The Road To Peace

Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim is what you might call an old-school revolutionary. The leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has spent three decades in the jungles of the troubled southern Philippine region of Mindanao, battling to carve out an independent state for its downtrodden Muslim population. But more recently the MILF has tacitly supported terrorist bombings of civilian targets by foreign Islamic jihadists, an unsavory alliance in the post-September 11 world. As he prepares for formal peace talks with the Philippine government, Murad faces a stark choice--either steer the MILF back to its nationalist roots or drive it into the arms of international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. "I think he's prepared to have a negotiated settlement with the government," says Silvestre Afable, Manila's chief peace negotiator, "and has decided that the MILF will have nothing to do with terrorists."

The predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, not to mention the rest of Southeast Asia, can only hope he's right. The MILF has been accused of protecting training camps in its territory run by Jemaah Islamiah, or JI--a regional terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda--for nearly a decade. According to U.S. and Filipino officials in Manila, the Mindanao camps have been nothing short of a mini-Afghanistan, providing JI a sanctuary within a lawless region to train recruits and plan operations against the United States and its regional allies. Other terrorist organizations, including kidnapping specialists Abu Sayyaf, are also believed to be training there.

Graduates of the camps have been linked to some of the world's worst terrorist attacks since 9/11, including the Bali bombings two years ago that killed 202 people and the suspicious sinking of a ferry near Manila in February that killed 116. Bomb expert Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, who played a role in several bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia in 2002, is believed to have worked as an instructor in the camps in 1996. (Al-Ghozi was killed by soldiers in Mindanao last October.) Analysts say the camps are giving JI--which has been battered by hundreds of arrests in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia since the Bali attacks--a second wind. "As long as JI is able to regenerate new recruits, they will be a threat," says Rohan Gunaratna, a regional terrorism analyst.

MILF leaders vehemently deny the presence of both JI and the training camps in their territory, and have publicly denounced the 9/11 attacks and all forms of terrorism. But they also acknowledge that some "rogue" field commanders might be in cahoots with the group. "If the top leadership is not aware of these training camps," insists Ghazali Jaafar, a senior member of the group's central committee, "then the MILF leadership has nothing to do with it."

Philippine authorities say they have evidence to the contrary. A Philippine military-intelligence officer told NEWSWEEK that about 100 recruits from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East are currently training in "a handful" of camps in the remote Mount Cararao region in Mindanao's Lanao del Sur province, which is in MILF territory. Gunaratna says two camps are specifically designated for Arab fighters: Camp Vietnam, founded by Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti linked to Al Qaeda and JI, and Camp Palestine, which was recently closed.

The United States, which has mercilessly gone after terrorist cells and training camps in eastern Afghanistan, thinks peace talks have a better chance of shutting down the Philippines camps than airstrikes do. "Without a successful peace agreement, the region will continue to be marked by a climate of lawlessness in which terrorism can thrive," notes a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Both Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the MILF leadership have been dragging their feet on resuming talks, which Malaysia has offered to host in Kuala Lumpur. Washington is trying to push things along by dangling a $30 million development package for the impoverished region. But its patience is limited. "We cannot and will not help people improve their lives who, while they are improving their lives, are bombing my embassy," says Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

Murad, who became MILF chairman in August 2003 after the death of founder Salamat Hashim, might be just the man to pull the movement away from religious hard-liners who feel a kinship with international jihadists. Although a devout Muslim, Murad came up through the MILF's military wing and is not considered a religious ideologue like Salamat, who had close personal ties with senior JI leaders dating back to the battle against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "I think he's more pragmatic," says Jaafar, the senior MILF member. Born in 1949 in the western Mindanao province of Maguindanao, Murad was more of a scholar before eventually joining the insurgency against Manila in the early 1970s. He attended high school in nearby Cotabato City, then studied engineering at the city's Notre Dame University, which teaches both Christians and Muslims. "He's very soft-spoken," says Mayor Muslimin Sema, a high-school classmate of Murad's. One university classmate says Murad was something of "an introvert" who preferred academics over girlfriends or athletics.

He'll have to be more assertive to end the war in Mindanao, which the International Crisis Group estimates has killed about 120,000 people since 1972. Analysts and Philippine government and military sources say a serious rift, on both religious and tribal grounds, developed within the MILF after Salamat's death in July 2003. On one side are Murad and several central-committee members from Maguindanao province; they are pitted against a smaller faction of religious hard-liners from Lanao del Sur, who support continued ties with JI and are rabidly opposed to any peace deal for special autonomy rather than independence. Members of Salamat's family, upset with his successor, are also said to be jockeying for power.

Although MILF leaders insist they are united behind Murad, it remains unclear whether he controls all the insurgency's military forces, which number as many as 15,000 fighters. "Some religious leaders are hesitant about disengaging with Jemaah Islamiah and Abu Say-yaf because they have been in bed together for some time," says Jesus Dureza, Arroyo's adviser on Mindanao. "So Murad can't move too quickly."

He may be moving slowly. One senior government official told NEWSWEEK that in mid-August a MILF commander looked into making arrangements to send four JI training instructors under his protection back to their native Indonesia. Ricciardone says MILF leaders have indicated to him that more than a dozen JI members have left Mindanao, but they provided no evidence. Some officials fear that Murad is hoping to keep the JI and its camps as a bargaining chip. "If there's a breakdown in talks, the MILF can say [to JI], 'OK, do what you want'," says Dureza, the presidential adviser.

Arroyo, who narrowly won a hotly contested presidential election in May, remains beset by a continuing economic slump, massive unemployment and decreasing foreign investment. But she can hardly afford to ignore the MILF or the underlying causes of the insurgency in Mindanao. Sitting in their tiny roadside restaurant near Cotabato City, one local family, the Ibrahims, talks skeptically about the peace process. "I don't think Manila cares about us," says Bei Tamsiu, the family matriarch, "but we want our area peaceful so there can be development." Murad must now decide which road will lead to peace.