Marawi Siege: Perspectives from the MILF North Eastern Mindanao Front Command

On May 23, President Duterte declared a state of Martial Law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the southern Philippines to fight against the ISIS-affiliated “Maute group.”[1] The “Maute group” occupied a part of Marawi City, and heavy fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) led to the destruction of the seized area. Five months after the proclamation of Martial Law, President Duterte declared that Marawi City had been liberated, and the termination of all combat operations in Marawi City was announced by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

How did the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in the vicinity see the situation, and how did they act? Masako Ishii gave an interview to the leaders of MILF North Eastern Front Command in Lanao del Sur.

Interview with 

From Left, Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas, Mr. Oshama B. Ali, Dr. Marjanie S. Macasalong

From Left, Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas, Mr. Oshama B. Ali, Dr. Marjanie S. Macasalong

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas, MILF North Eastern Mindanao Front Command

Mr. Oshama B. Ali, Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG)[2], MILF

Dr. Marjanie S. Macasalong, Peace Implementing Panel, MILF

March 11, 2018

By Masako Ishii, Professor, Rikkyo University

Q. I am very concerned about the rise of the “Maute group” and the consequential destruction of Marawi City. Intelligence has been monitoring the movement of the “Maute group” since as early as 2007.[3] In February 2016, the group attacked the patrol base of the Army’s 51st Infantry Battalion in Butig municipality; they occupied the old municipal hall of Butig in November of that year.

The MILF North Eastern Mindanao Front has Camp Bushra in Butig, and you are related to them as kin. When did you notice the movement of the “Maute group”?

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

First of all, we are very pleased to meet with a Japanese writer. We are grateful to the international community, especially to Japan, because the Japanese government has been with us in the peace process since its early stages.

With regard to the “Maute group,” we did not previously have the slightest bit of information that they would become members of an extremist group. The Maute family, especially the father and mother, are professional people and business-minded. They were not rich, but they had enough wealth. The brothers could both speak English and Arabic and they were professionals.

However, sensing that they had a different secret agenda, we offered the brothers the chance to join the MILF. Around 2016, we told them to organize a brigade and they agreed.

Although they accepted our offer, however, we felt that they were being affected by specific ideology. They had been meeting some younger ulama[4] and had conducted meetings and gatherings in their hideout. However, we didn’t yet know their intentions. When we held our gatherings, the Maute brothers joined us in our programs. We were, therefore, confused.

Then they separated from us and accused the MILF of not accepting them; they said that we did not welcome them in our ranks. In actuality, we had fully embraced them. They also attacked us, saying that the MILF was renegade, and that the government was fooling the MILF, who was subservient to the voices of the government. Imagine that! Our negotiations have been going on for over 18 years, so they accused us on being led astray as the government wasted our time. Through the media, they accused us as being apostates and hypocrites.

After they split from us, we also distanced ourselves from them, and that was the time they started to declare that they had affiliated themselves with the Daulah Islamiyah (Islamic State).

We have our guiding principle as the MILF; we stick to the peace process. The belief of the late MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat is that the best and most humane way to solve problems is through political solutions and not through fighting, and we stand by his belief. The Daulah Islamiyah, on the other hand, did not want to participate in any negotiations with the government. They want to fight and to establish Khilafa (Caliphate).[5]

God willing, because we have good intentions, we hope that we can succeed in our sincere negotiations with the government.

Q. You mean to say that you offered them the chance to join the MILF in order to prevent them from causing trouble?

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

Yes, that was our position.

Q. When the “Maute group” accused the MILF, did they do so to your face?

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

Yes, we talked with them face to face.

Even the central committee had sent a delegation to Maute brothers to have a peaceful dialogue with them to try to convince them to return to the MILF. But they held a very hard line, as did we. We could not convince them and they were resolute, as were we.

Q. It may be difficult for you to explain your position vis-à-vis the “Maute group,” because you are relatives.

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

Our situation in Butig is very complicated because the Maute family, in particular their mother, are related to us by blood.

