It’s too early to say how well Philippine Government efforts to quash the Islamist insurgency in the south of the country are faring – it’s impossible to get an unequivocal sense of that right now. What we can say with confidence, however, is that the time and resources now being directed at this problem are intense. This isn’t about containment of an enemy any more, as it seems to have been throughout the life of the past five administrations; this is about removing it.
Furthermore, it looks very much like the government has a definite timetable in mind for eliminating its prime target, Abu Sayyaf – the terrorist group that virtually singlehandedly has managed to turn a small patch of ocean off the south and west shores of Mindanao, into one of the most dangerous marine thoroughfares in the world. It’s an international embarrassment, treacherous for shipping, it threatens trade and President Rodrigo Duterte wants it extinguished.
Mindanao is where Duterte is from. He’s passionate about the place. He’s witnessed it torn apart for years by communist rebels and Muslim radicals. He’s seen his people there suffer as poverty levels sank lower with each successive national government. He’s tired of it being the poor relation – Mindanao is the most poverty-stricken of the country’s three island regions. He wants to mend it; he wants to see it bloom.
This island, the 19th largest in the world – covering an area of 40,360 square miles, it’s bigger than either Ireland, Sri Lanka, South Korea or Taiwan – has massive potential; most obviously as an agricultural resource. This is the banana capital of the Philippines; pineapple and cassava flourish there also; the waters surrounding it are rich in fish – General Santos City in the Soccskargen region is known as the ‘Tuna Capital of the Philippines’.
But none of that can be properly tapped while the insurgency rages. For Duterte, Abu Sayyaf haven’t just taken hapless seafarers and luckless foreigners hostage, and often as not killed them; they’ve taken parts of this big island hostage too. For Duterte this is personal.
And that’s one reason why the army is being given all the resources it needs to put an end to Abu Sayyaf; why Duterte’s generals have been told they must remove this terror group once and for all. It’s the reason for the surge that’s going on there right now. And make no mistake; Duterte is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve that end.
Two days ago, while addressing a group of local Muslim mayors in Davao City, he gave them a simple choice: help to bring the Islamist insurgency to an end, or martial law will be imposed on their region. “I plead before you because I do not want the trouble in Mindanao to spin out of control … I will be forced, I will be compelled, to exercise the extra-ordinary powers. Help me. If not, you know, martial law, then I have to authorise the military just to arrest them, detain you.”
Our guess, given the sharp build-up in activity, is that the plan is to consign Abu Sayyaf to history within the next six months. But, as we’ve seen elsewhere in the world of terror, like the Hydra of Greek mythology, once one head’s been cut off another one grows in its place. And when you look at the antecedents of Abu Sayyaf – and other militant groups – what you see is a pattern of reinvention. They simply re-emerge under a different name and a different banner.
Abu Sayyaf’s parent was the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its founder along with its early recruits were all former MNLF fighters who wanted to regenerate the armed struggle for an independent Muslim homeland after the MNLF forged agreement with the Philippine Government, laid down its arms and became the legitimate government of what is now the Antonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. That was in 1989; the following year Abu Sayyaf burst onto the scene.
Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah was born out of Darul Islam, a radical Islamist movement that dates back to the 1940s; the Islamic State (IS) of Iraq and Syria is another example. It came from the loins of al-Qaeda which in turn had been given life by the Sunni Mujahideen – an alliance of seven groups fighting former Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan.
But what’s also significant is that with evolution comes a greater propensity for violence. In short, the offspring are invariably more vicious; more brutal. In the case of Abu Sayyaf which is the focus here, that’s very worrying. This organisation already has a reputation for extreme violence.
Consequently, one of the counterinsurgency measures the government’s taking to ensure there won’t be an “Abu Sayyaf v.2,” is to cut off this organisation’s blood supply; depriving it of the two things it can’t survive without – men to fight; local communities to protect it.
Over the past few months, communities in war-affected areas have been steadily relocated to other parts of Mindanao. Removing them from the danger zone is one reason; to prevent them from becoming Abu Sayyaf recruits is perhaps a more compelling one – as is unfastening the group’s social-support network dotted within an inhospitable landscape of mangrove swamps and jungle.
