. More significant, the MILF is not only broad-based, with a fighting force about 12,000 strong, but it has succeeded in establishing deep roots within Filipino Muslim communities.

Unlike the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF cannot be extirpated without enormous, perhaps unbearable, cost: the upheaval of numerous Muslim communities. The Balikatan operations will be more effective against groups that do not enjoy such popular legitimacy, such as the Abu Sayyaf.

A better way to contain the rebel groups may be by targeting the political and economic structures that sustain them. This means putting the squeeze on the insurgency’s financing by identifying its international backers, thwarting its local rackets such as smuggling and extortion, and making sure that the humanitarian and development aid being poured into the region is not diverted to the insurgency’s coffers.

The Americans can help with this. They should not, however, be permitted to engage in direct combat with the MILF or other insurgency groups. Moro nationalism has replaced the history of America’s role as one of the movement’s inadvertent founding fathers with its current image as an inveterate enemy of Islam. Anti-Americanism has become one basis of a new pan-Islamic solidarity. If the Balikatan operations are expanded to include the MILF, the Americans will only find themselves with a war they cannot win. Victory would only encourage further resentment and lay the groundwork for future conflict.