CATABATO CITY, PHILIPPINES— In October, the leader of the Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group signed a preliminary peace accord with the government, aimed at ending decades of war that have killed some 120,000 people.
When Murad Ebrahim was 21, he quit school and joined Muslim rebels fighting against the government. His older brother, then his guardian, was not happy with the decision, Murad tells VOA.
“I feel the necessity at that time, that maybe what came into mind is schooling can wait, but this situation cannot wait," he said. "So I had to decide on that, a very hard decision.”
Despite only being months away from completing a civil engineering degree, Murad took up arms in 1969, motivated by the reported killing of more than a dozen Muslim military recruits by Christian officers.
He joined the Moro National Liberation Front, which battled the military in the south and was accused of carrying out terrorist attacks and assassinations as part of its separatist campaign.
Speaking in the boardroom of the rebels’ committee office in Mindanao, the 64-year-old says in a few years he rose up the ranks.
“I was designated as zone commander. This zone commander embraces part of Maguindanao and Lanao and after one year I became commander of the entire Cotabato region," explained Murad. "So, under the MNLF I was the overall military commander.”
In 1977, Murad’s group split from the MNLF and later formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which would become the country’s biggest rebel group.
Using experience he gained while fighting alongside Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war with the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, Murad shaped the MILF into a more disciplined force, with modern, powerful weapons.
“He was known to be a very good military tactician. That earned him a lot of respect from many Bangsamoro rebels,” said Rommel Banlaoi, head of research with the Philippine Institute on Peace Violence and Terror.
During the 1990s and 2000s, Murad’s forces fought fierce battles against the Philippine military and were also accused of terrorist attacks including deadly bombings of shopping malls and airports.
The group publicly disavowed terrorism and were never listed by the United States as a terrorist group. But they allowed terror groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah to operate bases and training camps in territory they controlled in Mindanao. They are also accused of links to Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group active in the southern Philippines notorious for bombings and kidnappings. Murad denies there are any ties.
Steven Rood of the Asia Foundation says Murad still needs to demonstrate a wiliness to cooperate with government counterterrorism efforts.
“By now there are basically no terrorists being harbored in mainline MILF camps," said Rood. "They’ve all been shooed away. But the government’s point would be, ‘If they’ve been shooed away, you knew where they were and you could have helped us get them.”
Although the Mindanao rebel groups and the government have decades of failed peace talks, there is hope that the latest agreement may succeed because of Murad’s influence and skill as a negotiator with other insurgent groups.
“He was projected as a peace champion now with the framework agreement signed… I think he has the best opportunity to lead not only the transition of the MILF but also the Bangsamoro,” said Rodolfo Mendoza, a retired police general.
Bangsamoro, which means Muslim nation, is a term coined by the rebels to describe themselves and all natives of the lands they claim as their own. Murad says the goal has always been the authority to rule themselves.
“But even [when] we go for armed struggle, at the very start we are already open for negotiation because we believe this is a political problem. And, the solution is still political,” said Murad.
The recently signed peace “framework” opens the door to such a solution by allowing the Bangsamoro to generate their own revenues, exploit natural resources and form a ministerial government. Murad says he hopes the two sides can finalize the deal by 2016.