Armed Forces of the Philippines troops now occupy a number of villages, once Abu Sayyaf-controlled. The group depended on these places for supplies, recruitment and above all, loyalty. They were the bases from which they’d launch their attacks. Ironically, assisting the army in this effort has been Abu Sayyaf’s former parent, the MNLF.
These regions where Abu Sayyaf operate are among the poorest in the country – indeed, it’s that poverty which ensures they can get men to fight and, equally as important, that they can buy the loyalty of local villagers.
Consequently, investment – mostly aimed at agriculture and small enterprises – has increasingly been finding its way to the region via government agencies. This is a long-term process, but a vital one if poverty and joblessness are to be effectively removed from the terrorism equation.
The good news is that even now – even since a number of Abu Sayyaf factions made pledges of allegiance to IS last year – Islamist ideology is not a major part of this group’s profile. Painted by successive governments as little more than bandits, thugs and criminals – a facile depiction in our opinion – they’re committed to establishing an independent Muslim homeland, but they have never used Quranic scriptures to explain their purpose.
But, again, that could change if there ever is an Abu Sayyaf v.2 – and certainly it’s a possibility if IS becomes involved in the makeover. The IS mission is wholly ideological. Unlike Abu Sayyaf, when IS kidnap and hold for ransom and behead those whose families cannot pay, they do it in the name of God. They talk about “the Infidel”, refer to themselves as jihadists and martyrs and seek the apocalypse of “the final battle” and Armageddon. Abu Sayyaf has never used that rhetoric. Its language is its black flag and the bolo knife.
Duterte has not been reticent about the IS factor in the south of his country. In January, at an oath-taking ceremony for newly appointed government officials in Malacañang’s Rizal Hall referring specifically to IS he said this: “Be aware that you know things might overrun or events might overrun us. If we don’t try and solve the Mindanao issue it will be the biggest problem of our land and of our children”.
The government is taking a holistic approach in prosecuting its war against this group. Cooperation has been sought from Southeast Asian neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia which will join the Philippines – some time in April or May – to conduct joint naval patrols to protect the shipping lanes in a section of the Sulu Sea that’s boiling over with Abu Sayyaf piracy. China, too, has been asked for naval support in that region.
Last week, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told the Vietnamese envoy when they met in Manila that Vietnam should arm its crewmen on vessels passing through the troubled waters between Mindanao and Borneo. Last month, Abu Sayyaf pirates seized a Vietnamese-registered cargo vessel close to the group’s stronghold, Basilan Island in the Sulu Archipelago, abducting six Vietnamese crew. They’re now being held, possibly on Jolo Island – Abu Sayyaf’s other Sulu Sea stronghold – along with 25 other foreign and Filipino hostages.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard are re-equipping with faster boats, drones and new radar capabilities – much of that coming through assistance from China and Japan. But Russia, too, is ready to lend its support to combat the terror threat. In May, Duterte will be in Moscow and it’s very likely that a defence cooperation agreement will be inked in the Russian capital. It’s possible that following on from that Russian warships might start making an appearance in the Sulu Sea.
There are other small groups of Muslim rebels in this region – Maute, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines among them – and they too will have to be dealt with; either militarily or though peace negotiations. But right now the focus is on Abu Sayyaf – a group whose name, unlike those others, is known now around the world.
Last week, Abu Sayyaf decided to behead a 70-year-old German national whose family had failed to pay the bill for his release. That was the brutal conclusion to months of negotiations to free him and could well be the last negotiation the government ever attempts with the terrorists.
This incidence left nerves raw at the presidential palace of Malacañang and was probably the final straw for Duterte and Lorenzana. If ever they needed confirmation about the futility of trying to reason with Abu Sayyaf, that was it. Presidential Peace Adviser, Jesus Dureza, who’d been closely involved with the negotiations, was also left deeply despondent. “Up to the last moment, many sectors, including the armed forces of the Philippines, exhausted all efforts to save his life. We all tried our best. But to no avail,” he said.
And so, Dureza’s work with the Abu Sayyaf is all but done. From here on in, the army will be dealing with them. They’ll do their utmost to free the remaining hostages but the reality is there can be no guarantee they’ll be successful in that endeavour. What they do guarantee, however, is that they’ll vanquish this enemy and release Mindanao from Abu Sayyaf’s 20-year grip of terror. And when that’s done this naturally rich big island can start to mend and one day bloom.