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In the Spotlight: Moro Islamic Liberation Front
Feb. 15, 2002 Printer-Friendly Version

This is the first in a series of weekly articles on terrorist organizations around the world that are attracting attention in the global campaign against terrorism.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front

As authorities follow traces linked to the network of terrorists across Southeast Asia, they have begun to scrutinize a group that has been believed to be no more than a domestic separatist movement. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in southern Philippines is now in the limelight for possible connection to al Qaeda, and for being an organ in the expansive association of terrorists in Southeast Asia who are together looming as a formidable threat to the international community.

The current situation in the Philippines is an irony that reveals the complexity of counter-terrorism in the region: while Philippine and U.S. troops engage in joint exercises to fight the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group, they are being cautious not to provoke the MILF ? itself possibly connected to al Qaeda - with the Philippines government even diplomatically negotiating with the MILF to avoid a confrontation. MILF commanders previously threatened to quash any Philippine or U.S. forces that ventured into its territory in the Basilan and Zamboanga region. But on Feb. 12, the Philippine government and the MILF agreed in a joint statement to initiate coordination mechanisms to avoid a face-off during the joint exercises.

The MILF has denied charges that it supports the Abu Sayyaf or that it is linked to bin Laden's network. Its recent cooperative stature with the government, however, could be seen as an attempt to evade the corrosive "terrorist" label and any subsequent crackdown measures by global counter-terrorism forces. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, hundreds of MILF members from Mindanao trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, where they also secured strong ties with bin Laden. In addition, a leader of Indonesia's militant group Jemaah Islamiah, who was arrested last month in Manila and is believed to be tied to al Qaeda, admitted to having worked as an explosive expert for the MILF. Nine of the 23 Jemaah Islamiah members arrested in December in fact admitted to having trained at MILF camps. For the MILF, the "Balikatan" exercises are serving as an explicit lesson on the serious consequences of any terrorist activity with international connections or targets.

The MILF was a matter of concern for the Philippines government long before recent discoveries of al Qaeda links brought it to the headlines. The rebel group was formed in 1977 when its members broke off from the larger Moro National Liberation Front. With 15,000 members, it is today the largest Islamic separatist group in the Philippines. It seeks to establish an independent Islamic state, and to that end has mounted a series of terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets in the southern Philippines. Its acts of violence led former president Joseph Estrada to pursue an "all-out war" against the MILF, and the fighters in return declared a jihad against the Philippine government in 2000. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has resumed peace talks with the MILF since coming to office, and a cease-fire agreement is currently in place.

The joint operation with American troops against the Abu Sayyaf is a litmus test on the durability of that cease-fire. The MILF, in distancing itself from the Abu Sayyaf and reaffirming commitment to peace talks, is eminently attempting to disconnect itself from the global anti-terrorism agenda. For now, the administration of President Arroyo is also keeping its focus on quelling the Abu Sayyaf fighters, calling them "the biggest threat" of the moment. But with a history of terrorist activities and suspect links to broader terrorist networks, the MILF is likely to remain under intense regional and global scrutiny.

By Reyko Huang
CDI Research Analyst

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