Moro National Liberation Front

Formed1972
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackOctober 21, 1972: The MNLF launched an attack on various targets in Marawi City, including the Philippine Constabulary, a government radio station, and a state university. (unknown killed, unknown wounded). [1] [2]
Last AttackSeptember 9, 2013: Forces from Nur Misuari’s MNLF faction entered Zamboanga City, attacking government forces and ultimately taking about 300 civilian hostages. Fighting lasted until September 28. (6+ killed, 24 wounded). [3] [4] [5]
UpdatedAugust 14, 2015

Narrative Summary

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is an Islamic separatist organization based in the southern Philippines. It seeks an independent Islamic state or autonomous region for the Filipino Muslim minority, known as the Moro people, who live primarily in the Philippines’ Mindanao region. Beginning in the 1970s, the MNLF was the Moro separatist movement’s leading organization for about two decades. [6]

The MNLF is a splinter group of the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), later called the Mindanao Independence Movement, which was founded in 1968 to call for a separate Moro state in the southern Philippines. The MIM was a mostly political movement whose primary activity was issuing manifestos advocating independence. The group allegedly also established an armed wing called the Blackshirts, which fought against Christian militants, and MIM members—like other Moros—participated in revolts against the Philippine government. [7] [8] [9] The MIM was dominated by older Moro elites, but within the MIM’s youth division, the movement that would become the MNLF started as a secret faction led by college student activists. Beginning around 1969, Malaysia provided training and arms to Filipino Muslims, including MIM members and future members of the MNLF. However, the MIM never gained popular support. It remained a loose, weak movement with little recorded activity, and under pressure from the government, its leadership agreed to disband after a meeting with then-President Ferdinand Marcos in 1970.[10]  Afterward, traditional Moro elites established a second organization, the Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO), comprising the older elites and student leaders. However, the BMLO was soon destroyed by enduring generational differences among its members, and the leaders of the younger generation officially founded the MNLF in 1972 on Pulau Pangkor, Malaysia. [11] [12] [13] [14] Distrusting the older Moro elites whom it viewed as antiquated and corrupt, the MNLF separately pursued the same goal of an independent Moro state. Nur Misuari, an early student leader of the movement, became the MNLF’s first chairman. [15]

Citing violence between Muslims and Christians as well as the existence of an illegal separatist movement, President Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, thus curtailing Moro political activity and increasing government power. After this declaration, the scattered Moro revolts against state forces escalated to war. [16] [17] Because martial law dissolved well-established Moro political groups and confiscated all firearms not used by state forces, the newly formed and more radical MNLF was quickly able to dominate the Moro separatist movement. Various rebel forces, which had previously fought separately against the Philippine government and armed Christian groups, began to unite with the MNLF particularly because the group’s leadership, mostly located in Malaysia, was able to provide a steady supply of weapons from abroad, which it used to engage local state forces and Christian militias in traditional warfare. [18] [19] [20] Around the time of the MNLF’s establishment, Misuari and another key MNLF leader, Hashim Salamat, traveled to Libya, which supported the Moro separatist cause generally. Misuari and Salamat successfully persuaded the Libyan government to shift its support away from traditional Moro elites and toward the MNLF. In response, many Moro fighters soon joined or aligned with the MNLF, greatly unifying the separatist movement. [21]

In 1973, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) began a massive military operation to quell the Moro separatists, including the MNLF. After the MNLF suffered major defeats in conventional battles against the AFP, military advisors from Libya and Malaysia helped the group turn to guerrilla tactics, which it effectively used against government forces. Simultaneously with the AFP’s offensive, the MNLF solidified its organizational structure. In 1974, MNLF leaders living in Libya established the MNLF’s Central Committee, led by Misuari and originally composed of thirteen members. The MNLF also established several other organizational structures, including an armed wing called the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA) or the Bangsamoro Armed Forces (BAF), a Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal, and a National Congress. [22] However, the National Congress—which was supposed to act as a legislative body within the MNLF—was almost never convened, and the MNLF developed as a centralized rather than a consultative organization under Misuari’s leadership. [23]

