- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

CEBU, Philippines Two weeks ago, Nur Misuari was the governor of a large swath of the Muslim Philippines and a nettlesome player in the decades-old struggle to bring peace to the nation's southern region.

Today, the former leftist academic and founder of the rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) sits in jail in Malaysia, branded the "Osama bin Laden of the Philippines."

His rapid fall from grace was the result of a serious miscalculation: He thought an election certain to install a political opponent as the next governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao could be disrupted by an assault on an army base in Jolo, in the far southern reaches of the Philippine archipelago.

The Nov. 20 attack, which signaled Mr. Misuari's abandonment of a 6-year-old peace pact with the government, left more than 100 dead. It also embarrassed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo , who at the time was in Washington winning pledges of increased economic and military aid from President Bush.

The fighting marked another sad chapter in a three-decade struggle that has left more than 120,000 dead and displaced another 300,000 on Mindanao, the largest island in the southern Philippines, and other nearby islands.

The war was largely ignored by the outside world until the Abu Sayyaf, a group of rebels-turned-kidnappers with ties to Mr. Misuari and to bin Laden, began seizing foreign hostages over the past few years.

"Misuari is a failed leader," said Abdulgani Salapuddin, who spent 12 years in the hills as an MNLF fighter and is deputy speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives, during a recent interview in Manila. "He's self-centered. He won't listen to anyone else's point of view. It was that attitude that caused the MNLF to fracture into so many different factions."

Although Mr. Misuari, 60, is one of the founding fathers of the MNLF, he spent nearly half his adult life directing its separatist war from plush safe houses and five-star hotels in the Middle East, funded in large part by Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, who has meddled in Philippine affairs since the early 1970s.

A secret trip to Tripoli in February 1992 by presidential candidate Fidel Ramos paved the way for Mr. Misuari's eventual return to the Philippines, where he and then-President Ramos signed a 1996 peace accord. Under its terms, Mr. Misuari dropped his separatist demands in return for the creation of an autonomous region, where he was later elected governor.

But Mr. Misuari's authoritarian style and his failure to improve economic conditions in the impoverished region a problem he blames on a lack of support from Manila led to growing dissatisfaction with his leadership. He was pushed toward irrelevance when Mrs. Arroyo endorsed one of his political rivals, Parouk Hussin, in last week's election for governor. Dr. Hussin, a physician, won by a wide margin.

When Mr. Misuari's men launched a mortar attack on an army base in Jolo days before the election, the president ordered the military to retaliate and suspended Mr. Misuari as governor of the autonomous region a group of five provinces and a city that are among the poorest areas of the country.

Abdulrahman Jamasali, a Misuari nephew and Philippines lawmaker, blamed the fighting on the military, which he said had provoked the MNLF by encroaching on its territory.

"The Moro National Liberation Front is now free from the bandit government, and we will return to our original struggle," Mr. Jamasali declared.

But Mr. Misuari was soon on the run, facing charges of rebellion. He was captured Nov. 24 in neighboring Malaysia, a largely Muslim nation that once served as a haven to MNLF fighters. He is expected to be deported to the Philippines.

Mrs. Arroyo last weekend declared Mr. Misuari a "terrorist" for establishing an alliance with the Abu Sayyaf, which was founded with support from one of bin Laden's brothers-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa.

The group's founder, the late Abdurajak Janjalani, fought alongside other foreigners in Afghanistan's anti-Soviet war of the 1980s.

Philippine officials say they have provided evidence to Malaysian authorities that Mr. Misuari and his men helped the Abu Sayyaf in the abduction last year of 21 mostly foreign tourists from a Malaysian diving resort.

"There are new pieces of evidence that show Misuari's alleged part in the Abu Sayyaf's attack on Sipadan Island," Franklin Ebdalin, an undersecretary of foreign affairs in the Arroyo administration, told reporters in Manila last week.

According to intelligence reports, two top aides to Mr. Misuari provided the speedboats that the Abu Sayyaf used in taking captives across the sea border.

The military report also said MNLF strongholds on Jolo sheltered the Abu Sayyaf and its captives for months until most were ransomed for millions of dollars, much of the money supplied by Col. Gadhafi. Mr. Misuari and his men are believed to have received a share of the money, according to the report.

Mr. Ramos, the former president who worked out the 1996 peace deal with Mr. Misuari, calls Mr. Misuari "the Osama bin Laden of the Philippines."

Whatever sympathy might have existed for Mr. Misuari's cause seemed to dwindle after his followers, trapped in a hilltop office above the city of Zamboanga, clashed Nov. 27 with soldiers and later used 100 hostages, including women and children, as human shields.

Front-page pictures and newsreel footage of the hostage drama, in which armed men took shelter behind women and children bound together with rope, further reinforced an image of the Philippines as unsafe for tourists and foreign investment, a stereotype the Arroyo administration is struggling to overcome.

The following day, nearly 100 gunmen swapped the hostages for safe passage from the predominantly Christian city to an MNLF camp in a neighboring province.

"Many of these men are hardened fighters, terrorists," said a senior police intelligence officer who has studied the Muslim insurgency. "We know that more than 100 men from the MNLF and associated groups have trained and fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

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