The Philippines has a long history of conflict. Over the past few decades, homegrown militants, particularly in the south of the country, have stepped up their campaigns against the government.

The Maoist insurgency in the Philippines has dragged on for nearly half a century through six presidencies. (November 23, 2016)
The Maoist insurgency in the Philippines has dragged on for nearly half a century through six presidencies. (November 23, 2016) (TRT World and Agencies)

The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, but it is also an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse country. The southern part of the Philippines: Mindanao island, Palawan island, and the Sulu archipelago is home to many Muslims.

Dispute and conflict, often armed, has been a feature in this part of the Philippines for more than 40 years. Several groups of separatists, sect-based militias, communists and criminals have been or are active in the area.

Even though some of the groups have signed peace deals with the government, others, including breakaway elements are still fighting. Some of the groups have pledged allegiance to Daesh.

Here is a brief history of some of the better known and more active groups:

Abu Sayyaf

Regarded as a terrorist group by most Western world powers, Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance to Daesh in July 2014.

Isnilon Tontoni Hapilon, one of its prominent leaders, has been recognised as the leader of all Daesh-inspired groups in the Philippines.

Founded in 1991, Abu Sayyaf is the smallest and the most radicalised separatist group seeking to establish a sovereign state in the southern part of the Philippines.

The group has its roots in separatism but its activities are mostly banditry and piracy. It has invested the profits of its business in modern weapons and fast boats.

Its founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani took the nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf, "Father of Swordsmen". He fought in the Afghan-Soviet war along with Osama bin Laden in 1980 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Police in the Philippines killed Janjalani in 1998.

Initially, the group received its funding and training from Al Qaeda. However, after the September 11, 2001 attacks (9/11) on the United States, the US ramped up counter-terrorism support for the Philippines. External funding of Abu Sayyaf was largely cut off, and now the group heavily relies on piracy, kidnappings for ransom, and extortion.​

The group has been involved in a string of attacks mainly targeting Westerners and local Catholics.

In 1991, they bombed a Christian missionary ship, killing two foreign missionaries and injuring 40 others.

In 2004, they bombed a crowded ferry in Manila killing more than 100 people. Authorities say the SuperFerry 14 was attacked after its owners, WG&A;, denied the group a $1 million ransom demand a year earlier.

Abu Sayyaf beheaded Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall in 2016. Elderly German Jurgen Kantner suffered the same fate in February 2017 when a $600,000 ransom demand was not paid.

Maute group

The Maute group, named after its leaders – brothers Omarkhayam Romato Maute and Abdullah Maute – is predominantly in the news at present because of its ongoing siege of Marawi City on Mindanao island.

At the heart of the Maute group is the brothers' mother, Farhana Maute, who ran a furniture and used-car businesses, helping finance her sons' militant activities. She reportedly drove recruitment and radicalisation of local youths.

Earlier this month, she was taken into custody after she was stopped trying to ferry weapons into Marawi, a Muslim-majority city and the largest in Lanao del Sur province on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines.

In the early 2000s, Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, where they became fluent in Arabic.

Omarkhayam went to Al Azhar University in Cairo and in 2011 he settled back in Mindanao.

On May 23, the two brothers led a band of militants who overran Marawi City after the government tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon of Abu Sayyaf.

In June, Hapilon was seen in a video showing militants – including the Maute brothers – plotting to seal Marawi City off as a separate enclave.

The Maute group declared allegiance to Daesh in 2014.

Daesh on its Amaq news agency claimed responsibility for the attack and occupation of Marawi City.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front

One of the largest rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was founded in 1978 by Selamat Hashim, who died in July 2013.

The group split from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), encouraging a more moderate and peaceful approach towards the government.

Like other groups, this organisation too started off with an aim of a separate and independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

 In April 2000, the group launched several terror attacks in the southern Philippines against the security forces and civilians.

On December 30 that year, a series of bombs exploded in Manila that killed 22 people and injured more than 120. Officials suspected MILF operatives behind the bombings but the group was quick enough to deny the charges.

After a more than 30-year insurgency, the group in March 2014 signed an historic peace accord ending an armed struggle that left more than 120,000 dead.

The deal called for MILF to give up its weapons in exchange for the formation of an autonomous region in Mindanao for Muslims living there.

On June 16, 2015, the group started the process of disarmament.

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)

BIFF is also in the news because of its recent activities. On Wednesday, members of the outlawed militant group stormed a school, taking civilians hostage, after facing off against the army in a nine-hour siege.

The outlawed BIFF group says it is fighting for independence in the Southern Philippines. Local authorities accuse it of banditry, and are fighting to purge the group from its strongholds on Mindanao island.

The group was founded and led by Ameril Umbra Kato, who died in April 2015.

BIFF split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014, when the latter signed its peace deal with the government.

Kato said he split BIFF from MILF because the latter chose to "waste time" by negotiating with the government for expanded autonomy instead of waging a battle for an independent Muslim homeland that would liberate minority Muslims from crushing poverty and neglect in the Philippines.

In 2011, Kato denied allegations by Philippine security officials that he had links with al Qaeda-affiliated militants in the country's volatile south and was involved in deadly bombings and terrorist attacks.

He condemned groups like Abu Sayyaf, which he described as bandits "who exist for money and engage in forbidden business."

BIFF pledged its support to Daesh in August 2014. However, BIFF spokesman Abu Misry Mama said the group had no plans to impose Daesh's radical ideology in the Philippines: "But if they need our help, why not?"

The New People's Army

The New People's Army (NPA) is the guerrilla wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), a Maoist group founded in 1969 by Jose Maria Sison.

One of the oldest communist insurgencies in the world, it employs guerrilla-style warfare with the aim of overthrowing the Philippine government and establishing communist rule.

Even though it is a rural-based guerrilla group, the group has an active urban infrastructure to carry out terror activities, using city-based assassination squads called sparrow units targeting civilians, foreigners, police, drug traffickers and politicians it considers corrupt.

For its funding, the NPA relies on contributions from its supporters and so-called revolutionary taxes extorted from local businesses.

The NPA and the government have had on and off negotiations over the years. On March 12, 2017 the government and NPA leadership agreed to resume peace talks and restore separate cease-fires.

The group figures in the US State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

In 1987, three American soldiers were killed in four separate attacks by the group in Angeles City.

The NPA issued a statement in 1989 claiming responsibility for the ambush and murder of Colonel James Nicholas Rowe, chief of the Ground Forces Division of the Joint US Military Advisory Group.

Author: Mehnaz Yaseen

Source: TRTWorld and agencies