In 1974, the MNLF released a manifesto that emphasized nationalist claims and rhetoric over religious motivations as the justification for a separate state. [24] The manifesto scarcely mentioned Islam. Instead, the MNLF espoused an independent state, the Bangsa Moro Republik, for all people of the southern Philippines, provided that they gave up their Philippine citizenship. The MNLF manifesto’s openness to non-Muslims and its emphasis on resistance to what it termed the Philippine government’s colonial oppression led to overtures from the New People’s Army (NPA), a Filipino Communist militant group. However, in 1975, the MNLF allegedly rejected the NPA’s offer of alliance, cognizant of ideological differences and the importance of keeping its international Islamic supporters. Some critics of the MNLF would continue to condemn the organization as Communist and insufficiently Islamic. [25]

Throughout the 1970s, women played an important role in supporting the MNLF. They provided communication between MNLF members in urban areas and those in rural areas; delivered supplies, information, and weapons; made uniforms; prepared food; collected financial contributions; and helped with recruitment and raising awareness of the MNLF’s cause. Women received weapons training from the MNLF, and the MNLF also established the Women’s Committee as well as a women’s auxiliary group for the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA). [26] [27]

By the mid-1970s, the MNLF’s clear leading position within the Moro separatist movement and successful use of guerrilla tactics against the state led the Philippine government to acknowledge the organization’s power. In January 1975, the Philippine government sent a negotiator to meet with the MNLF’s leadership. [28] In July 1975, in a second acknowledgment of the MNLF’s status, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)—an international body of Muslim states and institutions later known as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation—officially recognized the MNLF as the legitimate representative of the Moro separatist movement. The OIC urged the Philippine government to reach a political settlement with the MNLF. [29]

With Libya’s mediation, the MNLF and the Philippine government signed the Tripoli Agreement on December 23, 1976. This agreement would have established an autonomous region that included Basilan, Sulu, Palawan, and other areas in the southern Philippines, and it also would have divided authority over such fields as foreign policy, defense, education, courts, and finances between the Philippine government and the proposed autonomous government. [30] However, while the MNLF wanted President Marcos to implement the agreement by executive order, Marcos submitted the agreement to a referendum within the provinces that would comprise the new autonomous region. Because Filipino Muslims constituted the majority in only three of those provinces, voters overwhelmingly rejected the agreement in the referendum on April 17, 1977. Only a few provinces approved the autonomy proposal. Those provinces were located in two different regions—known today as Region IX and Region XII—that were already in existence, and rather than creating a single autonomous region, they chose to establish two different autonomous regional governments, the predecessors of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Thus, instead of creating a large, unified autonomous region led by the MNLF—as stipulated in the Tripoli Agreement, according to the MNLF itself—the referendum mostly maintained the status quo, with two existing regions gaining some autonomy. [31] [32] The unsatisfying referendum result caused the MNLF to end talks with the government, renew its call for full independence, and return to guerrilla attacks. [33]

In the same year, Hashim Salamat and other members broke from the organization to form the New MNLF, later called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Salamat condemned Misuari’s dictatorial leadership and divergence from what he considered truly Islamic goals. According to Salamat, the MNLF did not focus enough on promoting an Islamic state and was instead subject to Misuari’s autocratic personality rather than consultation with members. Although Salamat had long been more religiously motivated than Misuari, Misuari’s decision to end government talks—a decision with which Salamat disagreed—exacerbated the leaders’ ideological differences and helped prompt the MILF’s split from the MNLF. [34] Other dissatisfied members left the MNLF between 1978 and 1982, including MNLF Vice Chairman and co-founder Abul Khayr Alonto. These members often established their own groups, some of which are considered factions of the MNLF rather than independent organizations. One example is the Moro National Liberation Front-Reformist Group (MNLF-RG) founded by MNLF member Dimas Pundato, which later disbanded. MNLF factions often emerged along tribal lines; for example, MNLF members who supported Dimas Pundato were from the Maranao tribe. [35] [36] [37] [38]

