Philippines travel advice

Attack by militant group signifies continued risk of violence regardless of outcome of peace talks.

Two soldiers on 22 June were killed in an ambush by militants from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – a splinter group of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is negotiating a peace agreement with the government. The attack occurred in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao province, and followed an 18 June ambush by BIFF militants on a civilian vehicle in Maguindanao, which resulted in two deaths.

  • The incidents reflect the BIFF’s resilience in its Maguindanao enclaves, despite a recent military offensive and the death of its founder Ameril Kato in April. The BIFF has continued to mount sporadic attacks since Kato’s death, despite persistent military pressures. Although the group reportedly splintered before his death, internal disunity has not significantly curbed its capacity for violence, or its intent to regain territory lost to recent military operations.
  • The attacks suggest further BIFF-perpetrated violence in Mindanao is likely; beyond the targeting of security forces, occasional small bombs in cities and extortion-related attacks against companies are likely. Companies operating in agriculture, mining, light industries and natural resources are vulnerable. However, the BIFF’s activities are likely to be limited to the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and mainly Maguindanao or Lanao, with little capacity to launch regular attacks beyond this area.
  • The continued prevalence of BIFF attacks will not derail the peace process with MILF rebels, but demonstrates that violence will recur in the future Moro autonomous zone in Mindanao. The BIFF is not party to the MILF peace talks with the government and has staunchly opposed any attempts at reaching such a deal. Religious and ethnic affiliations may also predispose some MILF members towards sheltering or joining fugitive BIFF militants.

Kato the younger

Before Kato’s death, the BIFF had reportedly splintered into several factions. Shortly after his death, there were conflicting reports about the group’s leadership; military reports cited Ismael Abubakar and Kato’s relative Kagi Karialan as two possible leaders who would succeed him. Meanwhile, Kato’s son Salah has reportedly formed a new faction.

Such internal divisions within the BIFF will complicate any potential government efforts to engage the group in peace negotiations. Even if the government were able to secure assent from one faction, the rest would not automatically follow.

The 22 June attack occurred when unarmed soldiers were travelling to an elementary school in Datu Unsay town, Maguindanao. The attack took local officials by surprise, as it occurred during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (18 June to 17 July), during which violence is generally frowned on. However, there is a precedent for attacks during Ramadan; in 2012, the BIFF launched synchronized attacks against military detachments in Maguindanao, displacing more than 20,000 families.