POSTSCRIPT: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group: Violent extremism enters a new phase (3)

Last of three parts

Are Negotiations Possible…Or Even Desireable?

In a speech given in a military camp recently, President Duterte ordered the troops to “crush” the insurgents in Marawi, adding “when I say crush them, you have to destroy everything”.  This was with regard to the current problem in Marawi.  But what about the longer-term issue of addressing the Islamic State-affiliated forces in the country?  Is this a situation that is amenable to negotiations, in the same manner that the MNLF and the MILF uprisings were approached?

In one of his khutbas,  “Mu’ahada, Muhadana atawa Mufada:  Pagsulut ha antara sin Mujahideen iban Satru” (Peace between the Mujahideen and the Enemy), Abdurajak Janjalani spoke about the negotiations that had been entered into between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Government at that time (early to mid-1990s).  Janjalani pointed out that those negotiations were leading to confusion as to what the real objective of the MNLF was: whether independence or autonomy; whether an Islamic system of governance would be set up or not.

Drawing from Abdullah Azzam (“Conditions for Making Peace Treaties with Kuffar” in his fatwa “In Defense of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation after Iman”),  Janjalani pointed out a number of conditions that must be met before any negotiations were to be undertaken or any agreements were to be reached. These conditions were:

  1. If the state of Jihad which has been declared is Fard Ayn – meaning that it is a personal obligation that falls on all Muslims (as distinguished from Fard Kifaya, which is an obligation that falls on the community of Muslims and can be fulfilled by some members of the community, relieving the rest of the obligation) – then any peace agreement entered into is from the outset null and void;
  2. Any agreement entered into cannot allow the enemy or the unbelievers to remain on any part of the Muslim territory;

3. To be valid, any agreement must give total control over the territory to Muslims, and the system of governance must be Islamic;

  1. The agreement must not provide a timetable or a gradual turnover of governance to Muslims. An Islamic system of governance must be implemented immediately;
  2. Any agreement entered into must not contain provisions that are contrary to Sharia law. For example, nothing in the agreement must allow practices such as the selling of liquor within the Muslim territory, or allowing women to wear clothes contrary to Islamic culture;
  3. The agreement must not allow the unbelievers to exercise their religious practices in Muslim territory.

Janjalani pointed out that in the discussions between the MNLF and the Philippine government, and in the agreements signed, none of these conditions were mentioned or even referred to.  He pointed to Afghanistan as the model to be followed.  In that case, the Soviets withdrew completely, not leaving a single soldier or civilian behind.  An Islamic system of government was established without any participation whatsoever on the part of the Soviets.  The Soviets did not dictate or have any say in the process by which the new system of government was established.  The Soviets recognized the new government and Afghanistan as an independent state, and made clear their intent to achieve peace with the Afghans.  Moreover, the Afghan Mujahideen ensured that the Russians were sincere and fulfilled their commitments.

Thus, in the case of the Philippines, Janjalani pointed out that any negotiations with the Philippine government must ensure the following:

  1. The Philippine military must withdraw completely from Mindanao, to include all those who may have sided or co-operated with them, unless they agree to follow the Islamic system of government that would be set up;
  2. The withdrawal must be unconditional;
  3. An Islamic system of government must be set up without any input from the Philippine government;
  4. The Philippine government must recognize the new government to be set up by the Mujahideen and must express its desire to make peace with this state;
  5. The Mujahideen must ensure that the Philippine government is sincere, that it truly wants to make peace, and does not have an intention to subsequently betray or violate the agreement entered into.

Only under such conditions should any discussions be entered into with the Philippine government.  It is for the reasons presented above that Janjalani rejected the discussions undertaken and the agreements entered into by the MNLF with the government, and stated that the objective must always be to set up an Islamic system of government in Mindanao.  (From Jihad Fiy Sabilillah, a compilation of khutbas of Ustadz Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani put together by his students/followers.)

If the present crop of militants in Mindanao – the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the Maute Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the AKP and others – adopt this perspective of Abdullah Azzam and Abdurajak Janjalani, then it would  not only be the Philippine Government who would not be amenable to negotiations but even the militants themselves unless these very strict and seemingly unacceptable conditions are met.


