On Sunday, the Philippines’ most wanted Islamic militant was killed in a firefight with Muslim rebels.
The death of Abdul Basit Usman, a bomb maker with links to the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah – the Southeast Asian affiliate of Al-Qaeda – is significant because he was one of two high-profile targets in a deadly January 25 raid which killed 44 Philippine police commandos following clashes with Muslim rebels in the country’s south (The Diplomat covered that incident here). The Mamasapano incident triggered a political crisis for Philippine president Benigno Aquino III and had threatened to undermine a peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) reached in March last year which ended nearly a half-century of bloody conflict.
Details of how Usman was killed are still murky. The Philippine government says that Usman’s followers had turned on him because of a million-dollar bounty offered by the U.S. State Department, while the MILF says that its fighters had killed Usman. Nevertheless, the Aquino administration, the MILF, and other proponents of the peace deal have been keen to capitalize on the development to boost prospects for its advancement, including the passage of an enabling law called the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which has been stalled since the Mamasapano incident. The Aquino government wants the BBL to be passed by June so that a required referendum can be held before the administration’s term expires following elections in May 2016.
Several civilian and military officials, including the head of the Philippine military, Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. and the chief government peace negotiator, have lauded the MILF for its cooperation. At a press conference, presidential communications secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. noted that the MILF’s assistance in going after Usman came at a time when lawmakers were looking for concrete proof of cooperation between the rebel group and the Philippine government as they debate the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Several other lawmakers, along with Senate president Franklin Drilon, have also said that the MILF’s role in Usman’s death should help restore the public’s confidence in the peace process that was shaken following the Mamasapano incident.
It is still unclear, however, what this might do for the peace process itself specifically. Congressional leaders have said that they have made the passage of the BBL a top priority for their current session which lasts until June 11, and there does seem to be a sense among many that advancing peace with the MILF is an important objective. Yet the devil may lie in the details. There are still some – including members of a peace council that Aquino recently convened to review the BBL – who are of the view that while the BBL is generally acceptable, there are specific provisions that need to be revised or removed. If the changes are not ones that the MILF can live with, that could mean a rough road ahead for the peace process.
On the security side, operations are expected to continue to move forward despite Usman’s death. Catapang has reportedly expressed determination to get “all the potential spoilers of the peace process,” adding that there were still 10 foreign Islamist militants and around 100 renegade Islamist militants in the south.