U.S. Troops in the Philippines

War on Terrorism or Retaking a Choice Outpost?

In the current hostage drama unfolding in the southern Philippine island of Basilan—involving two American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and a Filipina nurse, Deborah Yap—the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has made no political or ideological demands. Though it is described as a Muslim extremist group, what the group does has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with cash. Indeed, a recently released letter alleged to be from the Burnhams says that the only demand the ASG has is for $2 million in ransom money, and that any military action will endanger their lives. The gang finds this a highly lucrative enterprise, having made in its previous kidnappings between $10 million and $25 million, enough to purchase sophisticated weaponry and speedboats and recruit otherwise unemployed young men with little to lose. And if allegations are true, the money enables them to pay off the local military authorities.

Notorious for its violence, the Abu Sayyaf has at times beheaded its hostages, as it did Guillermo Sobero from California, who was among several people—including the Burnhams—taken from two locations, a resort on another island last May, and later on, from a hospital in Basilan. Except for Yap and the Burnhams, all were subsequently released, some of them upon payment of ransom.

Founded by Ustadz Abdurajack Janjalani, a fundamentalist preacher who had trained as a mujahideen in Afghanistan and befriended Osama bin Laden, the ASG is thought to have ties to the Al Qaeda network through bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mustapha Jammal Khalifa, and a charity organization he set up in the 1980s, the International Islamic Relief Organization. This personal relationship is why the Abu Sayyaf, and the Philippines, have been targeted as the second front in the Bush administration's global war on terrorism, and why more than 600 U.S. troops are currently deployed in the Philippines. But since Janjalani's death in a 1998 firefight with the police, those links, tenuous at best, have most likely evaporated.

U.S. troops are there ostensibly to participate in a U.S.-Philippine military exercise dubbed "Balikatan" or "Shoulder-to-Shoulder." The term "exercise" misleads, however. Live ammunition will be used in a combat zone, against a flesh-and-blood foe. U.S. military advisers going into the jungles will fire back, if fired upon. The only exercise in this case is that of the imagination; this is a real fight.

American intervention is curious, given that the Abu Sayyaf has been riven by factionalism since Janjalani's death and seems to have degenerated into a small cabal of robber barons. The spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), General Edilberto Adan, described the gang in an interview as "now just a kidnap-for-ransom group, trying to use religion to justify their cause."

The Abu Sayyaf never did and does not now constitute a destabilizing threat to the Philippine government, much less to the United States. The 60 or so gunmen still believed to be holding out with their three hostages are no match for the 5000 Philippine troops deployed against them, now augmented by U.S. Special Forces personnel. This deployment of troops by the U.S. does, however, imply that the Philippine military is incapable of shooting straight. But this flies in the face of its history.

The AFP has in fact battled three much larger, more sophisticated, and ideologically driven armies: the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the 1970s, the fundamentalist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the 1990s, and the Maoist New People's Army (NPA) since 1969. At its peak, the MNLF had about 20,000 fighters; the MILF has 15,000, many of them having come from the MNLF (as did the MILF's founder, Salamat Hashim, once a top lieutenant to Nur Misuari, the MNLF head who now languishes in a military stockade). The MNLF and the Ramos government, following a deal brokered in Tripoli in 1976, signed a peace agreement in 1996. The Arroyo government is currently negotiating a peace settlement with the MILF.

The NPA, still active, and the only one of the three groups to be operating nationwide, is thought to have at least 12,000 guerrillas but is reportedly building back to prior, higher levels. The Arroyo government is also conducting preliminary talks at the Hague with the leaders of the NPA and its political umbrella, the National Democratic Front (NDF). At the same time the U.S recently (and without fanfare) placed the NPA on its list of terrorist groups. And now, part of the U.S. military contingent is on Luzon Island up north, near NPA strongholds—barely noted by the media but a clear indication of the broader aspects of this operation.

Why then has the Abu Sayyaf been able to hold off the Philippine military for eight months now? Since the gang slipped out of a hospital in the town of Lamitan on June 2, 2001—when they had been completely encircled by Philippine soldiers—there have been numerous credible allegations reported in the local press that the military units and their officers have been paid off. Such charges have come from soldiers, hospital staff, and released hostages. But both the army and the Arroyo administration, though unable to explain the gang's escape, have described such accusations as baseless.

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