24 December 2013
The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters: The Newest Obstacles to Peace in the Southern Philippines?
The Philippines’ Mindanao region has a relatively new group fighting for its greater autonomy – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Today, Peter Chalk traces the development of this organization and how it might destabilize current negotiations with Manila.
By Peter Chalk for Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)
In September 2013, approximately 150 militants from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) joined forces in an attack against government troops in the village of Lamitan on Basilan Island in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Although much is known about the former organization, the latter is a relative newcomer to the conflict in the southern Philippines and could serve to heighten the tempo of violence in the region.
This article provides background on the BIFF, its cadre and weapons, and the implications of its formation. It finds that the group could play a decisive role in determining the future status of Mindanao, irrespective of any peace deal that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) concludes with the Aquino administration.
The BIFF, also known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), is the latest manifestation of organized militancy derived from Bangsamoro Muslim grievances in Mindanao. Although constitutionally part of the Philippine state, the Islamic population of this region has never subscribed to the concept of an integrated Catholic polity, defining themselves, by contrast, on the basis of a unique ethno-religious identity. This sense of separation has been exacerbated by blunt attempts to alter the historically Muslim centric demographic balance in the southern Philippines through Christian transmigration as well as by economic neglect and crushing poverty. Combined, these factors have ingrained a sense of victimization and oppression that has fueled violence in the region since 1972.
The BIFF emerged as a splinter faction of the MILF in December 2010. The parent movement is, itself, a breakaway group from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), originally established in 1984 under the hardline leadership of Hashim Salamat with the aim of creating an independent Islamic state in all areas of the southern Philippines where Muslims have traditionally been a majority.
Following Salamat’s death in 2003, this objective was gradually moderated under the more pragmatic and politically astute guidance of Salamat’s successor, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. The new leader appreciated that a guarantee of comprehensive autonomy—rather than outright independence—was the most realistic concession that could be extracted from Manila. To this end, he committed to a mutual cessation of hostilities agreement in 2003 and has since participated in Malaysian-sponsored talks aimed at resolving a broad array of concerns pertaining to a future self-governing Moro homeland.
Most of these issues have since been worked out with the two sides reaching agreement on a number of consensus points that are meant to eventually form the basis of a so-called Bangsamoro Judicial Entity (BJE)—a final autonomous region for Muslims created and operating within the constitutional ambit of the Philippine state.
It was in reaction to this more compromising and accommodating stance that the BIFF was established. Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, a Saudi Arabia-trained scholar and the former leader of the MILF’s 105th Command (which now falls under the responsibility of Zacaria Goma, a member of the Front’s Central Committee), formed the new organization. He had defected from the MNLF along with Salamat—a committed Salafi-jihadi ideologue who was strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb—and had consistently sought to bring about an Islamic state for Muslims in the southern Philippines.
Kato charged that Al Haj Murad Ebrahim had departed from the original goals of the Bangsamoro movement and had effectively sold out the Moro Islamic cause by negotiating for Mindanao’s autonomy rather than full independence. He further accused the MILF leadership of undercutting his own position by: 1) refusing to insist that Manila lift a bounty of 10 million pesos for his arrest as a condition for continuing with peace talks; and 2) by failing to support his troops from concerted onslaughts by government troops in the area around Tubag Alisan in North Cotabato. In addition, he asserted that the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF)—the armed wing of the MILF—were no longer worthy of the title “mujahidin” given their increased involvement in anti-jihadist activities such as kidnapping and drug trafficking.
BIFF’s Cadre and Weapons
On announcing the emergence of the BIFF, Kato claimed that as many as 5,000 members of the MILF had followed him, although most commentators believe this number was considerably inflated and that the true figure was probably no more than 300 fighters. The movement was originally based mostly in North Cotabato, Maguindanao and strategic areas around the Ligusan Marsh (which is valuable territory because it holds abundant gas reserves). Following the capture of its main stronghold at Camp Omar in 2012, however, the organization has regrouped around two main barangays (hamlets): Ganta in Shariff Saydona Mustapha town and Damabla in Datu Piang town (Kato’s birthplace), both in Maguindanao.
BIFF is thought to have access to a relatively large armory composed of pistols, M-60 machine guns, modified long-arm sniper rifles, .50 caliber heavy weapons, mortars, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines and various types of automatic assault weapons. Kato siphoned off most of these munitions after he defected from the 105th Command—the largest and best equipped of the MILF’s various field divisions.
