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Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement/

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter

I. Historical Perspective/Background

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), sometimes called the


Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM), is an Islamic separatist
organization based in the southern Philippines.

It was founded in 2010 by Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato as a splinter group of


the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), itself a splinter group of the Moro
National Liberation Front (MNLF). Kato had studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and
was a member of the MNLF, which had emerged in the 1970s.

When Hashim Salamat, another MNLF member, broke from the group to
found the MILF in the 1980s, Kato followed him. Eventually, Kato became
chief of the MILFs 105th Base Command. Kato, who espoused an extreme
version of Islam and admired Wahhabism, persistently advocated an
independent Islamic state even as the MILFespecially under Al Haj Murad
Ebrahim, who became MILF chairman after Salamats 2003 deathbegan to
adopt a more amenable stance toward autonomy instead of independence.

Disagreements between Kato and the MILF leadership became prominent in


2008, when Kato led his forces in a violent campaign against non-Muslim
villages. His group conducted raids, destroyed property, and decapitated
civilians for six months, sparking a brutal response from the Philippine military
that displaced over half a million people. Kato launched these attacks to
protest a Philippine Supreme Court decision, in which a peace agreement that
the MILF and the Philippine government had nearly signed was declared
unconstitutional. However, Katos forces conducted their violent campaign
without the MILF leaderships permission, and in response, the MILF demoted
Kato and distanced itself from the attacks.

The BIFFs relationship with the MILF is unclear. The BIFF has launched
attacks intended to undermine the MILFs peace talks with the Philippine
government, including a violent campaign against eleven villages in
Maguindanao that caused over 24,000 residents to flee their homes in August
2012. However, later that same month, the BIFF announced a temporary halt
of its attacks at the MILFs request in order to allow for the scheduled
resumption of MILF-Philippine government talks in Malaysia. The peace was
short-lived as fighting between the BIFF and government forces soon erupted
again.

As the MILF and the MNLF have turned more toward political avenues for
achieving their goals, the BIFF has become one of the most prominent Muslim
separatist groups conducting attacks in the Philippines. On January 27, 2014,
government forces launched Operation Darkhorse, a major offensive against
the BIFF. Operation Darkhorse lasted until February 2014 and resulted in
significant losses to the BIFF, including fifty-two deaths, forty-nine injuries,
and the destruction of four camps, one of which held the BIFFs facility for the
production of bombs. The operation also displaced over 35,000 people in the
provinces of Maguindanao and Cotabato.

While the BIFF has expressed some willingness for peace negotiations, the
Philippine government has not engaged in talks with the group. In August
2014, the BIFF declared allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), although the
declaration seemingly entailed no more than a pledge of support and has
been viewed by the Philippine military as an attempt to exploit the global
reputation of IS. IS has not issued a response to the BIFFs declaration of
allegiance.

Meanwhile, the BIFF has continued its attacks in Maguindanao, including


bombings targeting civilians and attacking the Philippine military.

On January 25, 2015, BIFF and MILF members were involved in an attack on
Philippine Special Action Force (SAF) troopers who were targeting two
prominent bomb-makers wanted by the U.S. and Philippine governments.
Both bomb-makers were living under the BIFFs protection in Maguindanao.
One was a Malaysian bomb-maker named Zulkifli Abdhir, also known as
Marwan, who had provided bomb production training for various
organizations, including the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG); Marwan was killed
during the operation. The SAFs second target was another bomb-maker,
Abdul Basit Usman, who was also believed to lead a special operations
division within the BIFF. Usman escaped during the battle. The SAF operation
resulted in forty-four SAF trooper deaths and a backlash against the MILF-
Philippine government peace process because of MILF members
involvement in attacking the troopers.

The BIFF suffered several leadership losses in 2015. Government forces


captured Tambako on March 15, and one month later, Katostill in hiding
died from natural causes. Ismael Abubakar, who led the BIFFs political affairs
division, was then chosen to head the BIFF. In addition, Usman was killed in
May, likely by bodyguards who attempted to collect the bounty on him that
was offered by the United States government.

II. Ultimate Objectives

The BIFF seeks to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern


Philippines for the Filipino Muslim minority, known as the Moro people. It was
formed as a splinter group of the MILF in response to the latters acceptance
of an autonomy arrangement rather than full independence during
negotiations with the government. Kato, the BIFFs founder, espoused an
extreme version of Islam and admired Wahhabism.

III. Strategy and Tactics

Since its 2010 formation, the BIFF has mainly attacked government forces,
including police and army facilities. Besides clashing with Philippine soldiers,
the BIFF has also attacked civilian targets through bombings and raids,
especially in attempts to undermine the MILF-Philippine government peace
process.

