The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has dramatically stepped up its campaign against two Islamic terrorist groups across the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao – a self-governing authority in the south region of the country comprising five Muslim provinces.
In the last three days, a combined offensive utilising army, navy, marine and air force assets has killed some 51 terrorists – 20 Abu Sayyaf and 31 Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) militia – in their heartland bases.
This is the latest assault in the biggest and most concentrated offensive against terrorist-held territory ever mounted by the Philippine military. It’s also President Rodrigo Duterte’s words in action. He vowed to bring the force of his militarily down on these groups; to eradicate them – and he’s doing all in his power to keep that promise.
In January he gave a six-month timeline in which to end Abu Sayyaf. In reality – given the terrain and the scattered pockets of fighters remaining – it could take a little longer than that. But it now looks like this organisation which has been bombing, assassinating, kidnapping and extorting for 25 years is on its last legs.
The question is, why has it taken so long? This was never a huge fighting force. In 2012 it was estimated to have between just 200 and 400 foot soldiers. And yet it’s been able to prosecute a war of terror in Mindanao and across the Sulu Sea to Indonesia and the Malaysian state of Sabah. And it’s built a lucrative business out of kidnapping for ransom. It’s believed the group made PHP353 million from ransom payments in the first six months of 2016 alone. On those earnings, if this was a legitimate corporation it could go public.
The answer to that question is the level of commitment shown by previous administrations to dealing with Abu Sayyaf. We think it’s fair to say that had this group been terrorising parts of Luzon in the north of the country – the National Capital Region around Manila in particular – there would have been a far greater appetite from the government to confront them.
In other words, because their activities in the main were limited to the far south of the country – the big exception being the group’s bombing in 2004 of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay which left 116 dead – and because they are a small group, the feeling was that they could be contained.
But far from being contained, they expanded their activities into piracy, drug-trafficking and extortion and turned the Sulu Sea into one of the most dangerous stretches of ocean for shipping in the world. And lately, they sought to expand their terror enterprise further with planned kidnapping forays to resorts in the Visayas region and possibly Palawan.
But Duterte is the first Philippine president to have come from Mindanao – and certainly the first to have witnessed first hand the utter devastation Muslim extremist groups have dealt to his region. No other president has come from a war-torn area like this; no other president has seen the daily suffering of his people at the hands of the extremists. And that personal history has played a large part in forming Duterte’s resolve to rid Mindanao of the terror groups which for so long have preyed on it.
On Thursday, in a surprise dawn attack, AFP units pounded targets on Basilan Island, the Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the Sulu Archipelago, as FA-50 fighter jets (photo) from the Philippine Air Force conducted airstrikes and Philippine Navy units cut off sea escape routes.
The 4th Special Forces Battalion and 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion secured the camp by morning and found bomb-making equipment capable of producing 30 improvised explosive devices. They also found part-eaten meals left by Abu Sayyaf terrorists as they tried to flee. The army estimates that there was enough accommodation at the camp to house 40 fighters. If that’s right, then government forces succeeded in killing half of them.
This will have delivered a heavy blow to an organisation that’s cash rich but manpower light. Furthermore, it won’t be so easy for them to rebuild their ranks. Over the past few weeks more than 24,000 villagers have fled their homes in areas affected by AFP operations. Groups like Abu Sayyaf depend on the villages for recruits and for cover. Meanwhile, government investment to this region has been stepped up to create jobs and attack poverty which in the past has driven young men to joining these groups.
Also last week, during five days of fighting – concentrated on three towns in Maguindanao province in western Mindanao – government forces succeeded in killing 31 BIFF members – 20 on the first day of engagement. A further four were wounded. As with Basilan, air, artillery and armour assets were all deployed. This was a major offensive aimed at collapsing BIFF resistance, though the group’s leader, Ismael Abubakar – a foreign-trained Islamic missionary and a main AFP target – was not killed or captured in these actions.
The BIFF was formed in 2008 by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Force (MILF) who broke away after the MILF agreed to an autonomy arrangement with the government rather than fighting for independence. Since then it’s spit a couple of times over internal disagreements and operates via three main factions. Last year it was estimated to have less than 200 men under arms.
There was an attempt during the last administration to deal with the BIFF – an a pretty effective one too when in January 2014 the AFP launched “Operation Darkhorse,” a four-day offensive at locations in Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces that resulted in the deaths of 52 BIFF fighters with a further 49 injured and 101 captured.
But the job was never finished and in the past two years the BIFF has raised its profile by – like Abu Sayyaf – pledging its allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And one year after Operation Darkhorse – almost to the day – BIFF fighters were involved in the Mamasapano, Maguindanao, incident in which 44 members of the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force were killed during an ill-planned operation to capture or kill a Malaysian bomb-maker.
This BIFF, which has a number of foreign fighters in its ranks, is among the most ideologically extreme of any of the groups, taking over barangay councils and imposing Taliban-style justice – all of which has angered the communities in which they live. But despite that and despite its small numbers, this organisation is never going to lay down its arms.
The decision to end Operation Darkhorse was because government forces had “significantly lowered the morale” of the BIFF fighters. Evidently, given what’s transpired since, it wasn’t lowered for long. This time around, however, the resolve is very different – this isn’t about lowering this or other groups’ morale; it’s about removing these groups.
To that end, the AFP currently has 51 battalions – around 25,000 troops – on the ground in this region; the biggest force the government has ever put in the field. It’s also considerably beefed up its air and naval deployment. This, then, is an all-out assault to crush the Islamist terror groups that have plagued the Philippines’ Muslim-populated region for do long – killing not just its people, but tourism and every other part of the economy down there.
Abu Sayyaf may not be consigned to history by next month but it’s hard to see it being around for too much longer. That said, given the nature of these groups and the poverty they feed on, unless they’re completely eradicated and investment cash is put to work quickly to build businesses and create employment, they’ll emerge again. Duterte, members of his cabinet and his military chiefs are well aware of that, as they are that the War on Drugs down there – the proceeds of which provide much of the bankroll for these groups’ terror operations – similarly must be seen through.