Philippines: The resiliency of Abu Sayyaf

Once on the run, a terrorist group makes a comeback

By Carlos H. Conde
Published: March 15, 2009 11:20 ET

MANILA — In 2006, the Philippine armed forces, backed by U.S. military support, launched one of its biggest offensives against the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf.

The operations resulted in the deaths and capture of the group’s key leaders as well over 200 followers in the two years that followed. Both Manila and Washington hailed as a success the campaign against a band of terrorists known for their kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.

But the atrocities, particularly the kidnappings, continued. Last year, more than 30 people were kidnapped in the Muslim region in the southern Philippines where the Abu Sayyaf is active. And in January, the group made its boldest move in recent years by abducting three workers — two of them foreigners — of the International Committee of the Red Cross. It kidnapped another one, a Sri Lankan peace volunteer, in February.

The local headlines screamed that the Abu Sayyaf “is back.” In truth, they never really left. A confidential government report said that the group raised more than $1.5 million in ransoms last year while its followers grew from 383 in 2007 to 400 in 2008, according to The Associated Press.

The resurgence of the Abu Sayyaf inevitably raises questions not just about the capacity of the Philippine government to deal with the terrorist group, but also about whether the joint Philippine-U.S. counter-terrorism campaign here, dubbed early on as the “second front in the U.S. war against terror” (after Afghanistan), has been effective.

While recognizing the value of the technical, logistical and humanitarian support the Americans have provided to the Philippines, Pete Troilo, director for business intelligence at risk analysis group Pacific Strategies and Assessments, contends that “one need not look past Iraq or Afghanistan to recognize that containing small pockets of rogue elements is nearly impossible, even for the most well-trained and equipped U.S. military units.”

Washington has maintained that its presence in the southern Philippines is mainly for humanitarian purposes, such as building schools and wells, and to advise and train Filipino troops in counter-terrorism. U.S. troops, however, have reportedly taken crucial roles, albeit noncombat ones, in specific campaigns against the Abu Sayyaf, most notably the one in 2002 that resulted in the rescue of Gracia Burnham, an American missionary from Wichita, Kansas, who was kidnapped in 2001. Her husband, also a captive, died in the operation.

The Americans, however, can only do so much in the fight against terrorism here.

For one thing, the Philippine constitution forbids them from engaging directly in combat on Philippine soil. Then there’s the disarray within the Philippine military, an institution that has been characterized repeatedly as ill-equipped and inept and is being buffeted by political scandals and intrigue that often lead to unrest from within — at the same time that it is fighting not just terrorists but communists and separatists.

Mars Buan, a national-security and terrorism expert with Pacific Strategies and Assessments, says the Abu Sayyaf is a “resilient force despite suffering many leadership losses.” The group has likewise linked with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terror network with believed ties to Al Qaeda, further boosting its image among the militant Islamic set. But to say that it has survived purely because of its resilience would be giving it too much credit, Buan said.

“The Philippine government is partly to blame for the Abu Sayyaf’s continued survival,” Buan said, pointing out that “rarely does the Philippine military maintain a high level of operational tempo.”

Apart from the military’s own troubles, the Abu Sayyaf is also a loosely connected terrorist group, with as many as eight factions that operate autonomously and separately from other factions. “These factions can independently link with other militants, generate funds, plan, and execute terrorist attacks,” Buan said.

Indeed, the loose nature of the Abu Sayyaf can be a public safety nightmare, with many criminal gangs committing acts that are later attributed to the group. According to the police as well as experts, not all kidnappings in the Muslim region were committed by the group. Buan estimated that only 30 percent of these were done by the Abu Sayyaf.

The widespread poverty in the Muslim region — more than half of its residents live below the poverty line, more than twice the national average — has made it prone to criminality. The same poverty led many to join not just the Abu Sayyaf but separatists groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting to reclaim Muslim lands forcibly taken by Christians over the decades. Ongoing peace talks have failed to produce any agreement.

And this poverty has been traced to a Manila-centric policy on the southern Philippines that effectively disenfranchises Muslims. Until Muslims “are given the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination, problems like that of the Abu Sayyaf will remain or will just take another form,” said Abhoud Syed Lingga, an Islamic scholar who heads the Institute of Islamic Studies in Cotabato City, in the southern Philippines.

Moreover, Lingga says the presence of the U.S. military in Muslim areas only feeds to the resentment many Muslims feel against Manila. “The humanitarian efforts of the U.S. is commendable but it is not the right solution.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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