When BIFF first emerged, a number of commentators in Manila alleged that MILF leader Murad had tacitly endorsed its formation as leverage in ongoing peace talks with Manila. According to this line of reasoning, the MILF chairman was calculating that the government would show greater flexibility in acceding to the demands of his group for fear that not doing so would merely empower Moro hardliners. No evidence has ever surfaced to support these speculations, however. Indeed, in February 2011, MILF’s chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal publicly acknowledged Kato as a problem, which, if not dealt with, would result in his permanent expulsion from the front’s fold: 
On the part of the MILF, we have problems. Ustadz Ombra Kato is one of those problems, but the MILF leadership is still hopeful that we can manage and solve this problem; otherwise we will tell the government, the facilitator and the international community that he has already burned his bridges with the MILF. He is not one of us; he is not with the MILF.
BIFF has also periodically clashed with the BIAF—the armed wing of the MILF—particularly for control over territory around Datu Piang, with one confrontation in August 2011 leaving several guerrillas dead on both sides. These skirmishes would strongly suggest that the splinter group’s formation was no ploy.
In November 2011, BIFF was hit with an important setback after Kato suffered a major stroke. A replacement, Ustadz Mohammad Ali Tambako, was quickly appointed, an ulama and graduate of religious studies undertaken in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Despite a challenge from Mohiden Ananimbang (also known as Kagi Kadialen), the group’s chief of staff, the transition was relatively smooth and Tambako appears to have since consolidated his rule.
Implications of BIFF’s Formation
BIFF carries important implications for both the MILF and the general peace process in the southern Philippines despite the small size of the group. Kato was well respected and there is a realistic possibility that others in the MILF hierarchy will subscribe to his non-compromising stance of full independence should talks with the present Aquino administration breakdown or fail to deliver promised dividends within the next couple of years. No less importantly, the BIFF raises legitimate questions about Murad’s overall control of fighters under his command, which could cause potential spoilers to challenge his credibility as a representative of the Bangsamoro people. This is particularly true of the MNLF, which has become increasingly concerned that a settlement with the MILF will come at the expense of its own autonomous region (the ARMM).
Furthermore, BIFF has shown itself willing and capable of engaging Philippine security forces, targeting both military and police outposts. In line with its raison d’être, the stated objective of these attacks is to sabotage the peace process between the government and the MILF as part of the long-term goal of achieving Bangsamoro independence. One especially intensive and prolonged clash occurred in August and September 2012 when the Army’s 1st Mechanized Brigade attempted to retake several key highways that rebels under the command of Ustadz Carialan had seized to temporarily seal off Maguindanao Province. Hostilities dragged on for weeks (amid suspicions that Kato’s forces were receiving material assistance from local politicians), causing 7,865 families, or 39,325 people in 18 barangays, to flee their homes. Fighting and confrontations typically escalate in the run-up to the holy month of Ramadan, and violence in 2013 involved strikes against both civilian communities and military detachments, with one landmine attack in Shariff Saidona Mustapha town leaving six soldiers dead.
Finally, there are indications that BIFF has made common cause with members of the ASG. The latter entity is another splinter of the MNLF that emerged in 1991 under the leadership of Ustadz Abdurajak Janjalani. The organization similarly claims to be fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in Mindanao, although since the death of Janjalani in 1998, and later his brother Khadaffy in 2006, it has increasingly devolved into more of a decentralized criminal kidnap-for-ransom outfit than an integrated, truly religiously-inspired movement. That said, the ASG continues to engage in periodic acts of political violence, allegedly retains ties with fugitives of Jemaah Islamiyya (JI) hiding in the southern Philippines and has yet to be removed from the U.S. list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
The existence of potential ties between the ASG and BIFF became apparent in the aforementioned attack in September 2013, when around 150 rebels besieged army positions in the village of Lamitan on the restive island of Basilan. According to Philippine Colonel Rodrigo Gregorio, a military spokesman in the area, the assault came on the heels of an earlier tactical alliance that had been concluded between the two groups. Ominously, there has been speculation that the ASG/BIFF attack may have been connected to the simultaneous seizure of Zamboanga City, an important trading hub of 800,000 people just off Basilan that was stormed by 300 MNLF rebels. If confirmed, this could indicate that the two groups have additionally forged ties with renegade elements in the MNLF. The existence of a tripartite union of this sort would represent a major obstacle to peace in Mindanao and would potentially position the BIFF to play a decisive role in determining the province’s future—irrespective of any settlement that is concluded between the Philippine government and the MILF.
For additional reading on this topic please see:
 The Bangsamoro people, or Moros, are a population of indigenous ethnic Muslims in the southern Philippines who constitute the countryís largest non-Catholic demographic sector (10%). For further details, see ìMuslim Filipinos,î U.S. Library of Congress, undated.
 Peter Chalk et al., The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2009), pp. 33-34. Fighting in the southern Philippines has left more than 150,000 people dead and plunged many provinces into deep poverty.