At least one BIFF attack, led by BIFF leader Mohammad Ali Tambako in
2013, has specifically targeted Christians. BIFF attacks often utilize
improvised explosive devices triggered by mobile phones, and they generally
result in fewer than twelve casualties.

IV. Composition and Disposition

As of July 2016, the BIFF has an estimated number of members from 140 to
160.

The BIFF is concentrated in the provinces of Maguindanao and Cotabato,


located in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines. It has mostly
operated within those provinces.

V. Personalities

1. Abdul Basit Usman (Unknown to 2015): Usman was a BIFF member


and bombmaking expert who led a special operations division within
the BIFF. He was a member of the MILF before breaking away from
the group with Kato, who founded the BIFF. Usman had links to the
Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and he was one
of the most wanted individuals in the Philippines. He was killed in May
2015, allegedly by bodyguards who wanted to collect a bounty from the
U.S. government.

2. Ameril Umbra Kato (2010 to 2011): Kato was the BIFFs founder and
first leader. He established the BIFF in December 2010 after leaving
the MILF. In November 2011, Kato suffered a severe stroke; he went
into hiding and remained paralyzed until his death in April 2015.

3. Mohammad Ali Tambako (2011 to Unknown): Tambako was appointed


as the BIFFs leader after Kato suffered a severe stroke in November
2011. Tambako left or was expelled from the BIFF in 2013 after leading
some supporters in an attack on the Christian population of the city of
Midsayap, during which his forces decapitated a farmer. He then
established another militant group called the Justice for Islamic
Movement (JIM). However, Tambako retained some influence over the
BIFF and may have rejoined the group a short time afterward; the BIFF
and the JIM have reportedly worked together. Government forces
arrested Tambako on March 15, 2015.

4. Ismael Abubakar (2015 to Present): Abubakar, also known as


Kumander Bungos, is the BIFFs appointed leader. He served as the
BIFFs chief of political affairs before being chosen to head the BIFF
upon Katos death in April 2015.
VI. Finance and Logistics (Armaments, communication, mobility)

On announcing the emergence of the BIFF, Kato took many weapons from
the MILFs 105th Base Command, the MILFs biggest and most well-armed
field division, when he broke from the organization in December 2010.
Consequently, the BIFF possesses a large stockpile of pistols, machine guns,
sniper rifles, improvised explosive devices, landmines, and more.

According to the Philippine military, the BIFF funds itself through extortion.
The BIFF itself has claimed that it receives money and food donations from
politicians, businessmen, and community members, describing these
donations as charity rather than taxation. There is little additional information
about the groups financial sources.

VII. Capabilities or Strengths

While the BIFF has expressed some willingness for peace negotiations, it has
never engaged in peace talks or any other form of nonviolent political activity.
The BIFF specifically promotes armed struggle as the means of achieving an
independent Moro state. The BIFF has conducted attacks to destabilize
ceasefire agreements and discourage peace negotiations between the
government and the MILF. In August 2012, the BIFF attacked eleven villages
in Maguindanao just as MILF-Philippine government peace talks were
scheduled to resume.

The BIFF allied with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), another Islamic separatist
group in the Philippines. On September 12, 2013, a combined total of 150
BIFF and ASG members conducted a joint attack against government forces
on the island of Basilan.

Additionally, the BIFF has worked with the Justice for Islamic Movement
(JIM), a splinter group established in 2013 by Mohammad Ali Tambako after
he left or was expelled from the BIFF. Tambako may have rejoined the BIFF a
short time afterward, and the BIFF and the JIM have allegedly allied
themselves against government forces.

Regarding militant groups outside the Philippines, the BIFF may have some
ties to the Islamic State (IS). The BIFF declared allegiance to IS in a YouTube
video uploaded on August 13, 2014; however, the Philippine authorities have
dismissed the announcement as propaganda. There is no evidence of BIFF
members traveling abroad to fight alongside IS, nor is there evidence of
financial, logistical, or other relationships between the BIFF and IS.

VIII. Vulnerabilities or Weaknesses


IX. Training

Six Indonesian bomb experts were monitored in the company of the BIFF.
They are believed to be training members of the BIFF on how to make
explosives.

X. Recent Developments

On May 31, 2017, the BIFF raided a North Cotabato village and positioned
themselves in a school as they engaged troops in a gunbattle to disrupt the
massive military offensive in besieged Marawi City.

On June 21, 2017, the BIFF attacked the Barangays Simsiman and Malagakit,
both of Pigcawayan, North Cotabato.

XI. Assessment

XII. Recommendations