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MNLF division could threaten Mindanao security
Published on: Sunday, August 30, 2020
By: Ulta Levenia and Alban Sciascia
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MNLF founder and chairman Nur Misuari (File photo: AFP)
Threat to southern Philippine security has been apparent in the past few weeks. Several Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) sub-leaders have surrendered along with their followers to Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) factions in Sulu.

While the apparent disengagement of these ASG members and the role played by the MNLF could be seen as progress in the Mindanao region, it is worth noting that such a move might actually lead to a dangerous shift in the current security environment.

Amongst the surrenders were Indang Susukan and Twan Annuh, who were responsible for the kidnapping-for-ransom of foreigners, including Indonesian, Malaysian and Chinese nationals. Susukan, who was just arrested by Philippines authorities with the help of Nur Misuari on Aug 14, 2020, had actually been hiding around Misuari’s camp in Sulu for almost two two months.

Twan Annuh – who is known for his role in the kidnapping of five Indonesians, including a young boy, in Sabah, decided to surrender to the Yusop Jikiri-led MNLF faction. While the hostages are still held by ASG sub-leader Apo Mike’s group, Annuh has joined a reintegration programme led by Jikiri in Indanan, Sulu.

Although the surrender and arrest have been seen as a way to eliminate ASG’s cells in Sulu, the involvement of MNLF leaders such as Misuari and Jikiri is raising concerns. The MNLF has been separated into two groups which are Misuari’s and Jikiri’s factions.

These two factions mostly control the areas in Sulu, except those with the presence of ASG factions focusing on criminal activities namely Radhullah Sahiron, Apo Mike and Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan’s factions. Both MNLF factions’ relations are tainted by political competition: indeed, each of them is trying to appear as the legitimate heir to the original MNLF and to be the group who represents the Moro tribes politically and symbolically.

In this perspective, both factions are competing to be the legitimate reintegration actor for former ASG members and to gain political support from Manila. However, as of today, neither the Jikiri nor the Misuari factions managed to stop criminal and terrorist activities of ASG.

For a while, some observers argue that the existence of MNLF armed groups in Sulu could be used to reduce criminal activities in the southern Philippines, as, in theory, the MNLF stands against ASG activities.

Nevertheless, the reality on the ground shows that until now, kidnappings for ransom are still going on and the ASG branch led by Sawadjaan, which pledged allegiance to ISIS, is still active. It is fair to say the MNLF-Jikiri faction may have been prolific to counter kidnapping for ransom activities conducted by the ASG factions.

For example, Jikiri’s forces successfully rescued a Sulu physician, Dr. Daniel Moreno, who was kidnapped by the ASG-Sawadjaan faction in March. However, as dazzling as this operation was, the reality on the ground tends to show that both MNLF factions are turning a blind eye on ASG presence in the area.

Indeed, locals often complain that many ASG members are hiding in the MNLF-Misuari vicinity of Indanan, Sulu, a territory supposed to be under the control of the MNLF-Misuari faction. According to local sources, neither the government nor the MNLF-Jikiri faction could operate in the area to tackle ASG hideouts. Indeed, despite the fact that Jikiri’s own son is the mayor of Indanan, any operation might lead to an armed conflict between both MNLF factions.

It is worth noting that recent developments led to tensions between both MNLF factions. In March, Misuari decided to set up a meeting between the MNLF and ASG groups, including Indang Susukan and Raden Abuh, another ASG leader. In parallel, Jikiri’s faction shows some concern as the MNLF-Misuari faction is said by local sources to provide a safe haven for ASG members, while MNLF-Jikiri seems motivated to fight the ASG in Sulu.

The current situation has worsened with the involvement of Misuari’s wife, Tarhata, as a third party in hostage liberation negotiations. In other words, the MNLF-Jikiri faction is raising doubt on the commitment of the Misuari faction to fighting the ASG.

What was considered as a virtuous circle – the involvement of the MNLF to secure the Sulu archipelago - might actually backfire. As a matter of fact, the more ASG members surrender, the more both factions will compete to be the legitimate actor for the securitisation of Sulu.

Neither MNLF-Misuari nor MNLF-Jikiri agrees on a security and political agenda to fight the ASG and criminal activities in the region.  It is also worth noting that while Misuari has often been seen discussing with President Rodrigo Duterte, his faction is still considered as a rebel group and its political legitimacy is said to be fading.

As a matter of fact, the competition might escalate and trigger an active conflict between the two factions. It is equally important to keep in mind that each faction consists of hundreds of armed militants.

The Sulu Sea has become the traditional hotspot for ASG kidnapping-for-ransom activities. In order to tackle this threat, all security actors involved will need to display a clear and integrated cooperation. This objective can only be achieved if both MNLF factions develop an integrated roadmap to peace with a clear mandate.

About the authors

Ulta Levenia is a lead terrorism researcher for Jakarta-based think Galatea and a consultant for Semar Sentinel Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based risk consulting firm.

Alban Sciascia, PhD is director at Semar Sentinel and a writer for Galatea.


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