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Shadow economy, extremist activities prevail in Barmm, International Alert reports

In file photo: Police officers from the Police Regional Office-Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (PRO-BAR) inspect the police car that was burned in an attack by suspected BIFF members in Datu Piang, Maguindanao on December 4. 

Despite a decline in violent conflict incidents, shadow economy and violent extremism activities continued in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Barmm), according to International Alert Philippines.

Based on the 2020 Bangsamoro conflict report, International Alert Philippines said its conflict monitoring system logged a total of 2,655 violent conflict incidents, a decrease of 9 percent from the previous year.

However, suicide bombings perpetrated by extremists in the island province of Sulu has raised the magnitude of these violent incidents.

“One would expect that violence will less likely happen under the watch of the BTA [Bangsamoro Transition Authority] and Barmm, but peace takes a while to grow, and peace agreements hardly lead to a post-conflict future at once or at all,” International Alert Philippines Country Director Nikki de la Rosa said.

“Studies have shown that democratic transitions can spin-off identity-based, ethnic conflicts when conditions for open, inclusive, and accountable rule are not in place. This is what our Conflict Alert data are showing this time in the Bangsamoro, with land resources as the locus of horizontal conflicts,” she added.

In order to resolve this, International Alert Philippines said a land law must be crafted through a “strong, evidence-based and participatory and publicly accessible process.”

The situation also requires the establishment of a mechanism to settle land and property disputes to prevent the escalation of violence in the region.

International Alert senior peace and conflict adviser Francisco Lara Jr. said the Moro Islamic Liberation Front  must exert coordinated effort to rein in violence from active or decommissioned MILF combatants and their respective clans, especially in cases of land and resource conflicts and to counteract similar threats from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

International Alert also recommended a combination of capacity building in the deradicalization of the youth and implementing restorative justice programs.

It also recommended the conduct of social-media campaigns to prevent recruitment into extremist groups on top of intelligence gathering and security operations.

Shadow economy

The report found that illegal drugs and illicit weapons persisted as the leading singular cause of conflict in 2019, Conflict Alert reported.

The number of illegal drug-related incidents climbed 14 percent in 2019. All provinces except Basilan, including Isabela City registered increases.

Tawi-Tawi led with a 74-percent increase in illegal drug-related incidents, followed by Lanao del Sur and Sulu, each with 19 percent, then Maguindanao, including Cotabato City, with 5 percent.

According to the report, the government’s campaign against the illegal drug trade revealed new hot spots such as Buluan, Maguindanao where incidents doubled.

The use of handguns, the most common type of weapon in the region, also increased by 6 percent between 2018 and 2019, the report revealed.

Handguns were used in illegal drug incidents, clan feud, personal grudges, robberies, and during the 2019 elections. Violent extremists such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and BIFF used handguns to carry out assassinations.

Lara said the ongoing Bangsamoro normalization process must be considered amid a proliferation of illegal guns in the area.

Violent extremism

Data showed suicide bombings carried out by the ISIS-affiliated ASG in Jolo in January and in Indanan in June and September caused 21 and 11 deaths, respectively.

The deaths from suicide bombings in January and in June and September accounted for 90 percent and 72 percent of deaths attributed to violent extremism in these towns.

These were followed in 2020 by two successive suicide bombing attacks in Jolo on August 24 that killed 14 civilians, policemen, and soldiers, and wounded 75.

The report also showed that violent extremism events dropped 26 percent to 195 in 2019 from the previous year with fewer incidents involving the ASG in Sulu and Basilan and the BIFF in Maguindanao.

However, the rate of decline in the incidence of violent extremism and the resulting deaths was lowest in Sulu at 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively due to suicide bombings. Incidents involving the Maute Group in Lanao del Sur reached 21 in 2019.

Lara said this only meant ISIS remained active in these provinces. He said recruitment and regrouping of ISIS-affiliated armed groups continued in Lanao del Sur.

Further, Lara said, financial incentives are also being offered to lure new members to the BIFF.

“The suicide attacks reveal how the influence of ISIS has remained potent and that the attacks in August 2020 are not expected to be the last. There is a potential for suicide bombings to be reproduced in other parts of Mindanao, especially as security is tightened in Sulu,” Lara said.

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