Government News Analysis

An anatomy of an atrocity

News that terror group, Abu Sayyaf – “Bearer of the Sword” – was responsible for the butchery in a Davao City night market where locals and visitors had gone to eat, drink, laugh and chat around the food stalls in Roxas Street; that the innocence of unwinding on a Friday night could have been turned into a carnage that ended 14 lives and damaged scores more – simply by its will – came as no surprise. It needed a “victory”.

The blood it shed, and the lives it broke – in its world – will have done just that. And so, as families mourn and a national grieves, it celebrates. There was little pause before it claimed the recognition rights to the death and sorrow it had wreaked.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s unequivocal message to Abu Sayyaf’s leadership, that he would bring overwhelming force to bear to eradicate the group once and for all, had enraged it. He had told his commanders: “Go out and destroy them. Kill whoever they are”. And Abu Sayyaf’s fury had built from the beatings it took a few days later at the hands of the Philippine Armed Forces –Duterte’s response to the beheading, with a bolo blade, of an 18-year-old man whose family couldn’t find the PHP1 million needed to buy back his life.

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has become increasingly isolated. It has no seat and no influence at the table where the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will thrash out and fashion a new political entity, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Its constituency, even in its own heartland, is slender.

Since 2014, a number of ASG factions have sworn allegiance to Islamic State (IS) – though this has less to do with a shared ideology than it does with survival. With IS on its CV, it could bolster its terror profile, drive up recruitments and tap into overseas terror funds.

The MILF, along with other Muslim groups, has been fighting for the independence or full autonomy of the region in a struggle that spans four decades. But it’s been a fight for their land and their culture; not for a fundamentalist ideal. These groups have paid a high price in blood to realise their dream of a Moro homeland. And ASG affiliations to IS make a mockery of that ambition.

The MILF high command is certainly not going to abandon its aspirations to become self-governing, only to switch landlords from one in Malacañang, the presidential palace in Manila, to one in a remote desert city somewhere in The Levant. That would be like their Moro ancestors, while fighting their Spanish rulers, giving up hopes of self-determination by agreeing to pay fealty to the King of Castile.

But it doesn’t mean ASG is going to quietly walk away either; nor IS, which now has a toehold in the provinces of Mindanao that border the Sulu Sea. Its immediate plan, it seems, is to establish a branch office of IS HQ in Raqqa, northern Syria, Islamic State’s capital city. IS admin officers have been seen in the region. Allegiances to Islamic State by a number of other smaller jihadist groups have been sworn there in the presence of IS personnel. They weren’t in Mindanao on R&R; they were there to forge alliances, to erect a terror architecture and expand their reach.

The Sulu Archipelago is of significant interest; it provides the perfect stepping-off point for a new caliphate that would stretch the full length of Maritime Southeast Asia from the extremists’ strongholds in southern Mindanao, through Indonesia and Malaysia and all the way to southern Thailand.

ASG, though small, has always punched above its weight. This is not a militia with tens of thousands of men under arms – this is not the New Peoples Army of the 1980s which commanded 25,000 troops at its peak and had forced the president of the day, Ferdinand Marcos, to lock down the country into a garrison state under Martial Law in 1972. Consistent Philippine military estimates put ASG’s strength at no more than 400. But the profile it has built for itself is anything but small.

Established in 1991, it burst onto the world stage in 2001 with its first big “spectacular” – the abduction of 20 foreign and local tourists from the exclusive Dos Palmas Resort at Arreceffi Island, nestling in the tropical water’s of Palawan’s Honda Bay. But while seizing the hostages was easy – they offered no resistance to the group of 40 militants armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades – the logistics of the action was not. To reach their target, they had travelled by night across 280 nautical miles of the Sulu Sea and then returned with the abductees to their Basilan Island stronghold.

In 2004, it staged its biggest-ever “spectacular” – the bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay in which 116 people perished. Even up until today, this holds the record for being the largest act of death-dealt maritime terrorism the world has ever known.

But it wasn’t just the size of the devastation that caught the attention of terror analysts both in the Philippines and abroad; it was the sophistication of the attack. ASG didn’t just get lucky when it crippled the 10,000-ton Superferry 14; it was being rewarded for careful planning. The explosion and the resulting fire that snatched away all those lives was caused by eight pounds of TNT that had been planted in a television set in one of the vessel’s crowded lower decks. Superferry 14 had been targeted because the vessel’s owners, WG&A, had rejected an ASG demand for US$1 million in protection money.

And it is to this attack – in terms of planning, targeting, desired effect and motivation – that the Nightmare on Roxas Street bears the closest similarities.

Both were covert actions which involved the planting of an explosive device. The targets in each case were civilians; there were no military personnel injured or killed in either event. The ferry and the street-market victims were both proxy targets; they were not the group’s prime enemy – the ferry passengers deaths was ASG’s way of fining the ferry company’s owners; the dead in the Davao market was its bill to Duterte.

Furthermore, both attacks were designed to inflict the maximum number of casualties – a crowded market on a busy night at the start of the weekend; the ferry’s packed popular lower deck. And – perhaps most significantly of all – both were inspired and driven by a fury to exact retribution. These weren’t strikes in the name of Islamic jihad; they weren’t about financial gain either. They were vengeful acts of payback.

Duterte is determined to make good his promise to put the Bearer of the Sword, to the sword. He now has up to 9,000 troops in the field to do just that. How long that might take, no one is prepared to say right now, but one thing everyone is starting to understand is that the president is a man of his word.

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