The MNLF’s internal problems during the late 1970s and early 1980s were compounded by its military losses to Philippine government forces, which ultimately pushed the MNLF to shift its demands from full independence to regional autonomy. In 1986, Misuari met with then-President Corazon Aquino and agreed to a ceasefire as well as negotiations. However, peace talks failed. [39] 

Meanwhile, Moro politicians and the Philippine government had been working to change the autonomy arrangement in the southern Philippines, culminating in 1989 when President Aquino signed Republic Act No. 6734. This act established the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which evolved from the autonomous regions established after the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. In a referendum for inclusion in the ARMM, only four of thirteen provinces voted to join the new region. The MNLF was not consulted about Republic Act No. 6734 or the ARMM, and it opposed both. [40] [41]

In the early 1990s, frustrated with the MNLF’s approach to improving Moros’ status, some MNLF members broke off to form the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which used violent tactics like bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations to gain attention and promote the Moro separatist cause. The ASG presented itself as a more extreme version of its parent organization. [42]

During the administration of Fidel Ramos, who succeeded Aquino as president in 1992, there was a diplomatic breakthrough for the MNLF. The Philippine government restarted peace talks with the MNLF, which were mediated by international actors, including the OIC, the Libyan government of Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the Indonesian government of Suharto. The Philippine government and the MNLF signed Statements of Understanding and Interim Agreements between 1992 and 1996, culminating in the Final Peace Agreement—also called the Jakarta Peace Agreement—that was signed by the Philippine government, the MNLF, and the OIC on September 2, 1996. The 1996 agreement officially ended the MNLF’s fight against the government. It designated a Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD) in the southern Philippines, which would be the focus of special development and investment efforts for three years, and expanded the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The agreement set out the ARMM’s new governance structures and, importantly, it outlined the integration of MNLF members into the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). These stipulations would be implemented across two phases. [43] [44] The MNLF at this time allied itself with President Ramos’ political party, Lakas (Strength), and with the Philippine government’s support, Misuari easily won the elections—held about a week after the agreement’s signing—for the ARMM’s regional governorship. [45]

The 1996 agreement triggered further division within the MNLF. While some MNLF members entered the ARMM government, the council overseeing the SZOPAD’s administration, and the Philippine security forces, in line with the agreement, others were angered by what they viewed as capitulation to the Philippine government. Dissatisfied members accused Misuari of sacrificing Moro welfare and independence for his own political gain. Many members left the MNLF altogether to join the MILF, which strongly denounced the agreement and advocated full Moro independence. The MILF attributed an enormous surge in its recruitment to backlash from the 1996 agreement, and its numbers consequently may have reached approximately 15,000. The MILF is generally considered to have replaced the MNLF as the dominant group within the Moro separatist movement at this time. [46] [47] [48]

After 1996, the MNLF demobilized. The MNLF’s primary purpose and structure during this period are unclear, but it seemed to function almost as a form of political identification. The 1996 agreement originally had provisions for including a certain number of MNLF members in the regional government as well as special programs providing education and technical skills for MNLF forces that did not integrate into the AFP or the PNP. The MNLF’s alliance with Lakas enabled its members to run for elected office more effectively, and the networks between members continued to exist. [49] The MNLF did not disarm, although some MNLF members who integrated into Philippine society chose to surrender some of their weapons through a buy-back program called Balik-BARIL (Return Gun). Approximately half of the MNLF’s fighters entered the PNP and the AFP. [50]

