Centuries of bloodshed: The history of Islamist insurgency in the Philippines

Islamist insurgency
Not a single generation of the Moro people has experience peace for 450 years

While it’s easy to think that the current era of Islamist insurgency emerged from nowhere over the past few decades, in the southern Philippines the problem goes back hundreds of years.

To get an understand of what underpins the current violence — which has seen local groups affiliating themselves with so-called Islamic State (IS) — it is worth taking a closer look at this long and bloody history.


The main players in this tragic saga are the Tausug (or Suluk) people, one of the largest of the 13 groups of Muslims in the Southern Philippines collectively known as the “Moro” — a name given by the Spanish when they arrived in 1521.

Prior to Magellan’s arrival, the Tausug had their own kingdom, the Sulu Sultanate, which was founded in 1457 and centred on Jolo Island. This was a major power in the region with highly developed maritime trade links.

The Tausug had adopted Islam in 1380 after the arrival of Muslim missionary Karim-ul Makhdum, and the religion spread rapidly among other ethnic groups throughout Mindanao and surrounding islands.


When the Spanish arrived — having freed their own country from Islamic (Moorish) rule less than 30 years earlier — an antagonistic relationship soon developed.

The Spanish Inquisition

It is worth remembering that in this era the Spanish Inquisition was at the height of its powers, so efforts to stamp out Islam and spread Catholicism were pursued with a bloody single-mindedness.

In instructions given by the Spanish governor for the first campaign against the Moros in 1578, he ordered that “there be not among them any more preachers of the doctrines of Mahoma, since it is evil and false” and called for all mosques to be destroyed.

These instructions set the tone for centuries of unceasing warfare — cementing the idea of an implacable and hostile central authority in the minds of the Tausug.

It is hardly surprising that such suspicion exists when one considers that not a single generation of Tausug people has experienced life without war over the past 450 years.

Their resilience — they have never been decisively subdued — is due to the tribal structure of their society, in which feuding clans unite against outside enemies under a code that emphasises honour, revenge, loyalty and hospitality.

They also employed suicide attackers, the juramentados, who would rush groups of enemy soldiers slashing furiously with razor-sharp knives until their last breath.

It was only in the late 19th Century that Spain managed to annex the Sulu Sultanate as a protectorate and establish a military presence on Jolo.

Islamist insurgency continues

In 1898 the Spanish were replaced by the Americans, who showed they could be just as determined as their predecessors, with huge numbers of Moro killed in clashes that continued until 1913.

After several decades of relative peace, the Moros again took up arms against the Japanese invaders. After the liberation of the Philippines and the announcement of independence, the Moro lobbied for independence or a continuation of American administration, rather than be ruled from Manila. The request was rejected.

After independence in 1946, the Muslim regions were governed as “special provinces” — however, many Moro complained that the top government jobs were mainly filled by Christians.

The Tausug areas remained mired in poverty and, in the absence of jobs, many young men turned to crime, kidnap and piracy. In response, Manila flooded the area with troops and a new generation took up arms.

Government actions to subdue the Tausug throughout the 1950s resulted in the deaths of a huge proportion of fighting age men in certain regions. The society was torn apart, with a younger generation growing up without the guidance of their elders.

The current era of armed Islamist insurgency arguably began in 1968 with what became known as the Jabidah Massacre (or Corregidor Massacre), when up to 68 mainly Tausug army recruits were allegedly executed after refusing to join an attack on the Malaysian region of Sabah, which was once a part of the Sultanate of Sulu and so claimed by the Philippines.

Islamist insurgency against the state

In 1971, a number of Moro intellectuals, angered by reports of the massacre and believing the central government was conducting “genocide” against them, began an open war against the state.

Islamist insurgency
Nur Misuari, the founder and leader of the MNLF. Picture courtesy of Vice News.

This independence movement soon became known as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded and led by Nur Misuari that fought to create a fully independent ‘Bangsamoro’ (Moro nation).

In 1976, the government reached an agreement with the MNLF to grant autonomy to Moro areas, a commitment that was further developed in a 1996 treaty. However, the terms of the agreements are yet to be fully met despite the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

For many Moro living on Mindanao, however, the deal was unsatisfactory due to the presence of so many Christian settlers, who had arrived under the government’s Homestead Program between 1903 to 1973. Indeed, the population had dramatically changed from 76 per cent Muslim in 1903 to 72.5 per cent Christian by 2000.

Frustrated by the lack of progress made by the MNLF, other, more hardline, Islamist insurgency groups began to emerge including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and in later years smaller groups such as Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Maute group.

However, there are some who believe that the primary goal of these groups isn’t the ancient dream of a Bangsamoro, but rather a desire for personal riches acquired through crime.

Allegiance to the Islamic State

Whatever their true aims, the recent trend for these groups to claim allegiance with IS has brought a new level of terror to the ancient conflict. Added to this are fears that battle-hardened IS fighters are making their way to the Southern Philippines as the group loses ground in the Middle East.

Today, the best hope is that President Duterte’s plans for a more decentralised federal government structure will answer at least some of the desire for Moro independence and, eventually, pave the way for a lasting peace.

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This (possibly over-optimistic) animation from two years ago gives a brief overview of the history of Islamist insurgency: