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Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)


Insurgency Overview


The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, also known as the MILF, is a Filipino militant group dedicated to the self-determination of the Moro people through both political and insurgent action. Formed as a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1977, the group engaged in a brutal conflict with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) across the island of Mindanao until a peace agreement was finally agreed on in 2014. Today the MILF continues as a political group, seeking to further the autonomy of the Moro people.


History & Foundations


Mindanao has hosted Moro insurgent groups since the Spanish annexed the Philippines in the 16th century. Throughout the American annexation in 1898, the Japanese occupation in 1942, and the eventual creation of an independent Philippine state, Moro independence groups have continued to fight what they see as foreign occupation. The MILF sees all of these conflicts as a part of the greater “Moro Jihad,” with three distinct phases, the first being against the Spanish, the second against the Americans, and the third against the Philippines. As a result, they view themselves as the continuation of a century-spanning legacy of mujahideen fighters (Zahir).


On the 22nd of September 1972, the Defense Minister of the Philippines, Juan Ponce Enrile, was ambushed during a car ride in Manila. Communist infiltrators were blamed for the attack and the following day, the 23rd, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law (Ortega). Today, increased scrutiny has been placed on this event, with many believing that the ambush was a false flag operation, designed to give Marcos dictatorial powers (Montalván). Crackdowns soon followed and Moro political groups were suppressed. In the political vacuum that ensued, the MNLF, a militant offshoot of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), rose to power. Led by a former student organizer, Nur Misuari, the MNLF consolidated various separatist insurgent and militia groups and began their war against the AFP in October of that year (“MMP: Moro National Liberation Front | FSI”).


In 1976, the MNLF signed the Tripoli Agreement which attempted to broker peace between the MNLF and the Philippine Government (Cagoco-Guiam). While its Moro signatories hoped it would usher in a new age of Moro autonomy, it became almost immediately apparent that no major changes would be made and hostilities flared up again soon after (“MMP: Moro National Liberation Front | FSI”). In the wake of these events, a group of MNLF members split off from the larger organization. Led by their founder, Salamat Hashim, they denounced Misuari as an autocrat and tyrant whose whims were leading the MNLF to destruction. They called for the creation of a Moro autonomous zone, in opposition to the separatist policies of Misuari’s MNLF (“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI”). This “New MNLF'' would change its name to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 1984, in an effort to rally the diverse Moro militia groups that made up the MNLF around the flag of Islam (Bale 16).


The MILF laid dormant for much of the early years of its existence until its first attack in 1986 on a Catholic wedding in the city of Salvador (“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI”). Attacks continued throughout the 80s but the MILF was always overshadowed by the larger and more popular MNLF. The coalition built by Misuari was simply too powerful for the MILF to compete with.


In 1996, the “Mindanao Final Agreement” was signed between the MNLF and the Philippine government, and with it, Misuari was given control of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (“Mindanao Final Agreement - Peace Accords Matrix”). The new peace agreements fractured the MNLF, and while Misuari had come to rule the autonomous zone, many militia groups in his coalition opted to continue fighting. Most of these groups eventually joined the MILF, greatly increasing its size and power throughout Mindanao (“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI”). This, alongside support from other Mujahideen movements throughout the world, secured the MILF as the predominant insurgent cause amongst the Moro (Bale 17). Misuari’s decision to come out of the jungle created the very same type of power vacuum that propelled the MNLF to notoriety, which would then be filled by the MILF.


In March of 2000, a militia unit associated with the MILF raided the municipality of Kauswagan, taking hundreds hostage. In response, the President of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, declared war against the MILF (“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI”). Keeping with traditional Moro strategies used against the Spanish, the MILF relied heavily on fortified strongholds hidden deep in the jungle (Lalkovič 18). In response to this, Philippine forces used a combination of strategic strikes, force consolidation, communications disruption, and maneuver warfare to crush MILF strongholds (Ileto 160-162). All of these efforts culminated in Operation Terminal Velocity, where Philippine forces demolished Camp Abubakar, the central stronghold and command post of MILF forces throughout Mindanao (Ileto 126-139). Throughout the campaign, the MILF failed to adopt guerilla warfare tactics, relying on their strongholds to hold up against the artillery and airpower of the enemy. The MILF would no longer hide in bunkers waiting for the enemy to attack with overwhelming force, instead opting to become guerillas.


In 2003, Salamat Ibrahim died of natural causes and was replaced by Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. Ebrahim broke the policy of his hardline predecessor by beginning peace talks with the Philippine government (“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI”). Despite a multitude of political hurdles, the “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” was signed in 2014, establishing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (“THE COMPREHENSIVE AGREEMENT ON THE BANGSAMORO” 4). Today a tenuous peace exists between the two parties, with clashes occasionally occurring between a multitude of MILF affiliated groups and Philippine forces (Uday). Despite this, the group seems to be adjusting to more peaceful political action, endorsing Leni Robredo in her bid for the presidency during the 2022 election (Pedrajas). They continue to advocate for Moro autonomy and reconciliation through their political wing, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP).


Objectives and Ideology


Since its very beginning, the MILF has been committed to the establishment of an Islamic state. Educated throughout the Middle East, the leaders of the MILF sought to replicate a similar level of conservatism in their home country (Bale 16). They have been active in anti-drug operations, both with vigilante-style reprisals on drug users (Umel and Maitem) and collaborating with the government in its war on drugs (Glang). Today the group seeks to further Moro autonomy and reconcile with the Philippine government through the UBJP (“Philippines election: Moro Islamic Liberation Front endorses candidate”).


However, in 2022, the UBJP failed to secure critical municipal seats in the autonomous region and even had some MILF members break ranks and vote for other parties (Xu and Bertrand). The UBJP losing control of the autonomous region could have untold consequences for their future as a peaceful organization as well as the stability of the region.


Military and Political Abilities


The MILF inherited from their predecessors a very decentralized organization. Even during their zenith, most of the recruitment, training, and logistical responsibilities belonged in the hands of individual units rather than having any sense of standardization (Lalkovič 15). Their weaponry ranged from surplus AFP Vietnam-era M16s and M60s to World War II rifles, Libyan-provided RPGs, as well as handmade guns of every variety. This led to a major problem with splintering and failure to cooperate with ceasefire orders as these units could simply ignore the orders of their commanders (Lalkovič 15-16). Another failure of the decentralized system was the absence of effective communications equipment, something that Philippine forces exploited during the 2000 campaign to sever the connection between MILF central command and their subordinate units, destroying any coordination between them (Ileto 69). For those reasons, despite their estimated size of 15,690 fighters in 1999, the actual force that MILF central command could effectively command was far smaller (Ileto 68).


Approach to Resistance


Despite its origins as a militant group, the MILF has effectively transitioned into a peaceful political organization, electing to use its political arm, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) as a way to achieve its goals. Most militant factions of the organization have either laid down their arms and been given amnesty or have splintered from the MILF, joining more radical groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) or Abu Sayyaf (ISIS - East Asia).


International Relations and Alliances


Throughout its tumultuous history, the MILF has held relationships with various other Islamist groups and governments. Gaddafi’s Libya was heavily involved in supporting both the MNLF and MILF, supplying arms to both groups, and even mediating the 1976 Tripoli Agreement that oversaw autonomous divisions for Muslims in the Southern Philippines (Bautista). During the 1990s certain MILF units and leaders associated with Al-Qaeda integrated themselves into AQ logistic networks and received training from AQ operatives (Bale 17). The MILF has also had tenuous relations with its splinter groups, and has particularly been criticized for some of its members retaining relationships with Abu Sayyaf despite the group denouncing them in the 2000s (“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI”). Some MILF members, however, have taken it upon themselves to actively fight the Maute Group, the IS group responsible for the Battle of Marawi in 2017 (Fernandez). The most important relationship that the MILF currently has is with the Philippine government. Since 2014 tensions have occasionally flared up, with splinter groups attacking Philippine forces causing dialogues to go sour, but despite this, the MILF continues to negotiate, condemn, and denounce hardline elements in its ranks; even as it loses its grip on the autonomous region.



Works Cited (MLA-Style)

Bale, Jeffrey M. “The Abu Sayyaf Group in its Philippine and International Contexts by Jeffrey M. Bale I. Introduction On 18 October 2003 Presiden.” Middlebury College, https://www.middlebury.edu/institute/sites/www.middlebury.edu.institute/files/2023-03/baleASGreport.pdf?fv=uIWgXfJR. Accessed 18 January 2024.


Bautista, Andrea M. “2 Moro leaders admit Gaddafi funded MNLF, MILF rebels.” Wayback Machine, News5, 25 October 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20160601064913/http://interaksyon.com/article/15860/2-moro-leaders-admit-gaddafi-funded-mnlf-milf-rebels.


Cagoco-Guiam, Rufa. “The Tripoli Agreement of 1976: Lessons, impact on the Mindanao peace process.” The Tripoli Agreement of 1976: Lessons,<br> impact on the Mindanao peace process, 10 August 2018, https://pcij.org/article/881/the-tripoli-agreement-of-1976-lessons-impact-on-the-mindanao-peace-process. Accessed 17 January 2024.


“THE COMPREHENSIVE AGREEMENT ON THE BANGSAMORO.” UN Peacemaker, https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/PH_140327_ComprehensiveAgreementBangsamoro.pdf. Accessed 18 January 2024.


Fernandez, Edwin. “5K civilians flee MILF, DI hostilities in Maguindanao Sur.” Philippine News Agency, 12 December 2023, https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1215287. Accessed 30 January 2024.


Glang, Hader. “Philippines: MILF, government sign pact on war on drugs.” Anadolu Agency, 1 July 2017, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/philippines-milf-government-sign-pact-on-war-on-drugs/852220. Accessed 30 January 2024.


Ileto, Captain Rafael. “Restoring a Fragile Peace.” Philippine Army, https://www.army.mil.ph/orc-home/images/pdf-files/ABUBAKAR/Restoring%20Fragile%20Peace%20(ABUBAKAR)%20-%2019%20Sep%2019%20(Interactive).pdf. Accessed 18 January 2024.


Lalkovič, Tomáš. “GEOGRAFIE A STRATEGIE POVSTALCŮ NA SRÍ LANCE A FILIPÍNACH.” Univerzita Obrany. Ustav Strategickych Studii. Obrana a Strategie, vol. 2022, no. 1, 2022, pp. 3-20. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/politics/docview/2684211461/F21206482230455BPQ/1?accountid=8120&sourcetype=Scholarly%20Journals.


“Mindanao Final Agreement - Peace Accords Matrix.” Peace Accords Matrix, https://peaceaccords.nd.edu/accord/mindanao-final-agreement. Accessed 18 January 2024.


“MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front | FSI.” Center for International Security and Cooperation, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/moro-islamic-liberation-front. Accessed 18 January 2024.


“MMP: Moro National Liberation Front | FSI.” Center for International Security and Cooperation, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/moro-national-liberation-front#text_block_17078. Accessed 18 January 2024.


Montalván, Antonio J. “The 50-year old lie of Juan Ponce Enrile.” VERA Files, 24 September 2022, https://verafiles.org/articles/martial-law50. Accessed 17 January 2024.


Ortega, Nicolás. “Defense Chief Unharmed.” The New York Times, 23 September 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/09/23/archives/defense-chief-unharmed-philippines-sets-martial-law-after-attack-on.html. Accessed 17 January 2024.


Pedrajas, Joseph. “Robredo gains 'historic' endorsement from MILF.” Manila Bulletin, 23 April 2022, https://mb.com.ph/2022/04/23/robredo-gains-historic-endorsement-from-milf/. Accessed 18 January 2024.


“Philippines election: Moro Islamic liberation Front endorses candidate.” YouTube, 23 April 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XPC3t9Bc0I. Accessed 18 January 2024.


Uday. “Moro Islamic Liberation Front Clashes with Philippine Military Spark Escalation Fears.” Militant Wire, 17 November 2022, https://www.militantwire.com/p/moro-islamic-liberation-front-clashes. Accessed 18 January 2024.


Umel, Richel, and Jeoffrey Maitem. “Hundreds flee from MILF anti-drug ops in Lanao Sur.” Inquirer.net, 13 November 2016, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/843881/hundreds-flee-from-milf-anti-drug-ops-in-lanao-sur. Accessed 30 January 2024.


Xu, Cheng, and Jacques Bertrand. “Barangay Elections in the Bangsamoro: A Crucial Test for the Future of the BARMM.” The Diplomat, 23 June 2023, https://thediplomat.com/2023/06/barangay-elections-in-the-bangsamoro-a-crucial-test-for-the-future-of-the-barmm/. Accessed 30 January 2024.


Zahir, Sheikh Abu. “THE MORO JIHAD: A Continuous Struggle for Islamic Independence in Southern Philippines.” Intelligence Resource Program, https://irp.fas.org/world/para/docs/ph1.htm. Accessed 17 January 2024.




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