However, discontent began to rise in the early 2000s as the MNLF began to view the 1996 agreement’s implementation as flawed. Many MNLF members believed that the 2001 New Organic Act for the ARMM, initiating the 1996 agreement’s second stage, contradicted the Final Peace Agreement’s stipulations of authority over mineral resources. The MNLF fractured into various new factions, including the Executive Council of 15 (EC-15)—established in 2001—that emerged in opposition to a faction still loyal to and led by Misuari. Before ARMM elections in November 2001, Misuari’s dissatisfaction with the 1996 agreement’s implementation and his own waning influence caused him to lead an armed attack in Sulu and Zamboanga City. This attack—carried out by Misuari’s MNLF faction, sometimes called the Misuari Breakaway Group (MBG)—was meant to stop the ARMM elections that Misuari did not believe he would win. [51] [52] [53] Misuari escaped to Malaysia after the rebellion failed. However, he was arrested and deported back to the Philippines, where he was jailed. [54]

After Misuari’s fall, MNLF member Alvarez Isnaji served as acting ARMM governor. Fellow MNLF member Parouk S. Hussin won the second ARMM governorship, which ended in 2005. [55] [56] In the same year, Misuari’s followers within the MNLF launched attacks in Sulu in February and November, allegedly cooperating with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Misuari’s well-armed MNLF faction was able to engage the Philippine military in conventional warfare, conducting direct attacks against army positions. The conflicts in 2005 displaced over 80,000 people from the areas of intense fighting, mostly through a preemptive evacuation of perhaps 70,000 civilians that included the MNLF’s own evacuation of its civilian supporters. [57]

In 2006, the MNLF and the Philippine government attempted to renew their relationship and work together to implement the 1996 peace agreement, introducing the Sulu Road Map for Peace and Development to formulate development priorities. [58] [59] The MNLF also began fighting alongside the AFP against the ASG, which had been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the United Nations. [60] [61] However, the cooperation and goodwill between the MNLF and the Philippine government has been shaky at best because of continued difficulties with implementation of the peace agreement. [62] Misuari was placed under house arrest in 2006, after having been jailed five years earlier. He was released in 2008 after prosecutors could not provide enough evidence to connect him to the 2001 rebellion in Sulu. [63] [64]

Beginning especially in the late 2000s, the MNLF-Philippine government relationship was complicated further by the latter’s negotiations with the MILF. Many MNLF members opposed MILF-Philippine government negotiations on the grounds that their own 1996 Final Peace Agreement had already ended the question of the status of Muslims in the Philippines. [65] Under President Benigno Aquino III, who assumed office in 2010, talks with the MILF have advanced tremendously. These talks have centered on replacing the ARMM with a new autonomous region called the Bangsamoro, and on October 12, 2012, the MILF and the Philippine government signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB). [66] [67] 

Misuari and his MNLF followers have been among the strongest opponents of the MILF-Philippine government talks and the proposed Bangsamoro region, and on August 12, 2013, Misuari unilaterally declared the independence of the Bangsamoro Republik at a gathering in Sulu. [68] In September, MNLF fighters engaged Philippine government forces in Zamboanga City and ultimately took hundreds of hostages. Government forces were deployed to the city, the mayor instituted a curfew, and travel to the area was restricted because of the standoff. The hostage crisis in Zamboanga City lasted approximately three weeks. [69] Although an arrest warrant was issued for Misuari, the leader allegedly managed to flee the country for some time. Since 2013, there have been contradictory reports regarding Misuari’s location, although he is now believed to be back in the southern Philippines and heavily guarded by his followers. [70] [71] [72]

During the 2013 hostage crisis in Zamboanga City, an MNLF faction led by Muslimin Sema condemned the attack and refused to participate. [73] Because of the attack, the MNLF Central Committee allegedly ousted Misuari in absentia on February 10, 2014, a move supported by the OIC. The MNLF Central Committee then elected Abul Khayr Alonto as chairman. [74]