In fact, the second wife of my brother, late MILF Vice Chairman for military affairs Abudul Aziz Mimbantas, Azisa Romato, is the niece of Ominta Romato (the mother). That means that Azisa Romato is the cousin of Omar and Abdullah Maute. My nephew and Dr. Marjanie’s stepbrother are Omar’s nephews. That is how we are related, and our situation was very complicated. Some of our relatives were siding with them, and others with the MILF.

They even convinced some of our forces to join them, and we also convinced some of them to join us. Although relatives are involved in this conflict, we managed wisely and were able to maintain our neutrality.

Establishment of the Peace Corridor

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:

I belong to the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG) group. Our mandate is to isolate and to interdict all criminal syndicates, drug syndicates, kidnap for ransom groups, and other criminal groups including so called “Lost Command” operating in Mindanao. The AHJAG was created based on an agreement between the government and the MILF.

What we did as a joint action group was to withdraw our troops from one village upon the request of the AFP.

President Duterte invited our Chairman, Al-Haj Murad, to Davao on May 29, 2017, to discuss how the MILF could help the people in Marawi City. The peace corridor and two Joint Coordinating and Monitoring Action Centers (JCMACs) were established from that discussion. JCMACs were composed of AFP, the Philippine National Police (PNP), and the MILF.

The mandate of the JCMACs in the peace corridor is to secure safe passage of relief goods and to retrieve civilians trapped in the war zone. As of June 20, 2017, it had rescued 270 trapped civilians and facilitated the delivery of relief goods in partnership with the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) and other NGOs. President Duterte appreciated what we did during that time.

Brother Jannati, even though he is a Front Commander, and Dr. Marjanie, a member of the Peace Implementing Panel, also went down to the field to serve under the operation, and we lived together in one residence for more than five months. We left our family behind to serve.

Up to now, we are still monitoring the situation by visiting the war zone and helping convey messages from those who were affected to the government.

Q. Was it impossible for the MILF and the government, even though you were closely coordinated, to contain their movements?

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

The government did not let the MILF forces join the AFP in order to contain the “Maute group” or the ISIS group, because, according to them, that would worsen the situation. Their insights were correct. We therefore stuck to the peace corridor and gave humanitarian assistance, as mentioned by brother Oshama.

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:

We requested that our counterpart, Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) Chief Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Jr., let us join in the operation against the extremists, but they did not allow it.

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

We controlled our forces, as the general staff commanded us to stay in the barracks. I think the government felt that the MILF was sincere with the peace negotiations because we did not participate.

Q. So even with the Marawi crisis, the trust between the MILF and the AFP remained strong and transparent?

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

Yes. Because we have our guiding principle. Our principle is thicker than blood and higher than any mountains. We stick to the peace process and the principle of the central committee of the MILF.

Even though we did not join the AFP in fighting against them, we also have our role in the peace process. We did not violate any ceasefire agreements with the AFP and the Philippine government because the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is now in the process of being legislated by Congress.

We hope and pray that our sincerity in negotiating with the Philippine government, our sincerity in sticking to the peace process, our beauty in respecting our agreement, and our sacrifices will now have positive results.

We will prove to the other group that we were not wrong, and we were not fooled by the government, by obtaining positive results in negotiating with the Philippine government.


Q. After the fighting erupted on May 23, there were several attempts to mediate a dialogue between the Maute brothers and the government. Have you been involved in the mediation?

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:

Yes. One month before the fighting ended, I was contacted by the Brigade Commander through his junior officer to mediate with the people inside the war zone to get them to surrender to the government.

According to them, using drones, they have seen many underage fighters as well as women inside the war zones, and they pitied them. The AFP thus contacted the peace mechanism to mediate with the group by offering up some conditions and making them surrender peacefully. It was not our idea to mediate with them. The AFP allowed for the peace mechanism to mediate with them.

We looked for their close relatives to make contact with them.