Resolving the situation is certainly going to be difficult.  When one speaks of the “situation” one needs to think not just in terms of the current crisis in Marawi but the broader picture of the efforts to bring peace to Mindanao.  The AFP/PNP will eventually prevail over the militants in Marawi, but at what cost?

On the one hand, Bishop Edwin de la Pena, head of the Catholic Prelature in Marawi, anticipates that “the natural biases that Christians have against Muslims will be stirred up again….these incidents can destroy the foundation that we have built [with regard to interfaith dialogue].”

On the other hand, the way the fighting is handled on the side of the government security forces will determine whether the civilian population will support the government’s efforts or will be aggrieved by them.  While a number of residents have approved of the military’s efforts, expressing anger at the militants for bringing the war to their city, others have expressed concern about the bombardments and airstrikes which are destroying portions of the city and, possibly, killing civilians trapped in these areas.  The military has however displayed commendable restraint in its operations.  A few days ago the AFP announced that despite the fact that the militants were using mosques as their bases, the mosques themselves would not be bombed as the AFP recognized them as being “sacred areas”.  A qualification was made, though, by the military’s spokesman.  It was pointed out that if the parapets of mosques were used as sniper nests, these parapets would be targeted, but the mosques themselves would not be bombed.  In fact the latest report is that the military has suspended the use of fighter jets and helicopter gunships as they close in on the positions of the remaining militant fighters, while retaining the option to call for air support if required.

The military will defeat the militants in Marawi, the city will be made secure again, rebuilding will start and the government will introduce a host of programs to try and bring normalcy back to the city and its residents.  The leadership of the ASG, the Maute Group and other groups helping them may be killed or captured.  There is the possibility that some may be able to escape, if they have not already done so.  In fact some reports indicate that Isnilon Hapilon is no longer in Marawi, but that will not be confirmed until the fighting ends.

But as stated earlier, even with this battle defeat, the militants will have demonstrated that they are a force to reckon with and that they can plan and execute complex military operations.  As a rule, terrorist groups are always at an advantage.  They pick the time and place and the kind of terrorist activity they would undertake.  Government forces often end up reacting after damage has been done.  The ideal situation is one where the state security forces can be one step ahead, anticipating and thwarting attacks, but this is obviously easier said than done.  We need to appreciate how difficult the challenges facing the security sector are.

Prof. Miriam Coronel Ferrer has pointed out that the delay in the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) has aggravated the situation in the south.  As per Coronel, this delay has “lent credence to the Islamist discourse against supporting the peace process, heightened the historical Muslim distrust on the government, and put the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s(MILF)  credibility at stake.”  Its passage is an important “plank of a larger peace-building program for Mindanao.”

At the same time, though, we are seeing hopeful signs coming out of Marawi, numerous incidents where Muslims have protected Christians against the militants.  There is the case that has been reported about “Ma’am Farida”, the owner of two gun stores, who defended her Christian employees from about ten terrorists who asked about them by directly confronting the terrorists and telling them “You have to kill me first before you can even touch them”.  There was Zaynab, a relief worker, who gathered over twenty Christians and personally took them through back routes on a 15-hour trip from Marawi to safety in Iligan.  There was Norodin Alonto Lucman who hid over 70 people, most of them Christians, in his home and eventually led them to safety after 12 days, during which around 90 more persons joined them.  These and many others like them show that the decades of inter-faith dialogues have taken root and that many Muslims still believe and practice their faith as a religion of peace.

But winning the battle in Marawi against the ASG, Maute and the other groups fighting alongside them and rebuilding the city of Marawi will not be enough.  The trauma that the residents of Marawi have suffered and continue to suffer will stay with them for the rest of their lives.  Much more will need to be done.  The Government must ensure that it is not seen as contributing to this, that it is in fact protecting not just the people of Marawi but all of Mindanao as well, Muslims and Christians alike.  This is projected not by speeches and displays of bravado but by concrete actions of selflessness in the field.

