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A Brief Overview of Terrorism in the Philippines


On December 3rd, an Islamist group tied to the Islamic State conducted a bombing at a Catholic Mass in Mindanao State University, Marawi, Philippines. [1] Although their war on terror does not often grab international headlines, the Philippines has endured decades-long conflict against numerous militant groups pursuing their interests. In this essay, I will briefly explain background information relevant to this war on terror, and explore some of the key players and conflicts in the country. 

Demographics and Geography

The Philippines is an archipelago country located off the coast of southeast Asia. It has no bordering countries but is located south of Taiwan, north of Indonesia and Malaysia, and East of Vietnam. The Philippines is a very ethnically diverse country, with the largest group, the Tagalog, comprising 26% of the population, and the remainder sharing similarly sized portions. [2] One group, the Moro, is especially relevant in the Philippine's historical and contemporary conflicts. A key characteristic of the Moro is that they are Muslim, and are an ethnic majority in some areas of the Southern Philippines. [3] The CIA World Factbook states that 79% of the Philippines is Catholic, while only 6% of the population is Muslim. [4] Historically, the Moro community was, and still is, a site of conflict between the Philippine government and Moro nationalist groups. [5]


Mary Beatrice Hernandez’s thesis on the Moro conflict discusses the conflict between the Moro and the rest of the Philippines since the 12th century. Islam had arrived in the country through trade and cooperation between indigenous groups and Islamic merchants and travelers. In 1450, a Sultanate was formed in the Philippines, and many groups identified the advantages of participating in that government. In 1521, the Spanish colonized the country and expanded Catholicism across the archipelago. The term “Moro” was ascribed to Muslim Filipinos due to their association with Muslim Moors, a historical enemy of Christian Spain. [6]

In 1898, the US had gained control of the Philippines from Spain. Many of these negotiations did not include Philippine independence leaders, and the annexation of the Philippines was unacceptable to many groups, including the Moro. In 1899, the Philipines engaged in a revolt against the United States occupying forces resulting in significant casualties on the Philippine side. Following peace, the US created political structures that undermined non-Christian regions, especially Moro communities. This sparked a second phase of rebellion encouraging even more harsh methods of control from the US. The US put the rebellion down in 1913, and saw this victory as a unification of the Philippines, while the Moro saw this as a violation of the relative autonomy they held under Spanish rule. [7]

The US had also encouraged Christian Filipinos to resettle in the Southern Philippines to help bring the region in line with the rest of the country, further inflaming tensions. Following World War Two, the Philippines declared independence, resulting in a Catholic-majority country incorporating Mindanao and Sulu, the two Muslim-majority regions within the country. Many resettlement and land acquisition problems maintained until 1965, exacerbating tensions between the Moro and the Philippines government. In the late 1960s, the Philippines came under the rule of a US-backed government hostile towards communist movements. Anti-government movements during this period were typically comprised of communist movements and anti-corruption movements, with Christian and Muslim violence occurring in the Mindanao region. Marcos declared martial law to try and prevent further violence, but a specific incident referred to as the “Jabidah massacre” would spark another revolt from the Moro people. [8]

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Regional government gives their account of the Jabidah event on their website. They claim the Marcos government had planned an invasion of Malaysian land they believed they had claims over. The government recruited Muslim citizens to train for this invasion, but ultimately dropped the plans and executed the trainees. The incident was reportedly uncovered by the lone survivor of the incident, Jbin Arula. [9] This incident, alongside general discrimination and marginalization of the Moro people, was the founding event leading to the creation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). [10]

Moro National Liberation Front

Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation says The Moro National Liberation Front was founded in 1972, and led Maro independence movements until 1996 when they signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government. The group itself splintered from the Muslim Independence movement/Mindanao Independence Movements, which arose in 1968 from the Jabidah Massacre/Corregidor Massacre. When President Marcos declared martial law, many Moro political groups were arrested, driving support to more radical independence groups like the MNLF whose leaders were stationed in the neighboring country of Malaysia, and Libya, who were providing support to Muslim independence fighters. [11]

