MILF’s Murad ‘Al haj’ Ibrahim: Voice of moderation
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MILF’s Murad ‘Al haj’ Ibrahim: Voice of moderation

He was once a feared military commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who steered a once largely ragtag secessionist band of rebels under the shadow of the more ideological and scholarly Salamat Hashim, from whom he inherited the chairmanship of the country’s largest Moro rebel group.

Not that he is lacking in academic background, but MILF chair Murad ‘Al Haj’ Ibrahim has threaded the thin line between a military man and a statesman as calls and pressures to end decades of violence and turmoil in Mindanao continue to mount.

Today, Murad will go to Malacañang to sign a preliminary agreement that would hopefully put to rest an island that has seen the worst of wars and with hopes that the guns and cannons that have ended thousands of lives of combatants from both sides of the wars and civilians, more especially, will forever be silenced.

It is the violence in the Moro homeland that brought Murad into the once secessionist movement.  It is also the resulting violence of the reason why he took up arms that will bring him to Malacañang for the elusive peace that many in his generation, for which a few of them are left, have fought for.

Murad was one semester short of finishing his civil engineering course from the Notre Dame University in Cotabato City when he joined the Moro National Liberation Front in 1972.

For years, he was largely unknown although already leading a cadre of the MNLF.

In 1981, Murad joined the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) following a bitter split and leadership struggle between the late Hashim, who died of heart attack in 2003, and former UP Prof. Nur Misuari who was chair of the MNLF.

He rose to become head of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the military arm of the MILF, and vice chair for military affairs of the MILF which grew into a formidable armed force under Hashim.  Under Salamat and Murad, the MILF became even bigger than the MNLF, which also signed a peace agreement with the Ramos administration in 1996.

Murad was a prominent figure in the 2001 peace process even though he earned his reputation as a cold calculating military tactician.

His military leadership have become a legend among Moro fighters following a bloody ‘all-out war’ campaign launched by former president Joseph Estrada in 2000.  While some of the major military camps of the MILF were overran, the Moro rebels emerged largely unscathed under the leadership of Murad becoming even more battle-tested.

He is also believed to be the Moro rebel leader responsible behind the reported alliance between the MILF and the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF).

NDF Mindanao spokesperson Jorge Madlos said he met with Murad to sign a compact of political cooperation between the two largest armed rebel groups in Mindanao some ten years ago.

Yet Murad also admitted that the MILF, then under the chairmanship of Hashim, had sought the help of the US government to fast track the oft violated ceasefire agreement and repeatedly suspended peace process.

Murad’s reputation as a fierce and steely leader was put to a test in the two more wars that broke out when he was already the chair of the MILF following the death of Hashim.

Not only has the MILF fended off massive military operations against them, Murad also appeared to have warded off serious challenges from renegade commander Umra Kato who last year broke away from the MILF and formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF).

Despite his fearsome military reputation, Murad has always been soft-spoken.  He always commanded respect although he seldom spoke.

“He leads by example.  He is serious when he talks which I think made him earn the respect of his people,” said newsman Romy Elusfa who also described Murad as a polite man.

Early in 2010, during a lull in the fighting between the MILF and government following a bloody battle that resulted from the botched 2008 signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, Murad and members of the central committee of the MILF called for a press conference in Camp Darapanan, warning the government that time was running out for peace in Mindanao.  He too admitted that more radical forces could emerge if both the government and the MILF cannot deliver the promise of peace.

Despite the seriousness of his warning, Murad was deliberate and remained soft-spoken, qualities that are seldom seen from a man who was taken to task to head the MILF armed forces during their formative years.

In August 2010, Murad held an unprecedented meeting with newly-sworn in President Benigno Aquino III in Japan.  In that Tokyo hotel meeting, both Murad and Aquino agreed to expedite the peace process and were optimistic a peace pact will be signed before the end of this year.

Today, the gates of the presidential palace in Malacañang will be opened to one of the most feared ‘enemies’ of the state.  Murad will be entering its halls both as a Moro revolutionary as a messenger of amity.

He and President Aquino will sign a preliminary agreement after 32 formal meetings between the MILF and the government spanning over more than a decade of peace negotiations and three presidents of the Philippine government.