By: Jared Ferrie, IRIN

Philippine Army Captain Jimmy Amolay looked across the river at the charred wreckage of a backhoe sitting in shallow, muddy water. Islamist militants had blown up the tractor even though it was being used to dredge the river to build a road and prevent flooding, which could only benefit the local community.

Confoundingly, the villagers were protecting the culprits in their midst.

Amolay’s unit hadn’t been able to capture a single member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) since arriving on Feb. 5 to guard the dredging project in Datu Salibo, an impoverished municipality in Maguindanao Province.

“There’s one village where I’d say 95 percent of the men are BIFF,” Amolay said. “In the daytime they’re in plain clothes, but at night they turn into BIFF.”

The ease with which fighters can slip back into society not only underlines the huge challenge the security forces are confronting; it also highlights the potential for a dangerous Islamist escalation should a peace deal to end the 40-year-old conflict be allowed to unravel.

The BIFF is made up of about 400 members who split from the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF fought a decades-long war for independence for Muslims, who are the majority population in the southern island of Mindanao but otherwise a tiny and marginalized minority in this intensely Catholic country.

Time Up for Bangasmoro Agreement

In 2014, the MILF signed an agreement to instead create an autonomous region to be known as Bangsamoro. But the last Congress failed to pass legislation to allow that to happen after a botched ambush led to the deaths of 44 Special Action Force servicemen by Islamic rebels.

On May 9, the Philippines will elect a new president, House of Representatives and Senate. It will be up to the next government to enact the Bangsamoro Basic Law. If the new law isn’t approved, the peace process will be in peril. Further delays will likely weaken the authority of the MILF leadership, and more frustrated fighters could join ranks of extremist groups opposing the deal.

The global war-torn village

The previous war was fought by local players over grievances particular to Mindanao, but if the peace deal falls apart and the island slips back into conflict, the next phase may look radically different. The BIFF and other armed groups have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, which has announced its intention to push into Southeast Asia.

“We consider them brothers, but we are not part of them,” Abu Misry Mama, a BIFF spokesman, told IRIN by phone.

Security experts say it’s unlikely that groups in Mindanao are receiving any formal support, but its clear they are drawing inspiration from IS. Some have used IS flags and released videos echoing IS rhetoric. In late March, at its base in Cotabato City, the military displayed items it said it recovered after battles with the BIFF in Datu Salibo, including bomb-making materials, IS propaganda, and instruction manuals on how to construct improvised explosive devices. 

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Jared Ferrie/IRIN

The relationships between groups in Mindanao and Islamist militants overseas may be largely symbolic for the time being, but that’s enough to unnerve negotiators on both sides of the table.

“It’s very important that we finish what is inherently a domestic issue so that we don’t get enmeshed in these international dynamics,” said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the government’s lead negotiator.

Her opposite number from the MILF, Mohagher Iqbal, said Congress’s failure to pass the law providing the foundation for peace had already thwarted its efforts to convince the BIFF to stop its attacks.

“Frustrations are toxic,” he said. “When people are hopeless they can choose so many radical activities.”

Thousands displaced

The latest radical activities BIFF has chosen include demanding money from the local government to allow it to continue dredging a stretch of river that often floods and destroys crops. The project aims to link the main community of Datu Salibo, strung along a narrow strip of asphalt, to nearby villages that have no existing road access.

When officials refused to pay, the group began blowing up heavy equipment and planting explosives near the dredging site. That’s when the government sent the military in.

The BIFF spokesman, Mama, denied that his group had attempted to extort funds, but his explanation for attacking the project made little sense. He repeatedly said the government had neglected to guarantee that the community would have “road right of way” even though soil scooped from the riverbed is being used to build a road for villagers to use. 

Soldiers are now camped next to tanks and armoured vehicles along the river, and they’ve been fighting off attacks since they arrived. Civilians are paying the price. The government said almost 14,000 people remained displaced in Datu Salibo alone, and thousands more across five neighbouring municipalities.