As MILF-Philippine government talks on the proposed Bangsamoro have progressed, especially with the introduction of the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR) into the Philippine Congress in 2015, there have been continued differences among the MNLF factions on how to react. Habib Mujahab Hashim, chair of an MNLF faction called the MNLF-Islamic Command Council (MNLF-ICC), and Misuari have spoken out against the current peace process, while Sema and Abul Khayr Alonto have urged support for the proposed Bangsamoro. Some MNLF members have appeared before the Philippine Congress in order to express their opposition or support, although the MILF-Philippine government negotiations have largely excluded the MNLF. [75] [76] [77]

Leadership

The MNLF long operated as a unified, centralized organization under Nur Misuari’s leadership, but—especially after the 1996 agreement—the group weakened. Besides the integration of many MNLF members into Philippine politics and society, discontent with Misuari’s leadership and the 1996 agreement caused fragmentation within the MNLF. Today, the MNLF consists of various factions headed by different leaders, sometimes allied and sometimes expressing conflicting opinions and goals, especially regarding the MILF-Philippine government talks and the proposed Bangsamoro region. There are conflicting reports on who serves as the MNLF’s chairman, with the Philippine government, the OIC, separate factions, and the media often calling multiple individuals by that title. [78] [79]

  1. Alvarez Isnaji (Unknown to Unknown): Around the 1990s or early 2000s, Isnaji established the Isnaji Group, a faction within the MNLF. There is little information regarding this group, which may have been disbanded in 2001. Previously, Isnaji held a high-ranking military position in the MNLF. In 2008, he was arrested for his alleged role in a kidnapping while serving as mayor of Indanan. [80]
  2. Habib Mujahab Hashim (Unknown to Present): Hashim currently leads the MNLF’s Islamic Command Council (MNLF-ICC), which emerged as a faction of the MNLF in the late 1980s. Hashim was the MNLF’s head negotiator with the government between 1986 and 1987, and in the early 2000s, he served in government offices dealing with Moro affairs. Hashim strongly opposes MILF-Philippine government peace talks, insisting instead on the proper implementation of the 1996 agreement. [81]
  3. Hadja Bainon Karon (Unknown to Present): Karon is the long-time chair of the MNLF’s Women’s Committee, and she served as the ARMM’s acting vice governor in the late 2000s or early 2010s. Karon has expressed support for the MILF-Philippine government peace negotiations.[82]
  4. Nur Misuari (1972 to Present): Misuari is the MNLF’s founding chairman and leads one of the organization’s current factions. During his term as ARMM governor, between 1996 and 2001, Misuari was heavily criticized for political and financial mismanagement by government officials and MNLF members, leading to the formation of factions like Muslimin Sema’s Executive Council of 15 (EC-15). After the 2013 Zamboanga City Crisis and warrant for his arrest, Misuari has been in hiding. However, he continues to hold an influential position among some of the factions, three of which chose him in 2014 as their representative for any future talks with the government. He strongly opposes MILF-Philippine government talks.[83]
  5. Dimas Pundato (1982 to Unknown): Pundato established an MNLF faction called the Moro National Liberation Front-Reformist Group (MNLF-RG) in 1982, after Misuari refused to enact his reform proposals. While the MNLF under Misuari was demanding independence at the time, Pundato and his MNLF-RG supporters demanded autonomy instead. Supported by Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, Pundato ultimately wanted to create a Shariah-based society in the southern Philippines. Headquartered in Malaysia, the MNLF-RG seems to have been short-lived, although there is little information on the group or its founder.[84]
  6. Muslimin Sema (2001 to Present): Sema leads an anti-Misuari faction called the Executive Council of 15 (EC-15), which was established by fifteen dissatisfied MNLF members in 2001. The EC-15 emerged as an MNLF faction rather than an independent group, and for an unknown period of time, the Philippine government formally recognized the EC-15—sometimes called the Council of 15—as the official leadership of the MNLF. Previously, Sema served as the MNLF’s secretary general and, later, mayor of Cotabato City. In addition to chairing an MNLF faction, Sema is currently serving as Cotabato City’s vice mayor. [85]
  7. Hatimil Hassan (2001 to Present): Hassan is a leading figure within the Executive Council of 15 (EC-15), a faction of the MNLF. Although he is sometimes identified as the EC-15’s main leader, he is generally considered only its nominal leader, as real power reportedly resides with Muslimin Sema. Before helping form the EC-15, Hassan had previously served as the MNLF’s vice chairman.[86]
  8. Abul Khayr Alonto (2014 to Present): Alonto is generally recognized as the MNLF’s official chairman after the Misuari faction’s attack in Zamboanga City in 2013. The MNLF Central Committee allegedly ousted Misuari on February 10, 2014, a move supported by the OIC, and elected Alonto as chairman. Alonto had previously served as the MNLF’s first vice chairman before leaving the organization for a time in 1978 because of opposition to Misuari’s policies.[87]

