They cut through the jungle to the small clearing like a swarm of bees with their leader at their core. The only sound was the swish of their feet slicing through the unkempt grass. At least two hundred of them – heavily armed. Most wearing black shirts that proclaimed "BIFF of the MILF" – and in that one instance clarifying the primary question on people’s minds: this renegade "splinter group" still considered itself a part of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
According to their leader Ameril Umbrakato – one of the Philippines' most wanted men – he put together the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (or B.I.F.F.) because he was left with little choice.
"When they had a ceasefire, the government and the MILF – they didn’t include me – they put me aside, rejected me," Umbrakato told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.
Known as the "bravest warrior" of the Filipino Muslims, for years, the 65-year old Umbrakato led the largest armed unit of the MILF, with thousands under his command. When he broke away, disheartened at what he saw as the MILF leadership’s "compromise" on a peace deal, his fighters went with him. That was in 2008. When the peace talks with the Philippine government fell apart then, more and more separatists allegedly went to his side. His supporters are now estimated at around five thousand, at the least, almost half the entire MILF fighting force.
"I want to explain to you," Kato said looking directly at us, "the MILF is the association that holds all the qualified Moro (Muslim) groups… That is the main group that carries the Islamic struggle here in Mindanao. We cannot NOT be a part of that group."
But – and here is the big BUT, he feels the MILF may have lost sight of its original intent: “to liberate the Moro people from the local colonisers which are the Filipino people, and the Philippine government.” That too many concessions were going to be made to the government, Kato explained.
"We will take back what is ours," he stated.
Kato insisted though that the BIFF has no intention to "start a war" but that they would defend themselves if prevented from accomplishing their goal. "It's down to the government – if they wage a war on us, inshallah – then we are ready. Whether the government allows it or not – we will implement our Islamic system in our areas."
The Philippine government deemed Kato and his followers criminals after several Christian areas were pillaged in 2008 when peace talks collapsed. His men accused of having "run amok".
"We are not criminals," Kato said emphatically. "How can we kill a human when we can't even kill a blameless animal … a man of faith cannot do something like that. They blame that on us so they can convince the people who hear about it or watch the news that we are bad people."
Kato did not deny that there have been skirmishes and incidents of violence in the last few years – and that some of his supporters may even be involved. But he insists that is down to "opportunists" who are taking advantage of the internal troubles of the MILF.
"Here, it is now Muslims versus Muslims. They fight against themselves for many reasons."
Age-old family feuds, squabbles over land or livestock; it is all borne out of poverty. The main "problem", if you will, in many parts of the Philippines. The thing is – in this particular region of the country, there is also a proliferation of firearms – largely due to the decades-old separatist struggle. So many arguments are now resolved at the end of a gun-barrel.
Kato says he is still all for continuing the peace talks between the government and the MILF but, and again, another but, he will only abide by its outcome IF it coincides with what he sees as the Muslim people’s true desire – absolute independence, which is not quite what other separatist fighters we have spoken to have said.
"It really doesn’t matter who governs us anymore," a weary warrior said to us. "We just don’t want trouble anymore… what we need is peace, freedom and mo more killings. We just want to earn a proper living, for our families to be safe."
It is the crux of the problem in this restive area. Many Muslims here say they feel like second-class citizens, treated with disdain by the Christian majority who “misunderstand” them. And there are those who feel the only way for them to be heard, or taken seriously, is through the volume of their weapons.
Once a condition for the resumption of peace talks, the government has now said it is no longer pressing the MILF to hand over Kato and his men; that it will leave the MILF leadership to “handle” the renegades. The MILF leadership, though, seems unable to do so, with Kato choosing to decide for himself if he is to adhere to their rules.
The only thing clear now is that there is a massive breakdown in their command structure, and with that, and the "opportunists" who carry on using the fog of a separatist war for their own purposes, the only foreseeable outcome is anarchy.