Thursday, December 11, 2008

Trouble on the eastern front

Renewed violence in the southern Philippines shows the difficulty of wiping out terrorists

Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 11, 2008

MANILA -- Just a couple years ago, the Philippines was hailed as a success story in the US-led War on Terror.

A military campaign by US-backed Philippines special forces had routed al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorists from their stronghold in the southern island of Basilan, killed their leaders, and confined surviving diehards to a more remote island to lick their wounds.

Combined with generous economic aid and "hearts-and-minds" outreach efforts, it was called the "Philippines model" -- a lesson for counter-terror operations across the globe. "A concerted combination ... -- the iron fist and the hand of friendship -- succeeded in driving the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group] from Basilan and restoring both peace and hope to the island," crowed an August 2006 State Department report.

But recent violence shows how hard it is to keep the peace -- and to uproot terrorists for good.

Fighting broke out in Basilan early last week between the Philippines military and a regrouped Abu Sayyaf (the name is Arabic for "Father of the Sword"). Battles Sunday left five soldiers dead and 24 injured, and reports say some 3,000 civilians have fled their villages amid the violence. The Abu Sayyaf is blamed for a recent spate of kidnappings, the latest of a 9-year-old girl and a nursing student.

How did Basilan go back to being a basketcase?

In an interview last week, one US official explained, "if you withdraw too quickly without leaving appropriate law enforcement to maintain order, you leave a vacuum."

The lesson: terrorists love a vacuum.

But in the southern Philippines, it's not clear how much more the government can do. Its resources are already stretched to the limit there fighting a major communist insurgency, hunting "rogue" Muslim rebels and dealing with a witch's brew of kidnapping gangs, extortionists, gun-runners and international terrorists in dense jungle terrain.

One minor victory: Last week police arrested in Mindanao a suspected bomb-maker for Jema’ah Islamiyah, the Indonesia-based terror outfit.

And analysts say despite Abu Sayyaf's resurgence in Basilan, it's still a shadow of its former self -- lacking leadership, money and strong foreign sponsorship. Where it once pulled off high-profile abductions of foreigners (including Americans) from distant tourist resorts, now it's going after easier, more local targets in a desperate fund-raising bid.

Still, U.S. officials and analysts say fighting Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists here is a long-term mission with no clear end in sight. Abu Sayyaf numbers as many as 200, with another 200 to 400 "lurking in the wings," says Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments.

"It's like a cancer -- it's immune to destruction. If the [counter-terrorism] efforts are successful, their numbers just contract. People bury their weapons, disappear back into the villages, wait for the dust to settle, and then recoup themselves to various degrees. But they are by no means destroyed."

In Basilan, the terrorists typically have relatives willing to harbor and hide them, rather than help turn them in. "These people are very clannish – their families don't want to expose them," said Patricia Cabiguin, a research analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "There are strong blood bonds."

Another reason there's no quick fix to the problem, says Harrison and others, is because Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists are products of decades of dysfunctional policies that aren't easy to reverse. "These are areas that have suffered from generations of abuse at the hands of the Filipino government and Filipino military," says Harrison. "Poverty, neglect and abuse is what continues to fuel the Abu Sayyaf Group."

A second U.S. official adds, "You need a concerted effort of hard power and soft power to make up for a century of insecurity and underdevelopment."

The U.S. is doing its part – spending US$220 million on development in the southern Philippines between 2001 and 2005 alone. Since 2002 it's also trained Philippines special forces, supplied high-tech equipment like night-vision goggles, and provided an "eye in the sky" for the hunt for terrorists with its unmanned aerial vehicles.

But the U.S. can do little to address Muslims' deeply-rooted historical and political grievances. That's strictly a job for Manila. The government tried to take a step in that direction this past summer, with a preliminary peace deal with the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to expand a Muslim autonomous area and give it greater control over resources and revenue.

Unfortunately, that peace process collapsed in August amid violence, recriminations and a Supreme Court injunction.

The Philippines military is now going after three "rogue" MILF commanders accused of atrocities against civilians. And the MILF too has gotten caught up in the Basilan fighting, with three rebels killed there, including a member of the MILF's ceasefire monitoring team, in strikes the military says were aimed at Abu Sayyaf.

The MILF insists it does not engage in terrorism and denies links with Abu Sayyaf. But in Basilan ties are close, say analysts. "The relationship between the two is blurry," says Cabiguin.

A tactical alliance between the two amid the current military strikes could further escalate the situation – and make it even harder to weed out the real, hard-core terrorists.

On the Eastern Front, too, it turns out, there are no easy victories.

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