by Ishak Mastura

What many people in the Mindanao peace groups don’t realize is that in the security sector abroad the Mindanao Conflict is being discussed as being on the cusp of a “Brave New War” (a term from the 2007 book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization by John Robb) unless the peace process succeeds and a peace agreement is signed.  A more dire warning is if the current Moro Nationalist leadership of the MILF (or the few MNLF still fighting the government left in Sulu who have not joined up with the Abu Sayyaf or proliferated into other more nebulous factions) passes away without leaving a solid foundation for a Moro Nationalist legacy then it is best to prepare for a Southern Thailand situation or a Nigerian scenario in Mindanao in the next few years.  Mind you security experts are saying that this “brave new war” is unwinnable as shown by the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan unless the “nationalist” cause unites the partisans and the occupation by foreigners ends.  Hence, here the only betting there is on the table is – do you support the peace process or not?  If you oppose the peace process and the concomitant peace negotiations with the MILF as I said better prepare for a “brave new war” scenario in the next decades (unless of course the whole world will experience “peak oil” wherein the energy that runs the world will be in terminal decline, which means only the richest Armies can afford to fly planes and helicopters much less drive a truck).

In Brave New War, the controversial terrorism expert John Robb argues that the shift from state-against-state conflicts to wars against small, ad hoc bands of like-minded insurgents will lead to a world with as many tiny armies as there are causes to fight for.   After the failure of the MNLF in advancing the “Nationalist” Bangsamoro cause, groups like the Abu Sayyaf, Islamic Command Council, MNLF-Reformist, Pentagon, and even criminal networks like Al-Khobar proliferated drawing on the trained fighters of the MNLF disillusioned by the failed 1996 peace agreement and on the fringes these groups come into contact with the remnants of the MNLF and the much larger conglomeration of the MILF and even with the NPA in Central Mindanao. A great description of this type of “open source warfare” and the dynamics at play is a bazaar.  People are trading, haggling, copying and sharing.  To an outsider it can look chaotic.  Hence, sometimes we hear that the NPA borrows from the Moro groups their RPG for their own attacks or we hear of so-called “tactical alliance” between the NPA and the Moro groups.

This insurgent-criminal symbiosis becomes even more powerful when considered next to the most disturbing sign coming out of Iraq:  the insurgents have developed the ability to fight nation-states strategically.  This new method is called “systems disruption”, a simple way of attacking the critical networks (electricity, oil, gas, water, communications and transportation) that underpin modern life.  Such disruptions are designed to erode the target state’s legitimacy, to drive it to failure by keeping it from providing the services it must deliver in order to command allegiance of its citizens.  If you noticed in the spike of attacks last year and this year, the Moro groups and particularly the NPA have been targeting transmission or power lines, telecommunications tower and increased bus bombings.  Of late, the military have also reported of “mercenary bombers” who hire themselves for whatever cause you want such as personal vendetta or to eliminate political rivals or just plain extortion or protection racketeering.

Examples in other parts of the world are worth citing. MEND, one of the more active groups fighting for nebulous “self-determination” goals operating in Nigeria right now, doesn’t even field its own guerillas.  They hire their experts and fighters mostly from criminal gangs and tribal warrior cults to do their operations.  Moro fighters are particularly suited to this type of “net centric” warfare.  Now that MNLF is a shadow of its former “nationalist” self, consider what seasoned anthropologist Thomas Kiefer who has spent years studying the Tausug, the people of Jolo, points out that the notion of a clearly bounded “group” – as in Abu Sayyaf Group – is virtually meaningless in Tausug society. Instead, Tausug political and military life is structured by temporary factional alliances, “overlapping and criss-crossing ties in which the same men may be torn apart and bound together in multiple ways at the same time.” So-called minimal alliance networks are centered on a charismatic leader, and rarely number more than a score strong, with membership becoming vague at the edges as one network shades off into another. Such networks only come together as “medial” or “maximal” alliances of hundreds or even thousands of men if a third common enemy, shared between them, emerges (Kiefer 1986: 71-4). Since every man in every component minimal alliance follows only his own leader, and is typically pursuing only individual advantage, not any generalized ideology, larger alliances of expediency are extremely unstable. The “Abu Sayyaf” is just such a medial alliance. It has no firm boundaries — only leaders with followers, who interact with other leaders with followers. Hence the difficulty in estimating “Abu Sayyaf” numbers.  The antidote to all this fragmentation of Moro insurgent groups is to bring back front and center the “Nationalist” cause of the Bangsamoro for a homeland of their own, which in the case nowadays is being advanced by the MILF. Paraphrasing Fourth Generation (4GW) War guru William Lind:

[M]ost of what [the Philippine military is facing]… is not yet Fourth Generation warfare, but a War of National Liberation, fought by people whose goal is to restore a [Moro] state. But as that goal fades and those forces splinter, Fourth Generation war will come more and more to the fore. What will characterize it is not vast changes in how the enemy fights, but rather in who fights and what they fight for. The change in who fights makes it difficult for us to tell friend from foe…..The change in what our enemies fight for makes impossible the political compromises that are necessary to ending any war. We find that when it comes to making peace, we have no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. And the end of a war like that in Iraq [or the Philippine insurgency] becomes inevitable: the local state we attacked vanishes, leaving behind either a stateless region (Somalia) or a façade of a state (Afghanistan) within which more non-state elements rise and fight. (Lind, W., “Understanding Fourth Generation War”, January 15, 2004 at

You may well ask “Does the Philippines (and the U.S. including the wider international community for that matter) want to graduate into a 4GW situation in Mindanao just when they are facing problems with the growth in virulence and strength of the Maoist New Peoples Army in Mindanao (inspired by success of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency), and the beginnings of 4GW in Sulu?”