In this photo taken on August 12, 2013, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari (C), with Ustadz Habier Malik on the left, addresses his armed followers in one of their camps in Indanan, Sulu, on the southern island of Mindanao, following his declaration that he was breaking away from the government because he believed they were sidelining his group. -- Reuters photo
MANILA - Nur Misuari's most-trusted aide, who is among Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) commanders leading the attack in Zamboanga City, is a "bad seed" in the rebel group, according to confidential US embassy cables published by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Ustadz Habier Malik was described as a "rogue MNLF commander" by the US embassy in Manila in 2007 after rebels under his command launched mortar attacks and ground assaults that killed two Marines and a civilian in Jolo, according to cable 07MANILA1187 in the name of then Chargé d'Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission Paul W. Jones.
In retaliation to the attack, government troops overran two MNLF camps, including Camp Jabal Uhod.
The clashes displaced more than 8,400 families in the province.
At the height of the fighting, Malik made calls for all Muslims to join his "jihad" against the government.
He, however, failed to muster support from other MNLF commanders.
"They seem to be turning their backs on Malik, reflecting the desire of the local residents for peace, security, and development on Jolo," the cable said.
"Other MNLF leaders, including members of the Council of 15, have similarly distanced themselves from Malik," said another confidential cable, 07MANILA1231, that the US embassy sent in Jones' name.
With a P1-million bounty on his head, Malik went on the run while clashes continued between his followers and government security forces.
Jones, who is now US Ambassador to Malaysia, said in the memo to the US State Department that Malik was suspected of protecting members of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group and bandits in Jolo, while obstructing military operations against them.
Earlier in the same year, Malik held Armed Forces National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino and several other government officials hostage for two days to pressure the government to set new dates on tripartite talks to review implementation of the 1996 peace accord with the MNLF, according to a separate cable, 07MANILA407, written under the name of then Ambassador Kristie Kenney.
Misuari, who was then running for governor of Sulu while detained on charges of terrorism, stayed mum on Malik's activities.
"He has not publicly spoken on these events. While Malik has been one of his most vocal supporters, it would not appear that Malik's actions would help Nur Misuari in his candidacy for governor, and would likely instead alienate the voters who support the peace process," Jones' memo said.
The US embassy also had a less than positive view of Misuari himself when he returned to his separatist ways in 2001.
"Hubris has always been the prickly Misuari's biggest failing, and this has prompted him to try and revive his past glory as a tough leader of an armed separatist movement," said US embassy cable 01MANILA6761.
The memo also warned that the Philippine government repeatedly underestimated Misuari's "determination to continue to be a player" in Mindanao affairs.
The memo said despite Misuari's return to rebellion that year, he tried to assure Washington that he won't engage in terrorism.
Misuari sent an adviser and close confidante, a Protestant clergyman, to talk to the US embassy's political officer and relay his messages.
"He told us that Misuari has decided that there is no current hope that the [Philippine government] will truly honor its commitments to grant true autonomy to the Muslims. Since that is the case, Misuari has decided to go back to the hills and lead his rejuvenated MNLF faction in the only negotiation the [government] truly understands - armed warfare," the memo said.
The cable, however, said Misuari sent his messenger only because he was afraid of being a target by the US.
"Probably a wise move," it added.
More than a decade later, Misuari and Malik made headlines anew when their MNLF splinter group declared independence of Palawan, Zamboanga Peninsula, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, and Sabah, during the rebel group's gathering in August 2013 in Indanan, Sulu.
Misuari has since disappeared from public eye while his top lieutenant was seen this week in Sta. Catalina, Zamboanga City, where hostages are being held by rebel troops that have attacked the port city.
The Armed Forces said Malik is the MNLF's overall ground commander in the Zamboanga City attack.