Ideology & Goals

The MNLF uses nationalist rhetoric to call for an independent state in the Southern Philippines. Its 1974 manifesto discusses the Moro people as a nation based more on a shared homeland in the southern Philippines, oppressed by the central government, rather than a group characterized by a common religion. While it has not emphasized an Islamic agenda, the MNLF claims to represent Filipino Muslims. It has made a few references in its manifesto to defending Islam and has historically sought Islamic supporters like the OIC. It enjoys the OIC’s official recognition. [88] [89]

The MNLF initially sought a fully independent state for the Moros, but its leadership accepted an autonomy arrangement in the 1996 Final Peace Agreement. [90] [91] Currently, the MNLF is divided in its aims, with some factions—led by Sema and Alonto—supporting MILF-Philippine government talks and the proposed Bangsamoro region while other factions—led by Misuari and Hashim—voice strong opposition and instead insist upon full implementation of the 1996 agreement. [92]

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

The MNLF is not designated as a terrorist organization by the United States or the European Union. [96]

Resources

From its beginnings in the 1970s, the MNLF received significant financial support from foreign actors, including Libya, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and the OIC, that backed the Moro separatist struggle. Foreign Islamic government agencies, foundations, charities, and businesses also contributed funds to the MNLF. Within the Philippines, the MNLF depended on zakat, or alms, that included money and food. [97] [98] [99]

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the MNLF acquired its weapons from corrupt government officers, the black market, looting after battles, and Libyan shipments. Many MNLF members also relied on their own weapons. The MNLF’s arms have included assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The MNLF has also reportedly used landmines in the past, specifically against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). [100]

After the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, the MNLF received funding and support from the Philippine government because of its role in leading the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Additionally, some MNLF members who integrated into Philippine society chose to surrender some of their weapons through a buy-back program called Balik-BARIL (Return Gun). However, the Balik-BARIL program was generally unsuccessful in reducing the MNLF’s stockpile, receiving only 4,874 firearms of mostly low quality. [101]

There is little information on the MNLF’s current resources, especially since many members integrated into Philippine society after 1996. Additionally, because the MNLF has fractured into several different factions, it is difficult to estimate total resource levels or fundraising and weapons acquisition activities.

External Influences

Even before its formal establishment, the MNLF benefited from the influence of foreign actors, especially Malaysia. Beginning in 1969, the Malaysian government supplied training and weapons to Filipino Muslims, some of whom would later become MNLF members. The Malaysian-trained members included Nur Misuari himself, and the MNLF was officially formed on the Malaysian island of Pulau Pangkor in 1972. [102]

After its establishment, the MNLF also managed to win financial support or training from Libya, the OIC, and other foreign sources. [103] From 1972 to 1975, Libya and the OIC provided approximately $35 million to the MNLF, including arms and equipment that were funneled to the group through Malaysia. The OIC officially recognized the MNLF as the representative of Filipino Muslims in 1975, and the MNLF has continued to trumpet its status as an OIC non-state observer to emphasize its legitimacy. [104] [105] [106]