Q. What were the conditions offered by the government’s side?

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:

For example, if they surrender, they have the right to be escorted to get out from the war zone. They have the right to be interviewed by the media. They have the right to be investigated openly with the presence of the peace mechanism and to defend themselves with an attorney. They have the right to be visited by their families and relatives in jail. They have the right to file a case in court for their release.

One time, around 15 days before he died, I was able to talk with Omar over the cell phone. His reply was not necessarily “no,” but he kept silent. I did not receive any reply from him before he died. The government thus continued their operation by bombing, and they surrounded the hidden enclave of this group.

Q. What were the demands of the “Maute group”?

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:

They requested for us to remove the blockade of the AFP and PNP and allow them to escape from the city by giving them a large sum of money, but we did not inform the AFP about that particular demand of the “Maute group.”

Q. You did not inform the AFP because you knew they would not accept that condition?

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:


Reconstruction of Marawi City and Frustration of the Affected People

Q. Do you think the destruction of the city was necessary in order to solve the problem?

Mr. Oshama B. Ali:

The houses in all 24 villages of Marawi City were razed to the ground. There are some that question if the AFP could have controlled the number of bombings.

Q. What I see is the growing frustration of the Maranao people about what happened. President Duterte mentioned that he would correct the historical injustices against the Moro people, but some people are once again enduring injustices.

How would you try to manage these growing frustrations of the people?

Dr. Marjanie S. Macasalong:

Well, of course, we admit that we are in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is the prerogative of the president or the government of the Philippines to protect its territorial integrity, especially when there has been a terrorist attack involving foreigners in Marawi City.

It is not our position to say whether it was right to launch a war. On the other hand, we also understand the frustration of the civilians whose houses were destroyed by bombs. The aerial bombing was even more destructive than the weapons of the ISIS affiliated group.

However, as far as the MILF is concerned, we are trying our best to manage the growing sentiment of the civilians so that the peace process will not be affected.

One way of managing this is through peace advocacy, which Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas has already started as the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF). The MILF political committee is also engaged in peace advocacy to make people understand our position and inform them of the reason the MILF did not join the war: because if we had joined, the war would have become even more destructive. In this way, they were able to understand the big picture perspective of the MILF.

Secondly, we are letting them know that if the BBL will pass and we will have the Bangsamoro government, many of their frustrations and concerns will be addressed, including the construction of a new military camp, reparations, and so on and so forth.

We also told the MILF members to stay in the barracks most especially if they had the weapons, so as not to escalate the war.

We continuously engage with the CSOs, NGOs, and other Maranao leaders so they can voice their concerns. If it is not at the expense of the peace process, then we are very much willing to do what we can do.

Lastly, we held a meeting with selected Maranao leaders and the MILF Chairman for the peace implementing panel, Chairman Iqbal, on February 24, 2018. They voiced all of their concerns and grievances, which the MILF also responded to.

Maranao leaders also went to Camp Darapanan and talked with the MILF Chairman, Al Haj Murad, personally. The MILF is willing to pass the concerns and grievances along to the president if they will not affect the peace process.

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

One of the grievances of civilians is that they wonder why the government does not allow them to go back to Marawi City even after the war has ended. I also raised this concern to the Brigade Commander. I said, “Brother, the civilians have this concern. Why don’t you allow them to go back to their respective houses?”

According to him, they cannot allow that because so many unexploded bombs are still in the area. They want to clear the bombs first before they endorse civilians going back to the area. That is an understandable reason.

In fact, as Dr. Marjanie mentioned, we are caught between two fires. On the one hand, we have the peace process with the government, and on the other hand, the “Maute group” attacked the commercial center of Marawi City.

We thus have to manage the situation wisely. It was God’s wisdom that we created the peace corridor. The MILF helped the civilians who had been caught in the crossfire and neutralized the situation. We maintained our relationship with the AFP and the Philippine government for the sake of the peace process.