The University of Central Arkansas states the MNLF began a conflict against the central government in October of 1972. This conflict comprised MNLF-aligned rebels fighting government troops in numerous locations in the Southern Philippines. Many sources suggest that the Philippine military held the upper hand in most situations. This conflict went on until December of 1976 when the Philippine government and the MNLF signed a peace agreement in Tripoli, Libya. [12] One important characteristic of the MNLF conflict was that the majority of their conflict was against Christian militias and the Philippine military. In other words, there were few explicit incidents of terrorist attacks committed against uninvolved civilians. Despite this, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and tens of thousands were killed. [13] Conflict again flared up between 1977 and 1986, resulting in autonomy for Mindanao Island, and again from 1988 to 1993, ending in a ceasefire. The MNLF’s aims for independence ended when Mindanao achieved Autonomous Region status in 1996. [14]

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)

From Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, The MILF is a splinter from the Moro National Liberation Front, and came into existence in 1977. The group applies Sharia law over the territory it owns and fights for an independent Islamic state in the Philippines. The split originally occurred because more extreme contingents of the MNLF believed that their goals were not ideologically Islamic enough. They rebranded to the “new MNLF” in 1977, which would later be renamed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The group originally aimed to leverage support in the Middle East by portraying themselves as more moderate, but after sending leaders to the Middle East for training, they introduced more extreme ideas to the Philippines. The group would rename to the MILF in 1984. [15]

One key characteristic of the MILF is that it enjoyed more popular support than the MNLF, and was able to take control over many regions by offering alternative governance where the central Philippine government could not. A significant split occurred in 1996 following the MNLF’s agreement with the Philippine government, to which the MILF was not satisfied with greater autonomy, and instead desired full independence. From 1997 to 2014, the MILF engaged in ceasefires and renewed violence while negotiating with the Philippine government, eventually agreeing on heightened autonomy in return for disarmament. [16]

The MILF engaged in a mixture of terrorist attacks and organized conflict, leading to a designation as a terrorist organization by the Philippine government. Attacks ranged from bombings to kidnappings, to surprise assaults on Philippine military targets. Two bombings in February of 2000 targeted busses aboard a ferry, and a Catholic radio station. Both were blamed on the MILF, but direct links are contested. In March of 2000, a MILF commander took 300 hostages in an assault on Kauswagan Municipal Hall. In 2017, the MILF claimed two attacks, one on a gas station and first responders to another explosion. [17]

Abu Sayyaf

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is a further Splinter group from the MILF/MNLF. Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and the US DNI claim that ASG is a splinter group of each. [18] [19] The group is more radical, and more inspired by contemporary terrorism tactics than its predecessors, and also enjoys support from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The US DNI claims they engage in “bombings, assassinations, extortion, and kidnap-for-ransom operations that have occasionally targeted US citizens.” [20]

The US DNI illustrates several high-profile attacks. In 2001, Abu Sayaff kidnapped 20 people, including us citizens from a tourist resort. [21] The targeting of tourist resorts was common for terrorists seeking to gain international attention for their causes, with the 2008 Mumbai attack being one of the most known instances of this strategy. In 2004, a suicide bomber sunk a ferry in Manila Bay killing 100. [22] The Philippines is an archipelago, so ferrying between islands is very common for many citizens, which is also why terrorist attacks have focused on this method of public transit. In 2019, two suicide bombers associated with ASG and ISIS-Philippines killed 23 and wounded 100 at the Jolo Cathedral. [23] The MNLF and MILF have actively aided the Philippine government against the Islamic State in the Philippines. [24] Many of the larger Islamic terrorist movements aiming to restore the Caliphates often voice support for each other as a networking and funding strategy. 

Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation claims that the MNLF and MILF distanced themselves from ASG due to their exceptionally violent tactics. Upon the death of their leader, however, the group lost many of its ties to Al-qeada’s funding, thus it was forced to engage in kidnappings for ransom. Unlike the MNLF and MILF, the Philippines refuses to negotiate with the ASG, due to its size, tactics, and illegitimacy in the eyes of many. The ASG has attempted to undermine negotiations between the Government and MNLF/MILF to reignite conflict. Another important note is that many ASG leaders pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, an international Islamic extremist group that aims to reestablish the caliphate, a government type based on Islamic law. [25] The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing of Mindanao State University, which was briefly mentioned in the abstract. [26]

New People’s Army (NPA)

The New People’s Army is dissimilar to the previously mentioned organizations as it is not an Islamic-based group. The NPA was founded in 1968 and was most active under the Marcos regime. The group is still active and operates in rural areas. The group uses guerrilla tactics and targets the Philippine military and government. The NPA uses Marxist class theory to recruit new members and argue for revolution to further their operations. Many of their attacks involve explosives targeting the Philippine military, including a bombing in December 2021 and November 2019. [27]

Bombings in the Philippines

Bombings are an obvious trend in the Philippines, with many groups prioritizing them as a media strategy and a pragmatic method of attack. Amparo Pamela Fabe’s piece on Bombings in the Philippines gives greater insight into various terror organizations and their strategies. When describing the types of bombings, Fabe says that the ASG will tend towards IEDs, grenades, and bombs, while the NPA will use more modern explosive devices. The ASG will also tend to use suicide explosive tactics, while the NPA will target industries deemed exploitative. [28]

Another interesting insight Fabe explores is the human and economic cost of bombing in the Philippines. The cost in assets for the Superferry bombing of 2004 and the Valentine’s bombing of 2005 are in the tens of millions and millions respectively. The casualty toll for the events is in the hundreds and tens respectively. Fabe mentions that these events also have indirect costs the Philippine state must face to increase security to prevent a similar incident from occurring. 


This essay aims to briefly explain the history of terrorism and key players related to terrorism in the Philippines. Many countries address terrorism differently, and the Philippines' tactic of negotiating with moderate rebel forces is interesting considering the existence of more radical elements within the country. In other places around the world, extremists have succeeded in undermining peace agreements. This does not seem to be the case in the Philippines, as Abu Sayyaf has failed to garner significant international support, and has ostracised themselves from the MILF and MNLF. 


[1] Guinto, Joel, and Virma Simonette. “Mindanao: Four Killed in Explosion at Catholic Mass in Philippines.” BBC News, December 3, 2023.

[2] “Philippines.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[3] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Moro." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 3, 2023.

[4] “Philippines.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[5] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Moro." Encyclopedia Britannica, December 3, 2023.

[6] Hernandez, Mary Beatrice, and Joseph P. Smaldone. “The Philippines’ Moro Conflict: The Problems and Prospects in the Quest for a Sustainable Peace.” Thesis, Georgetown University-Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Remembering Jabidah and the Seeds of the Struggle - BARMM Official Website.” BARMM Official Website - Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, March 18, 2021.

[10] “MMP: Moro National Liberation Front.” CISAC. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[11] “MMP: Moro National Liberation Front.” CISAC. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[12] “Philippines/Moro National Liberation Front (1946-Present).” Government, Public Service, and International Studies. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[13] “MMP: Moro National Liberation Front.” CISAC. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[14] “Philippines/Moro National Liberation Front (1946-Present).” Government, Public Service, and International Studies. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[15] “MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front.” CISAC. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] “MMP: Abu Sayyaf Group.” CISAC. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[19] Nctc. “Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).” National Counterterrorism Center | FTOs. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “MMP: Moro Islamic Liberation Front.” CISAC. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[25] ctc. “Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).” National Counterterrorism Center | FTOs. Accessed January 1, 2024.

[26] Guinto, Joel, and Virma Simonette. “Mindanao: Four Killed in Explosion at Catholic Mass in Philippines.” BBC News, December 3, 2023.

[27] Nctc. “National Counterterrorism Center: FTOS.” Communist Party of the Philippines/ New People’s Army (CCP/NPA). Accessed January 1, 2024.

[28] FABE, AMPARO PAMELA. “The Cost of Terrorism: Bombings by the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.” Philippine Sociological Review 61, no. 1 (2013): 229–50.

[29] FABE, AMPARO PAMELA. “The Cost of Terrorism: Bombings by the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.” Philippine Sociological Review 61, no. 1 (2013): 229–50.

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