In the mid-1970s, Libya became the major training site for MNLF members. Syria, Pakistan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization also trained MNLF members beginning in the 1980s. [107]

Until the 1996 Final Peace Agreement, the OIC annually supplied $1 million to the MNLF. [108] Additionally, the OIC played a pivotal role in the MNLF-Philippine government negotiations leading up to 1996 and was a signatory to the Final Peace Agreement. [109] However, with the MNLF’s decline and the MILF’s rise following the agreement, the OIC has also supported the MILF in its negotiations with the Philippine government. The MILF-Philippine government talks have marginalized the MNLF, and the OIC has advocated a peace process open to all stakeholders—including the MNLF, which it still formally recognizes. [110]

Geographical Locations

Although officially founded in Malaysia in 1972, the MNLF has always operated in the Philippines, specifically in the southern Mindanao region. [111]

Targets & Tactics

The MNLF has historically depended on armed struggle and government negotiations to achieve its aim of an independent state or autonomous region for Filipino Muslims. Throughout the 1970s, the MNLF fought the Philippine government and armed Christian groups. The MNLF’s militant activity began with attacks against government targets in Marawi City after then-President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972. Although the MNLF had some capacity to engage in conventional warfare, a massive military operation launched by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in 1973 forced the group to turn to guerrilla tactics with support from Libya and Malaysia. [112] [113] MNLF negotiations with the government began in the mid-1970s and continued for two decades, interspersed with violence. In the past, the MNLF renewed its attacks against the government when it was dissatisfied with the results or implementation of peace agreements. For example, such violence occurred after the 1977 referendum on autonomy in the southern Philippines. The MNLF’s attacks have mostly involved firefights with government troops. The MNLF conducted scattered kidnappings, boat and airplane hijackings, and attacks on civilians in the 1970s. [114] [115] However, the group has generally focused on targeting government troops rather than civilians. The MNLF has used both guerrilla tactics and conventional warfare effectively. [116] [117]

The 1996 Final Peace Agreement formally ended the MNLF’s armed struggle, but MNLF violence has not completely ceased. Most notably, Misuari led his followers in two significant violent campaigns in 2001 and 2013. In 2001, Misuari’s followers launched a major attack against government troops. In the 2013 attack, MNLF members entered Zamboanga City, took hostages, and fought government forces. Violent activity by other MNLF factions has been less prominent. [118] [119]

Political Activities

Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing on and off for two decades, the MNLF engaged in peace talks with the Philippine government, then led by President Ferdinand Marcos. The OIC and Libya facilitated these talks, with the former urging the Philippine government to negotiate and the latter hosting the negotiations that culminated in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement. [120] [121]

The next significant round of talks began in 1992, when Fidel Ramos became president and restarted peace negotiations with the MNLF. As before, various international actors mediated the talks, including the OIC, the Libyan government of Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the Indonesian government of Suharto. The Philippine government and the MNLF signed Statements of Understanding and Interim Agreements between 1992 and 1996, culminating in the Final Peace Agreement—also called the Jakarta Peace Agreement—that was signed by the Philippine government, the MNLF, and the OIC on September 2, 1996. The 1996 agreement officially ended the MNLF’s fight against the government. It designated a Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD) in the southern Philippines, which would be the focus of special development and investment efforts for three years, and expanded the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The agreement set out the ARMM’s new governance structures and, importantly, it outlined the integration of MNLF members into the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). These stipulations were to be implemented across two phases. [122] [123]

The 1996 agreement caused the MNLF to become more integrated with the Philippine political system. The MNLF officially allied itself with Lakas (Strength), the political party of then-President Ramos. Consequently, about a week after the 1996 agreement’s signing, Misuari easily won election as the ARMM’s regional governor. The political alliance also enabled other MNLF members to run for elected office. [124] [125] Some MNLF members entered the ARMM government or the council overseeing the SZOPAD’s administration. [126] MNLF members held the ARMM governorship from 1996 to 2005. [127]

