Mindanao the New Afghanistan Says Ambassador

Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front parade during a press conference on the island of Mindanao

In a show of force during peace negotiations with the Philippine government, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front parade during a press conference June 4, 2005, on the island of Mindanao. (Photo: Mark Navales / AFP-Getty Images)

In a statement made on Australian television in early May, the acting United States ambassador to the Philippines has described Mindanao, the country’s second largest island, as the world’s new terrorist “Mecca,” comparing it to Afghanistan.

Citing alliances between Mindanao Muslim insurgency groups and known terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and Indonesian-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli told Australian current affairs program Dateline that “certain portions of Mindanao are so lawless, so porous … that you run the risk of it becoming like an Afghanistan situation. Mindanao is almost, forgive the poor religious pun, the new Mecca for terrorism.”

“The number of J.I. and the M.I.L.F. [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] factions and the A.S.G. [Abu Sayyaf Group] may even be increasing,” he told Dateline reporter John Martinkus.

The comments created a furor with a Philippine government hopeful of a breakthrough in peace negotiations currently being conducted with the M.I.L.F. Claiming security forces are “making gains against terrorists and poverty every single day and week that passes,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s spokesman Ignacio Bunye criticized the remarks saying, “such negative hyperbole to describe the Mindanao situation is out of tune with what is happening on the ground.”

Summoned before the Philippine Foreign Ministry to explain his actions, Mussomeli protested that his remarks had been taken out of context, an account that was undermined by the full publication of the interview on his own embassy’s Web site.

Situated to the south of the main island of Luzon, the island of Mindanao is home to the minority Moro or Muslim people in the predominantly Christian Philippines. Named after the Muslim Moors by the conquering Spanish in the 16th century, the Moros have, since the early 1970’s, been engaged in the latest phase of a bitter struggle with the Philippines government for an independent Islamic state, a fight aided by the mountainous and, at times, inaccessible terrain.

The Moro people have fought independence battles for over five centuries; however, more recent discontent has been fuelled by the government’s policy of migrating Christians to the Morolands, a policy that has reduced Moros to a minority in their own historic homeland. Subsequent land grab schemes by new settlers have left the Moros disenfranchised and added new impetus to their demands for an independent Islamic state.

These grievances have provided a steady supply of recruits for separatist movements on the island, the largest and most popular of which is the nationalist and relatively moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front. M.I.L.F. leaders recently demonstrated their popularity amongst Moros when organizers were able to attract a crowd of an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people to a two-day assembly held in Mindanao last week according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Discussions at the assembly centered on government proposals to end the decades-old conflict when peace negotiations resume in Kuala Lumpur next month.

Another far smaller but more virulent group, which also claims to represent Moros, is Abu Sayyaf (also Abu Sayyaf Group), an organization that emerged in the Southern Philippines in 1991. Terrorizing ordinary Filipinos with their unrelenting tactics of kidnapping, bombings and executions Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for the now notorious attacks on Valentine’s Day this year when simultaneous bombings targeting civilians occurred in the capital Manila and cities on Mindanao killing 12 and injuring more than 100 people.

Espousing an extremist and militant brand of Islamist independence struggle, links between Abu Sayyaf and terrorist groups are far more clear-cut with A.S.G. alleged to have had extensive contacts with terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda while training in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Importantly though the United States has also accused M.I.L.F. of also having sinister connections with terrorist groups, with officials claiming M.I.L.F. either knowingly or unknowingly cultivated links with Al Qaeda and J.I., a claim leaders of the moderate M.I.L.F. strenuously deny. Speaking to Dateline, Mohamed Iqbal, chief M.I.L.F. peace talks negotiator rejected the accusation saying, “We are not terrorists. We can never be in good condition with the terrorists. We are a separate organization. We are older than the Al Qaeda … If they [Jemaah Islamiyah] are operating they are doing it very secretly …”

Amina Rasul, a former Philippines presidential advisor and director of the Philippine Council on Islam and Democracy, supports this view. In an interview on the Australian ABC’s Radio National, she denied that M.I.L.F. had deliberately cultivated ties to terrorist organizations.

“The Moro Islamic Liberation Front [is] an insurgency group that’s fighting for political rights, for property rights, has support from the communities, because they are fighting for interests that will serve the Muslim communities … they have never attacked civilians, and that is a major difference.” said Rasul on the ABC’s Religion Report.

However, Rasul went on to concede that some sporadic contact with terrorists might have occurred among individual, renegade M.I.L.F. commanders and troops.

“I have had some conversations with officers of the American government and I don’t get the impression that they’re really going to be coming out and tagging the M.I.L.F. as terrorists,” said Rasul. What they are cautioning, however, is the practice of some of the M.I.L.F. troops to work with troops that are associated with the Jemaah Islamiyah … that is a far cry from saying that the leadership of the M.I.L.F. and the leadership of the Jemaah Islamiyah are colluding in some grand strategy to create a region of instability. I don’t think that that’s happening.”

A report by conflict monitoring organization the International Crisis Group on July 13, 2004, entitled “Southern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process” also raises the possibility of isolated connection with extremist jihadist groups:

“While the M.I.L.F. leadership continues to deny all ties, all evidence points to ongoing operational and training links [with terrorist groups]. What is uncertain is whether top leaders are aware of the activity and unwilling to admit it, or whether members of J.I. and other like-minded jihadist groups have established their own personal ties to individual M.I.L.F. commanders without the knowledge of the M.I.L.F. leadership.”

Ambassador Mussomeli’s contentious comments have put pressure on the ongoing peace negotiations at a time when real concessions are being offered by both sides in an attempt to gain an elusive peace settlement. In response to criticism that they are not doing enough to end links with overseas terrorists, a precondition for further negotiations set by the government after talks failed in 2000, M.I.L.F. negotiators have agreed to rid their island of all “foreign” elements and have offered to open their camps for international inspection.

Negotiations are set to resume in Kuala Lumpur next month.