SULTAN KUDARAT, Southern Philippines: The leader of a Muslim separatist organization in the southern Philippines said it “welcomes” the continued presence of US forces in Mindanao to help the government in its campaign against violent extremist groups.
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim acknowledged the help being extended by the Americans to communities in the region.
“As long as they don’t do anything that creates a problem for our people, we don’t mind them,” he told Arab News.
Asked if he is aware of the activities of US forces in Mindanao, he said they are monitoring Daesh and engaged in humanitarian and civic assistance projects.
US forces are “quite visible” in the island provinces of Mindanao and “we don’t oppose” their presence, but they cannot intervene in government policy, Ebrahim said.
In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted US special forces to leave Mindanao as their presence would only worsen the situation in the region.
But the Department of National Defense (DND) said the US forces were still needed there because they have a surveillance capability that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) do not have.
At the time, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the contingent of US soldiers based in Zamboanga City were conducting surveillance operations to help the AFP in its counterterrorism campaign.
On Sept. 1, 2017, US Defense Secretary James Mattis designated Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P) an Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) “to support the Philippine government and military in their efforts to isolate, degrade and defeat” affiliates of Daesh and other terrorist groups in the country, according to a report by the lead inspector general to the US Congress.
This came as fighting raged between Philippine forces and Daesh-inspired militants who laid siege to Marawi City.
OPE-P was designated an OCO “to acknowledge the severity of the terrorist threat facing the Philippines,” the report said.
The Philippines’ defense spokesman Arsenio Andolong said US military activities in the country under OPE-P involve advising and providing technical assistance to the AFP. “There are no boots on the ground,” he told Arab News.
Ebrahim said while there is no accurate number of foreign terrorists or Daesh-inspired militants coming to Mindanao, Indonesian, Malaysian “and even Middle Eastern-looking” militants joined the five-month siege of Marawi.
There are confirmed reports of the continued entry of Malaysians and Indonesians, and an Arab-looking militant who was found to be using a Canadian passport, he added.
“Usually these elements mix with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in island provinces, and some are blending in with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF),” Ebrahim said. “We’re closely motoring them because we really don’t agree with their activities.”
Those being recruited by Daesh-inspired groups are not part of the MILF, whose leadership remains in control of its members, he added.
Those recruits are easily convinced “by certain elements who capitalize on their frustration with the peace process with the government,” he said.
The MILF is the only armed Islamic organization in the region whose objective is political, Ebrahim said.
“That’s why I think we vary from other Islamic organizations. We were never declared a terrorist organization,” he added.
“Islam is only a way of trying to unite our people and to practice our own faith in the proper manner. That’s what makes the MILF different from other Islamic or revolutionary groups.”