The MILF-Philippine government peace talks, culminating with the introduction of the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BLBAR) into the Philippine Congress in 2015, have mostly excluded the MNLF. Many MNLF members oppose the ongoing MILF-Philippine government peace talks, insisting that the 1996 Final Peace Agreement had already ended the question of the status of Muslims in the Philippines. MNLF leaders, including Habib Mujahab Hashim and Muslimin Sema, have spoken before the Philippine Congress to express their support for or opposition to the proposed Bangsamoro region. [128] [129]

Major Attacks

The MNLF’s militant activity is not always well-documented. Particularly, in the period between 1977 and 2001, there is little information on specific attacks and battles. During that time, although the MNLF and the Philippine government were engaged in sporadic peace talks, the group was militarily active.

  1. October 21, 1972: MNLF operatives launched an attack on various targets in Marawi City, including the Philippine Constabulary, a government radio station, and a state university. This attack, conducted in response to then-President Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law, is generally considered the beginning of the MNLF’s armed uprising against the Philippine state. (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[130]
  2. February 7, 1974: The MNLF entered Jolo, the capital of Sulu, and reportedly tried to declare Mindanao’s independence for the first time. The group allegedly attacked Jolo and held it for days before the Philippine military retook the city. The Battle of Jolo devastated the city, although reports differ over whether the MNLF or government forces were mostly responsible for the destruction. (unknown killed, unknown wounded).[131]
  3. October 10, 1977: An MNLF commander invited a Philippine military general to a market in Patikul under the pretense of a ceasefire meeting. MNLF forces then ambushed the general and his men. (34 killed, unknown wounded).[132]
  4. November 19, 2001: Misuari’s followers attacked multiple Philippine military camps on the island of Jolo, allegedly to undermine ARMM elections in which Misuari was expected to lose. (111+ killed, unknown wounded).[133]
  5. September 9, 2013: Forces from Nur Misuari’s MNLF faction entered Zamboanga City, attacking government forces and ultimately taking about 300 civilian hostages. Fighting lasted until September 28. (6+ killed, 24 wounded).[134]

Relationships with Other Groups

The MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is the most significant splinter group from the MNLF, have historically competed for resources, support, and political legitimacy since the MILF broke away in 1977. The MILF’s rise within the Moro separatist movement coincided with the MNLF’s decline, following the MNLF’s 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Philippine government that the MILF strongly opposed. [135] [136] Today, the MNLF’s factions have different attitudes toward the MILF. While Sema’s Executive Council of 15 (EC-15) supports the MILF-Philippine government peace talks and maintains friendly relations with the MILF, Misuari and his followers still resent the MILF and seek to undermine its negotiations. [137]

The MNLF has formally condemned the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which is listed by the United States and the United Nations as a terrorist organization, and cooperated with the Philippine military against it. However, at the local level, relationships between MNLF and ASG commanders have sometimes resulted in alliances against the Philippine military. [138]

Community Relationships

In the 1970s, the MNLF emerged as the first strong organization seeking Moro independence. In 1975, the Philippine government began negotiating with the MNLF for the first time. However, after the 1996 Final Peace Agreement and the growing perception of Nur Misuari as politically opportunistic rather than committed to Moro welfare, the MNLF declined in popularity as the MILF became the leading organization seeking Moro independence or autonomy. The MILF-Philippine government negotiations beginning in 2010 have further marginalized the MNLF. [139]

Historically, the MNLF’s strongest support has come from Muslim tribes based in western Mindanao, namely the Tausug, Sama, and Yakan, and the MNLF has also enjoyed substantial support from the Maguindanao and Maranao tribes based in central Mindanao. [140] However, the factionalization of the MNLF along tribal lines has fractured its support base. [141]


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