The civilians sometimes did not understand our situation. They attacked us by saying, “why didn’t the MILF move?”, “why didn’t the MILF use their arms to contain the ‘Maute group’?”, “why didn’t the MILF help the AFP fight against the ‘Maute group’?” As we mentioned, we offered our help to the government, but it was not accepted because of the wise beliefs of the president, who called the MILF Chairman and they agreed to establish the JCMACs under the peace corridor. We stayed in Marawi City for around five months just to monitor and neutralize the situation.

We let the government understand that the MILF was not involved in the fighting just because of our presence there. We also helped with the mediations with the group and rescued civilians trapped inside the city. We have delivered humanitarian assistance with the ICRC and other NGOs.

Until now, some civilians have not understood the position of the MILF. When the BBL will be approved, and with the advent of the Bangsamoro government, they will understand our position: we did not destroy our vision and mission to maintain an autonomous government. After the passing of the BBL and, inshallah[6], I believe that all the grievances and concerns of our civilians, not only in Marawi City but throughout the Bangsamoro, from both Christians and Muslims, will be answered.

Q. But if it will not pass?

Front Commander Jannati Mimbantas:

That is another story. We pray that this incident will not cause the BBL to falter.

The Bangsamoro problems in Mindanao started with the coming of the Spaniards. Our forefathers and mothers had fought against the Spaniards for more than 300 years. After the Spaniards, the Americans came, and our ancestors also fought for their freedom. After the Americans, the Japanese came, and our grandfathers fought against the Japanese Imperial army. When the Philippine government gained its independence from America in 1946, the Bangsamoro still asserted their rights, and we fought for more than 40 years against the Philippine government.

Different presidents have negotiated with the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) and the MILF, but they failed to solve existing problems. Only with President Duterte do we believe in the government’s commitment and sincerity to solve the centuries-old problem in Mindanao. We have great trust that the president and the Philippine Congress, the Senate, and the House, will pass the BBL.

We can liken the Bangsamoro problem in Mindanao to that of a medical patient. The patient has been crying for medicine for more than 500 years, but doctors did not prescribe the correct medication. Now the president, President Duterte no less, is giving the exact medicine to the patient, for which we are very thankful. The BBL is the best medicine now to cure the patient.

We are very thankful to President Duterte because he sticks to the promises he committed to during his presidential campaign. He has not yet gone back on his promises and commitment to solve Bangsamoro problems.

The Senate has finished its public consultations on the proposed BBL and Senate Bill 1717, the substitute bill to the four versions of BBL, was filed by the Senate Committee on Local Governments on February 28, 2018. The last public consultation of the House will be conducted on March 16 in Marawi City, and we are now preparing to mobilize our people to attend it so that the government will see that the masses are supporting the passage of the BBL.

Masako Ishii: I will be closely monitoring the situation from Japan; thank you very much.

[1] As “Maute” is the family name, to call the group the “Maute Group” is insulting to the family, and therefore, not entirely appropriate. The movement, which bases its political ideology on Islam and uses violent means to establish an Islamic State, is known as “Jihadism” in academia. However, the term “Jihadism” is avoided among Muslim Filipinos; thus, the term “violent extremism” is used in the Philippines to refer to the ISIS affiliated groups. Although the problems with using the term “Maute group” are understood, this article uses the term with quotation marks because it is commonly used that way in media, and therefore, easier for readers to understand the context.

[2] The AHJAG was created by virtue of the Joint Communiqué, dated May 6, 2002, between the Philippine government and the MILF. It is “a coordinative body tasked to coordinate, monitor, and disseminate information between and among the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) on the one hand, and the MILF and its Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), on the other, to effect the apprehension and arrest of suspected criminal elements within communities/areas with considerable MILF concentration (‘MILF areas/communities’).” See “Ad Hoc Joint Action Group Overview,” (accessed on April 5, 2018).

[3] Carmela Fonbuena, Terror in Mindanao: The Mautes of Marawi. Rappler, June 26, 2017. (Accessed on April 8, 2018)

[4] Muslim scholars.

[5] The Muslim community where the successor to the Prophet Muhammad rules.

[6] If God wills it.