Murad Ebrahim, rebel who found path to peace

How Murad Ebrahim went from the Afghan battlefields and a meeting with Osama bin Laden to honoured guest of the Philippine president

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2012, 2:43am

As military leader of the largest Muslim rebel group in the Philippines, Murad Ebrahim cut his teeth as a guerilla fighter on the battlefields of Afghanistan, meeting mujahideen hero Osama bin Laden during the war against the Soviets.

Last week, Murad was a guest in the rather grander setting of the Philippine presidential palace, mingling with President Benigno Aquino, foreign envoys and Muslim leaders.

"Never in my wildest dreams since I was a child or when I joined the Bangsamoro struggle more than 40 years ago [did I imagine] that one day I will see the interior of this building that once housed the Spanish and American governors general and now the presidents of the Philippines," Murad declared.

In his black business suit, the stocky rebel chief was a far cry from the battle-scarred guerilla who once tried shooting down a Philippine Air Force plane with an old rifle and who once commanded one of the most active battle zones when the Philippine military nearly lost the war over Mindanao.

But then Murad's life largely reflects the course of the war for independence in the southern Philippines.

Last Monday, the 64-year-old leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a peace deal that serves as a roadmap to forming a new autonomous region in the south.

It is a step towards ending one of the world's oldest liberation movements.

The military veteran was far from shell-shocked by the palatial surroundings, though he did seem slightly star-struck.

Breaking protocol, Ebrahim greeted "Ms Kris Aquino" - the president's popular actress-sister who was there - even though she held no official title, before moving on to acknowledge the presence of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

It was an unusual day for a man born in the heartland of Mindanao and named Ahud Ebrahim by his parents, who both died by the time he was 13.

Rather than finish his final semester in civil engineering at Notre Dame University in the US state of Indiana, he dropped out at 22 and decided to join a secret guerilla training camp in Sabah, Malaysia.

Sabah's then chief minister, Tun Mustapha, funded the camp after President Aquino's late father, Senator Benigno Aquino Jnr, warned of an alleged plot by President Ferdinand Marcos to invade Sabah and reclaim it as Philippine territory using young Filipino Muslim recruits.

But the plot unravelled when the recruits allegedly mutinied over non-payment and bad food and were shot dead by soldiers.

It was this "Jabidah massacre" that sparked the Muslim secession movement led by Nur Misuari. From the camp, Ahud Ebrahim emerged with a new name, Murad, and a life mission - to separate Mindanao, Palawan and Sulu from the Philippines as a field commander of Misuari's Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), according to Eid Kabalu, a former MILF spokesman.

When Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, the MNLF declared war and announced it was seceding from Mindanao.

Marcos assigned Fortunato Abat, an army general, to crush the rebellion in central Mindanao where Ebrahim was assigned. The fighting was "quite fierce and we nearly lost Mindanao", Abat told the Sunday Morning Post in a recent interview.

Kabalu claimed that "in the thick of the fighting in the early 1970s, he [Murad] tried to shoot down a jet plane with a Springfield rifle. He was hit by shrapnel when the jet fired."

In 1984, former MNLF vice-chair Hashim Salamat established the MILF and was joined by Ebrahim, who became vice- chairman and military chief of the breakaway group.

That summer, Ebrahim flew with 100 of his men to Afghanistan to join the worldwide call for jihad.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Ebrahim explained that Afghanistan had offered free mujahideen training in exchange for a stint in the Afghan army to fight the Soviet Union, the invader.

He and his men learned how to fire heavy weapons such as mortars, anti-tank guns, the anti-aircraft gun Stinger and even how to operate tanks.

While there for six months, Ebrahim said he met Osama bin Laden, who surprised him.

"If you see him, you wouldn't think then that he would become the person he is now because he was very low-profile, soft-spoken, quiet," Ebrahim said.

The same description fits Ebrahim, too, Kabalu says.

"As a matter of fact, many would claim he's not supposed to be a military commander because the way he deals with issues, he's more of a diplomat." The transformation of Ebrahim from guerilla leader to a diplomat on the world stage came gradually as battles shifted back and forth from the jungle to hotel function rooms.

In 2000, after Misuari's second peace deal - signed in 1996 - appeared to be falling apart, the breakaway MILF started trying to forge its own deal, with Salamat handing the role of negotiator to Ebrahim. "This guy {Ebrahim] … he makes very calculated decisions," observed Zainudin Malang, chair of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Centre. His stature grew further in 2003 when Salamat died and he became the group's leader.

A Mindanao-based journalist said it helped that Ebrahim was well respected by the 10,000 armed rebels "because he came from the ranks and before he became chief, he headed the peace negotiating panel".

The journalist added: "He's knowledgeable of models of conflict resolution in other parts of the world."

A Muslim lawyer claimed that Ebrahim decided to forge a peace agreement because he recognised a looming reality - that "there is no second in command who is acceptable, who will lead the struggle".

Formally announcing that the MILF was dropping its secession bid, Ebrahim said: "Today, we extend the hands of friendship and partnership to the president and the Filipino people as we jointly embark on the historic journey to rebuild our homeland, institute justice and occupation, end the reign of violence and restore normalcy to the lives of the masses of our people in Mindanao and Sulu with the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro."

Former rebel chief Misuari pronounced it a "death sentence", saying it would lead to the "dissolution of the MILF".

The comments drew a swift response from the rebel leader, who insisted a "negotiated political settlement is the most civilised and practical way" to solve the Mindanao conflict.

It was a striking statement that seemed to cap Ebrahim's transition from determined soldier to sage diplomat.