Who’s who in the fight for Muslim autonomy

The Philippines’ south has long been mired in conflict, but with so many different factions and splinter groups, it’s hard to know your BIFFs from your MILFs. Here’s our who’s who of the most important players in the conflict

Written By:
February 7, 2019
Who’s who in the fight for Muslim autonomy
Members of the Philippine Marines conduct a clearing operation at the main battle zone to liberate the ruined city of Marawi, southern Philippines. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem / EPA-EFE

The second part of a historic referendum took place on 5 February, as Muslim-majority regions in southern Philippines voted on autonomous rule. The vote has been overshadowed, though, by a series of terror attacks in recent weeks – an ominous sign for supporters of a peaceful resolution.

The region has been steeped in violence for decades as Muslim insurgent groups have fought for independence and autonomy from governments that have often imposed themselves oppressively on the Muslim communities. The topsy-turvy conflict has seen rebel groups turn peace brokers, the rise and fall of a family army and the capturing of a major city by Islamic State-affiliated terrorists.

A little background

Muslims from the Philippines are known as the Bangsamoro – or Moro – people and they predominantly live in the south, on islands such as Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu. They make up approximately 11% of the Philippines’ population.

Islam is the oldest monotheistic religion in the country, having been established in the 13th Century and predating the arrival of Roman Catholicism, which has comfortably become the majority belief in the Philippines.

Clashes between the Philippines military and the Moro people have been ongoing for around five decades, and have caused the deaths of more than 120,000 people.

When the Philippines gained its independence from US occupation in 1946, relations between the Christians and the Filipino Muslims in the south were frosty but ultimately peaceful. That changed with the rise of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965. The authoritarian president began an organised aggression against the Bangsamoro, and when he announced martial law in response to rising unrest in 1972 it sparked a separatist rebellion led by armed insurgency groups.  

In 2016 the divisive Rodrigo Duterte was elected president – the first to hail from Mindanao. Throughout his tenure, he has maintained a strong position on bringing peace to the conflict-ridden south. Duterte has backed the passing of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which received public approval in a referendum in January, paving the way for it to be ratified. The result will be the creation of a new autonomous region for the Bangsamoro, which many in the Philippines hope will bring stability and peace.


The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rose from the violence of Marcos’ regime, with an agenda of independence for the Bangsamoro people. It was officially founded in 1972 and managed to bring together many of the smaller rebel groups in the region. The MNLF was successful in attracting funding from countries such as Malaysia and Libya, which allowed them to build a strong army.

At the close of 1976, after years of conflict, the Philippines government and the MNLF signed the Tripoli Agreement, which laid out plans for an autonomous Muslim region in southern Philippines. The plan, though, was never fully realised. This enraged the MNLF and the rebel group turned its back on peace talks to pursue further violence.

Former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. Photo: Panasia / AFP

But due to internal problems and a series of heavy defeats at the hands of the Philippines military, the group’s power began to wane, and it refocused its attention on achieving autonomy for the Bangsamoro, rather than full independence.

In 1996 the MNLF held historic peace talks with the Philippines government, which saw some members of the group disarm during a push to create a government-backed autonomous zone. Just like in 1976, it didn’t work out. Many members of the MNLF left to join a powerful rival separatist group known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Today, the MNLF is even more fractured but remains a presence in the region. Certain factions have offered support for the BOL and are pushing for peaceful resolution. The group in general opposes the actions of IS-affiliated groups that have sprung up in recent years.


The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were formed when Hashim Salamat split from the MNLF in 1977 – after the Tripoli Agreement – due to ideological differences with the MNLF’s direction. Salamat, who advocated a departure from the more secular programme of the MNLF in favour of an Islamist focus, also wanted to continue to pursue talks with the Philippines government on his own terms.

The MILF has since grown into the most dominant group in the push for autonomy for the Bangsamoro people.

It is the MILF’s talks with the government that have paved the way for the ratification of the BOL. Its leader, the soft-spoken Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, who took over after the death of Salamat in 2003, has turned into something of a peace broker, far removed from his earlier days in the group when he led military action against the state armed forces.

With the creation of the new autonomous region essentially in motion, the MILF is set to take a leading role in its administration. Its members will lay down arms and, at least initially, take up positions in the transitional regional government before elections in 2022.

The MILF has also distanced itself from extremist groups such as Maute, BIFF, and Abu Sayyaf.

(L-R) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, House speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) commander Al Haj Murad Ebrahim display the signed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). Photo: Pool / EPA-EFE

Abu Sayyaf

Abu Sayyaf is a notorious terrorist group responsible for the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that killed 116 people.

It – like the MILF – is an offshoot of the MNLF. Its Osama Bin Laden-inspired founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani wanted to establish a strict, independent Islamic State based on fundamentalist Wahhabism through extremist measures.

Janjalani died in 1998 and his brother took charge, and for a while in the early 2000s the group was active in carrying out high-profile kidnappings and attacks – such as the ferry bombing. As time went on, the group became less and less ideological, leading to many to label them nothing more than an organised crime group.

That changed in 2014 when one key leader, Isnilon Hapilon, pledged allegiance to a shadowy threat from the Middle East – ISIS. This public display of loyalty to the idea of a global caliphate saw a faction of the group return to its ideological beginnings, and a cohort led by Hapilon was involved in the siege of Marawi in 2017. The five-month siege began in May when Philippine government security forces – backed by the US – moved in to recapture the city that had fallen to ISIS-affiliated terrorists after a botched attempt by the military to capture Hapilon. The bloody battle ended in October when Hapilon was killed in a firefight, and Duterte declared the city “liberated from terrorist influence”.

Abu Sayyaf still has members in the region, some of whom have branched off to form smaller insurgent groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Ajang-Ajang.

Members of the Philippine Marines conduct a clearing operation at the main battle zone to liberate the ruined city of Marawi. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem / EPA-EFE


The Maute group, which formed in 2012 and is also affiliated with ISIS, joined with Hapilon and his followers in the taking of Marawi in 2017. It suffered huge losses during the Marawi fighting and its leadership were ostensibly wiped out.

The group takes its name from the family that created it; the Maute family. It was the two Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah, who led the Marawi offensive before they were killed. Siblings, cousins and even the parents formed the foundation of this family terror organisation.

At one point it was considered to be one of the most dangerous insurgent groups in the region, fighting for an Islamic state and backed by well-trained, foreign fighters. Since the recapturing of Marawi by the state, the Maute group has resurfaced and remains active, but no longer wields as much power.

BIFF and Ajang-Ajang

BIFF is a breakaway group of the MILF, formed in 2008. It is split into three factions, one of which has aligned itself with ISIS. BIFF is opposed to the BOL and has threatened more attacks if it is implemented.

Ajang-Ajang is a subgroup of Abu Sayyaf and has claimed responsibility for a fatal attack on a cathedral in Jolo at the end of January that left 23 people dead.

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