April 3, 2009
Filipino government forces engaged in a major battle last week with rebel forces under the command of a renegade commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The clashes, described as the fiercest this year, occurred on the island of Mindanao, ten kilometers from the provincial capital of Maguindanao, where Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was visiting at the time. The clashes began on March 26 near the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, one of six provinces forming the Muslim autonomous region.
According to an army spokesman, units of the army’s 601st Brigade were checking on reports of a rebel presence in the area (Xinhua, March 28). The troops were attacked by an estimated 60 to 80 rebel fighters under the command of Ameril Umbra Kato, an MILF commander with a 3 million peso reward (U.S. $310,000) on his head. An MILF spokesman maintained the clashes were initiated by government forces, which allegedly attacked a village where many of the families of Umbra Kato’s fighters lived. Kato styles himself commander of the 105th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (the armed wing of the MILF).
The 601st Brigade engaged the rebels with artillery, mortars and heavy-machine-gun fire from armored personnel vehicles (APVs). The rebels targeted the military with mortar and small-arms fire for eight hours before splitting into small groups and melting into a marshy area where pursuit was difficult (AFP, March 28). Government forces claimed at least 20 rebels were killed while admitting the loss of eight soldiers. An MILF spokesman insisted the rebels had suffered the loss of only one fighter while killing 20 government troops (MindaNews [Mindanao], March 28). The rebels also claimed to have destroyed two APVs and to have seized a weapons cache that included an M-60 machine-gun (Mindanao Examiner, March 27). Eid Kabalu, the MILF’s civil-military affairs chief, declared government troops “encountered our regular forces, not those under Kato” (Philippine Daily Inquirer [Mindanao], March 28).
An agreement between the government and the MILF last year on “ancestral domain” (effectively creating a Muslim homeland) in the historically Muslim southern islands of the Philippines fell through when it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Despite a continuing (but lightly observed) ceasefire, a number of MILF commanders responded by attacking Christian communities in Mindanao last August, killing dozens of people and driving 160,000 others from their homes. Kato became one of the most wanted men in the Philippines when his fighters rampaged through Christian communities in the North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, and Saranggani provinces of Mindanao. The rebel commander faces scores of criminal charges, including a charge of terrorism under the Human Security Act (Philippine Star [Manila], September 4, 2008). Two other MILF commanders, Abdullah Macapaar (a.k.a. Commander Bravo) and Sulayman Pangalian, are also wanted for their attacks on Christian communities, apparently without the approval of the MILF command. MILF chairman Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim announced that Kato and Macapaar would be charged under the Shari’a in a military court martial for their role in the attacks, but the commanders have yet to be reined in (Sun Star [Davao, Mindanao], August 25, 2008).
In a YouTube video recorded last fall, Kato denied allegations his force was “a lost command,” while accusing the government of terrorism. He described the bounty on his head as a “pre-modern tactic” used by enemies of the Prophet Muhammad and insisted that the President sought to “sow chaos” in Mindanao by ordering military attacks on the MILF (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dU-Se7g1k7U).
Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. once said of Kato; “We know the way he thinks and the way he thinks is quite dangerous” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 2, 2008). Kato’s progress through remote areas of Mindanao is partially tracked through text messages sent to security forces by civilians (GMANews [Manila], October 2, 2008).
Manila is demanding the surrender of Kato, Macapaar and Pangalian before peace talks can resume with the MILF (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 1). The government has tried to exploit a divide between the three commanders and the mainstream MILF command, characterizing the three as “renegades” who don’t “honor and respect” MILF members of the ceasefire committee. According to Interior Minister Ronaldo Puno; “The minute the MILF surrenders the three commanders, the Philippine National Police will stop its operation and development will begin in Mindanao. It seems it’s the tail wagging the dog, the criminal elements controlling the central committee” (Philippine Star, September 10, 2008). The struggle for a Muslim homeland in Mindanao is now in its fourth decade and is believed to have claimed the lives of 120,000 people.
This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor