Home Terrorism & Threats What the Moro Rebellion Taught Us about Modern Terrorism
What the Moro Rebellion Taught Us about Modern Terrorism

What the Moro Rebellion Taught Us about Modern Terrorism


By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

“If you sow arrows, you will reap sorrows” (Filipino proverb).

Few people realize that the current Muslim extremist terrorism and asymmetric warfare is not a new phenomenon. In the early 20th century, U.S. troops fought a savage Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines against the Moro tribesman of Mindanao and other islands of the Sulu Archipelago.

The Moros had inhabited the islands for centuries under a Muslim-style sultanate. Although the ruling Spanish battled against them, the Moros were never completely conquered.

The Philippine Insurrection began in 1899 and lasted until 1902. When the Spanish-American war ended in 1898, the United States annexed Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Before then, U.S. involvement with the Moros was minimal. However, it is important to note that the Philippine Insurrection and the Moro Rebellion (1901-1913) are not synonymous.

After the Philippine Insurrection ended, the Moros assumed they would be granted some sort of independent status. That did not happen.

U.S. forces then fought unconventional skirmishes, fended off suicide attacks and fought some pitched battles against the Moros before the conflict ended. Unfortunately, unrest in the Sulu Archipelago continues in the 21st century.

Moro Rebels Used Suicide Terrorism as a Battle Tactic

While they did not use bombs as suicide terrorists do today, the Moro philosophy of suicide terrorism was very similar. These suicides were based on a traditional Muslim religious perspective: One could become a martyr by perishing in the slaying of a non-Muslim enemy. The martyr would then be rewarded by eternity in paradise.

Instead of bombs, the Moros used their traditional Malay weapons such as barongs, short swords similar to machetes, and the kris, a cross between a long dagger and a sword.

There were two forms of suicide terrorism – “amok” and “juramentado.” Amok is a Malay word used to describe a person who goes on a murderous rampage for religion or other reasons. The word “amok” has come into popular usage in the English language with the same meaning.

Juramentado refers to a more formal religious decision to kill an enemy of Islam. It may be of interest to note that juramentado is based on a Sulu-Moro translation of the all-too-familiar term “jihad.”

The juramentado was ritually cleansed. He would then arm himself with a barong, kris or other sword-like weapon and go to where American troops were located. The juramentado would kill soldiers until he was killed.

Modern Moros Continue Rebellion in the Philippines

There are several militant Moro groups active in the southern Philippines today, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which sprang up in the 1970s. Complicating the situation in the southern Philippines is the Maoist-oriented New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

In 2013, the ruinous attack on Zamboanga City, Mindanao, was caused by differences of opinion over the MILF peace negotiations with the Philippine government in Manila.

There are also links to other Muslim extremist groups inside and outside the Philippines. The Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf has its headquarters on the island of Basilan. Its leader, Isnilon Hapilon, also known as Sheik Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, is also considered the leader of the Philippine arm of the well-known Middle Eastern terrorist group the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

ISIL and Abu Sayyaf Influences Ripple Outward onto International Stage

What can we learn from the Moro Rebellion and its contemporary aftermath? First, it is safe to assume that the seeds of Muslim extremism in the southern Philippines were spawned not just by the struggles against the Spanish, the Americans and the current government in Manila. They also grew out of the rival factions such as the MNLF, the MIL and the People’s Army.

Second, Abu Sayyaf’s presence in the Philippines and the ISIL influence in the southern Philippines have taken a traditional national conflict and expanded it onto the international stage. These groups have links to worldwide Muslim extremism, whose goal is to create a worldwide conservative Muslim caliphate. Aside from the flow of support into the Philippines and recruits from abroad, it is difficult to determine how this widening conflict will play out.

About the Author

Dr. Jeffrey Fowler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.