 Salamat broke from the MNLF in opposition to the latterís more nationalist (as opposed to Islamist) stance and willingness to negotiate for autonomy rather than full independence in the southern Philippines.
 For background on the evolution of these talks, see Benedicto R. Bacani, The Mindanao Peace Talks: Another Opportunity to Resolve the Moro Conflict in the Philippines (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2005); ìSouthern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process,î International Crisis Group, July 13, 2004.
 Chalk et al., The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment, p. 37.
 Datu Unsay, ìHardline Philippine Rebel Vows to Derail Peace,î al-Arabiya, August 29, 2011; ì7 Reported Dead in Ambush,î Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 14, 2013; Jacob Zenn, ìRebel with a Cause in Mindanao,î Asia Times Online, September 13, 2011; Eid Kabulu, ìBIFF: Origin and Prospect,î kampilantroopers.com, undated, available at www.kampilantroopers.com/news.php?readmore=224.
 Zenn; ìMILF Leader to Nidaíul Islam: ëPerhaps the Moro Struggle for Freedom and Self-Determination is the Longest and Bloodiest in the Entire History of Mankind,íî Nidaíul Islam, April-May 1998.
 Kabulu, ìBIFF: Origin and Prospect.î
 Ibid.; ìPhilippines: BIFF Gets Banged Around,î Strategy Page, August 22, 2012; ìA Day With the Mujahideen of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) ñ 2,î Jamadi-Us-Sani, April 24, 2012; Kabulu, ìBIFF: Origin and Prospect.î
 ìThe Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao,î International Crisis Group, March 2011.
 Zenn; ìRogue MILF Commander Forms Splinter Group,î Associated Press, August 19, 2011; ìRebels Armed with Chainsaws Attack Maguindanao Towns,î Agence France-Presse, June 8, 2012.
 Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia: The Coast Watch System of the Philippines (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2012), p. 13; Kabulu, ìBIFF: Origin and Prospect.î
 Alexis Romero, ì86 Dead in Army-BIFF Clashes in Maguindanao,î Philippine Star, July 8, 2013.
 Personal interview, Manila, Philippines, August 2011.
 ìA Day With the Mujahideen of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) ñ 2.î
 Personal interviews, Moro sources, Manila, Philippines, January 2008.
 Rabasa and Chalk, p. 15.
 ìThe Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao,î p. 6; ìThe Philippines: A New Strategy for Peace in Mindanao?î International Crisis Group, August 2011, p. 7.
 See ìEvery Step Brings Us Closer to Our Destination,î opening statement of Mohagher Iqbal, chairman, MILF peace panel, during opening program of the 20th GPH-MILF Exploratory Talks in Kuala Lumpur, February 9-10, 2011.
ì6 Killed in Maguindanao Clash Between MILF, Splinter Group,î GMANews.tv, August 10, 2011; Zenn.
 ìA Day With the Mujahideen of the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) ñ 2.î
 Kabulu, ìBIFF: Origin and Prospect.î
 ìThe Philippines: Back to the Table, Warily, in Mindanao,î p. 8; ìThe Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao,î International Crisis Group, December 2012, p. 16.
 See, for instance, ìMNLF May Quit the Peace Process in the Philippines,î Terrorism Focus 4:3 (2007). For more on the ARMM agreement and what it entailed, see Peter Chalk, ìThe Davao Consensus: A Panacea for the Muslim Insurgency in Mindanao?î Terrorism and Political Violence 9:2 (1997).
 See, for instance, ìMILF: 2 Maguindanao Polls Support Kato,î Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 11, 2012; Ferdinandh B. Cabrera, ìëA Big Lie,í Mayor Ampatuan Says of Reports they Abandoned Towns and Supported BIFF,î Minda News, August 18, 2012.
 Rene Acosta, ìPhilippines Rebel Group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters Undermines Peace Talks,î Asia Pacific Defense Forum, September 24, 2012; ìThe Philippines: Breakthrough in Mindanao,î p. 16; ìMILF: 2 Maguindanao Polls Support Kato.î
 Romero. It should be noted that overall, the bulk of fatalities were on the side of the rebels.
 Chalk et al., The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment, pp. 49-52; ìAnnual Country Report on Terrorism 2012,î U.S. Department of State, 2013.
 Floyd Whaley, ìNew Clash in the Philippines Raises Fears of a Wider Threat,î New York Times, September 12, 2013.
 For more on the seizure, Floyd Whaley, ìFighting in Southern Philippines Kills 8,î New York Times, September 9, 2013; ibid.
Dr. Peter Chalk is a Senior Policy Analyst with the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA.