Emerging peace deal in Philippines could turn rebel lairs into hostile ground for terrorists

Hunted by U.S.-backed Filipino troops in 2005, Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani and other al-Qaida-linked militants sought refuge in the mountainous stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.

But the rebels turned them away, afraid that harboring extremists would scuttle their peace talks with the government. The following year, Janjalani — among the most-wanted terrorist suspects in Southeast Asia — was killed by troops in another jungle area.

The rebels' rejection of Janjalani, which was reported at the time by military and police intelligence officials, shows the potential of harnessing the main Moro insurgents in fighting extremism and preventing their vast strongholds from serving as one of the last remaining refuges of al-Qaida-affiliated militants, who have been clobbered by years of crackdowns across Southeast Asia.

Philippine officials hope a preliminary peace deal the government recently clinched with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will eventually turn the 11,000-strong insurgent group into a formidable force against the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf and other radicals, including several Indonesian and Malaysian militants believed to be taking cover in the southern Mindanao region.

"We can wage battle with the MILF," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said. "This will really isolate groups like the Abu Sayyaf."

The United States, Britain and Australia, aware of the emerging peace agreement's potential counterterrorism dividends, were among the first to praise the framework accord with the rebels announced Oct. 7 by President Benigno Aquino III. It will be formally signed in Manila on Monday.

"Foreign governments have supported the peace process partly because of counterterrorism policies," Bryony Lau of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said. They also worried about poor governance and high levels of poverty that have plagued the insurgency-affected regions, he said.

While the Moro rebel group has cut ties with foreign extremists to safeguard peace talks, "there may well still be individual ... commanders with continuing ties," Lau said, adding that "the framework agreement increases the incentives for the MILF leadership to ensure that their members are not harboring such people."

Under the deal, the Moro rebel group committed to deactivate its armed guerrilla units "beyond use" when both sides have finalized an agreement on Muslim autonomy.

A final pact could be reached in three years, officials and the rebels say. One option is to integrate qualified guerrillas into a police force that would secure the new Muslim autonomous region, to be called Bangsamoro. The rest of the insurgents, they say, could return to civilian life once they lay down their firearms.

The Malaysian-brokered talks, aiming to wean the Moro guerrillas from foreign and local extremists and outlaws, led to a 2002 agreement on a government-rebel joint action group that was designed for the insurgents to help interdict and capture terrorists in their areas. Under the agreement, the rebels have fed information and helped solve several ransom kidnappings in the south.

Still, military and police intelligence reports have showed that some Moro rebel commanders continued to provide refuge or clandestinely supported foreign militants linked to extremist groups.

Ameril Umbra Kato, commander of one of the Moro group's largest guerrilla units, had long been suspected of supporting Indonesian and Malaysian extremists even before he broke off from the main group last year, partly due to his rejection of the peace talks. Among his known followers is Abdul Basit Usman, a Filipino bomb maker and trainer with links to the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah militant network and a suspect in several deadly bomb attacks in the south.

Washington has offered a $1 million bounty for Usman's capture or killing.

Kato's forces attacked several army camps and outposts in August in two southern provinces. As army troops bombarded Kato's forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrillas stayed within their community-like encampments — marked by green flags to prevent them from accidentally being drawn in the fighting.

Later, about 3,000 Moro insurgents surrounded their breakaway colleagues and forced the hard-line leaders to sign a pledge to indefinitely stop attacks and give the talks a chance, according to Muslim rebel negotiator Mohagher Iqbal.

Abu Mujahid, a former key Abu Sayyaf commander, said he had joined combat training organized by Moro Islamic Liberation Front commanders in their rural strongholds in the late 1980, along with Jemaah Islamiyah and Arab militants. Mujahid was captured years ago and has been helping authorities pursue Abu Sayyaf gunmen.

"Some MILF commanders have worked with foreign jihadists, so if they become the authority someday, that's clearly a big operational setback for the jihadists," Mujahid said, referring to Indonesian and other extremists. "This will limit where they can go, who they can talk with. It will almost be like back to zero."

But untangling the four-decade Muslim insurgency is fraught with a recent history of failures.

A 1996 autonomy deal the government signed with the largest rebel group at the time, the Moro National Liberation Front, led to the integration of 7,500 of an estimated 30,000 guerrillas into the Philippine army and police.

The integrated former rebels played key roles in successful army and police counterterrorism assaults. But the other rebels did not disarm and, while many laid low, they were still a threat. An unspecified number joined the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which broke off in 1984 from the Moro National Liberation Front.

In a region that has long grappled with a volatile mix of crushing poverty, huge numbers of illegal firearms, clan wars and weak law enforcement, Muslim unrest and extremists continue to be a concern.

Shifting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from a major national security problem to a strategic ally would be the biggest boost in efforts to tame the insurgency.

"There are a lot of problems we must face," Moro front's vice chairman, Ghadzali Jaafar, said Saturday, adding that concerns include securing the new Muslim-administered region to allow development.

"Before we were like sailing in a vast ocean without seeing the port," he said. "Now we can see where to dock."