There has been considerable progress in the professionalization of the leadership and men of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, if one is to compare the corps of the AFP today with the period of martial law during the 1970s.  The AFP must not surrender this professionalism for expediency’s sake.  Despite atrocities that may be carried out by the enemy, the AFP must stand firm on its principles.

On the policy side, it is comforting to note that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is the Martial Law Administrator.  From the outset of his appointment as Secretary of National Defense, Sec. Lorenzana has shown a grasp of the complexities involved in overseeing the security issues facing the country, has been firm and frank in his assessments and has steered the defense establishment with a steady hand.

But in the final analysis, responsibility for establishing and protecting the peace lies not with the National Government but on the ground, with the communities themselves.  The battle now being waged appears to have its roots in ideology.  Hence the proactive leadership of the region’s religious leaders, the Muftis and the Ulama is sorely needed.  There was an ARMM Summit on Terrorism that was supposed to have drawn together religious leaders from throughout the region last May 12-14.  What resulted from that?  Beyond whatever resolutions and agreements that may have been reached, what concrete actions will religious leaders actually undertake in their communities?

In this connection, Prof. Yusuf Morales has come up with some concrete suggestions to address the issue of radicalization.  Morales, for example, points to some foundational documents which should be studied and which could be the basis for crafting messages which would counter the views being spread by the IS.  He has also described other measures which would help control the extent of radicalization in the country.  (Yusuf Morales, “Addressing Religious Violent Extremism from an ideological framework: Some thoughts for consideration”, MindaNews, June 15, 2017.)

Political leaders must likewise step up and be proactive, setting aside their narrow “political” concerns and focusing on how their communities can be strengthened in what is now clearly a war that has been declared against the people of Mindanao if not the rest of the country.

How can the traditional leaders, the elders, the Tau Maas, be mobilized to exercise their influence within their communities to guide their people along the path that will bring peace and stability to their communities?  It is interesting to note, for example, as reported in MindaNews, that some 50 sultans, datus and baes of Lanao del Sur have offered to speak to the militants holding out in Marawi to get them to leave the city.  The group of elders issued a letter-manifesto addressed to the President decrying the fact that their help was not sought.  “Somehow, we could have influenced (the actions of) this radical people, however, our voices were never recognized by the government to negotiate with them,” the letter stated.  While the political and economic power that these elders held in the past may no longer exist, nevertheless in the traditional societies that still characterize the Muslim-dominated provinces in the south, they still wield influence.

Marawi continues to be a battle zone.  The risk of fighting spreading to other areas is high.  The danger posed by IS-influenced groups and individuals is severe.  Amidst all this, Filipinos, Muslims and Christians alike, must be vigilant but must not give in to demagoguery and the incitement of hatred which is precisely what the IS is promoting.

Unfortunately, the makings of a hate campaign has already been displayed in Cotabato City where the city’s Barangay Tanods were authorized to be armed with assault rifles and .45 caliber pistols to meet terrorist threats in that city.  Based on the statements reported by the press, the tanods “vowed to immediately execute members and even sympathizers of the Dawlah Islamiya and Ansa’r Al-Khilafa they find in the city”.  The report further stated that a particular Barangay Chairman and his Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team (BPATs) “are just waiting for a chance to find misguided militants they plan to immediately kill to show their resolve to prevent their spread in the city”.  (“Cotabato City’s armed tanods ready to kill terrorists, sympathizers”, Philstar, June 15, 2017.)   It is clear that this is a situation ripe for abuse and that the mentality of “shoot now, ask questions later” is alive and well in the south.  By acting like terrorists themselves, these so-called “Barangay Peacekeeping Action Teams” would be playing into the hands of the IS.

Peace comes at a price, but it should not be at the cost of turning ourselves into the enemy.

[Vic M. Taylor, originally from Cebu, has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) in the different positions he has held in government and the private sector over the last 50 years.
He started as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College after his graduation from the Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1960s.  Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President.
Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, Mr. Taylor assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG.
Recently, he has been working with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area]