The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is an Islamic liberation movement based in the Bangsamoro region in Mindanao and the neighbouring islands. It is currently the largest Islamic separatist group in the Philippines, with an estimated 15,000 members. The MILF seeks to establish an independent Islamic state comprising Mindanao island (the second largest of the Philippine islands) Palawan, Basilan, the Sulu archipelago, and the neighboring islands. In support of this aim, the organization has carried out a campaign of attacks against civilian and military targets throughout the southern Philippines.
Recently, the group has been in the spotlight due to revelations of links between key members and Osama bin Ladin’s al-Qaida network. In 1999, the group’s leader Hashim Salamat, admitted to recieving “significant funding” from bin Ladin. As many as several hundred MILF members from Mindanao are believed to have trained at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, and to have established ties with al-Qaida commanders. A number of the Jemaah Islamiah members arrested in Singapore in 2000 admitted to having trained at MILF camps, while one of the al-Qaida “consultants” who advised the Singapore cell had formerly worked as an explosives expert for the MILF.
The history of the Moro (Muslim) rebellion against non-Muslim rule stretches back nearly 500 years. Throughout the centuries, the Muslim population of the Sulu Archipelago and southwestern Mindanao have fought against the governement of foreign rulers, and no central government has ever succeeded in establishing complete control over the Moro areas. In the modern period, this resistance broke out anew with the rise of Islamic nationalism in the 1970’s. The conflict reached its peak in the period 1970-1983 before negotiations led to a series of peace agreements between the various separatist factions and the Manila government.
The MNLF, founded and led by Nur Misuari, was the original political front for the Muslim separatist rebellion. In 1976, Misuari signed the Tripoli Agreement, the first peace agreement signed between Muslim separatists and the Philippine government. This led to a political split in the MNLF, with Salamat Hashim and the more traditional leaders arguing against any conciliation with Manila. On 26 December, 1977 Hashim announces in Jedda an ‘Instrument of Takeover’ of the MNLF leadership, a move supported by almost half the organization’s leaders. Misuari countered by expelling Hashim and charging him with treason. This led to a split in Arab support to the MNLF. Egypt came out in support of Hashim’s faction while Libya continued to back Misuari. At this point Hashim moved to Cairo where he announced the establishment of the “new MNLF.”
In March, 1984, Hashim officially declared the “New MNLF” to be a separate organisation with the name Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). He announced that the new movement would not only work toward nationalist goals, but would also work to inculcate a more traditional Islamic religious education.
In January 1987, the MNLF signed an agreement relinquishing its goal of independence and accepting the government’s offer of autonomy for the Muslim regions. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front refused to accept the accord and initiated a brief offensive that ended in a truce later that month.
The stated goal of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the establishment of an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. In this it does not differ significantly from its parent organization, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). However, the MILF has stressed the Islamic aspects of the separatist movement. The organization’s main leaders tend to be Islamic clerics, including Salamat himself. The MILF advocates self-reliance--militarily, politically, and economically--and rejects compromise on the issue of independence.
The MILF draws it supporters from the 13 Muslim-dominated provinces and 4 cities on Mindanao and neighboring islands in the south. Most of its members come from the Maguindanaon and Iranun ethnic groups, with some support from Maranaw group as well. The MILF enjoys a good deal of popular support from the rural villages on Mindanao Island.
In the late 1990’s, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front claimed to have 120,000 fighters and many more supporters. The organization’s main military headquarters was at Camp Abubakar until the camp was captured by the Philippines military in 2000. However, the Philippine government estimates put the MILF strength at something between 8,000 and 15,000. The majority of the MILF’s forces are deployed in four provinces of Mindanao: Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and North Cotabato.
The leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Hashim Salamat, comes from an upper class Maguindanaon family and studied at the prestigious Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo. During the 1960’s, he reportedly led the Philippine Students’ Union at Al-Azhar. Upon his return to the Philippines in 1970, he became a founder member of the MNLF, and served as second in command until his break with Nur Musauri in 1977. He served on the MNLF’s negotiating panels during the organization’s talks with the Marcos government in 1975 and 1976.
When Hashim split from the MNLF, he took with him most of the group’s more traditionally Islamic leaders, including Rashid Lucman, Domacao Alonto and Salipada Pendatun. The MILF has always placed greater emphasis on Islam than the MNLF, and most of its leaders are Islamic scholars from traditional aristocratic and religious backgrounds.
In the early 1990’s the MILF launched a wave of terrorist attacks in the southern Philippines, leading former Philippines president Joseph Estrada to pursue an “all-out war” against the organization. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has resumed peace talks with the MILF since coming to office, and several ceasefires have been agreed upon, only to be broken in subsequent weeks or months. In May 2000 the MILF-government talks broke down, and the Philippine army launched a major assault upon the MILF military headquarters at Camp Abubakar, capturing the camp. The offensive did not significantly harm the group’s military capabilities, as most of its senior leaders had been evacuated before the camp fell. In response to the military offensive, the MILF countered with a series of bombings in Manila. A splinter group also claimed responsibility for a bomb attack against the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia, and a series of bombs that exploded in the capital.