- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

A new humanitarian organization is fighting terrorism at the village level by providing medical care to impoverished Muslims in the southern Philippines.
"The program is a creative approach to countering terrorism because it deals directly on the front line, at the grass-roots level in communities where terrorists are recruited," said Al Santoli, head of the new group, called the Asia-Pacific Initiative.
The group's first effort involves sending tons of medical supplies to areas of the Philippines that are fertile recruiting grounds for al Qaeda-related terrorists. Mr. Santoli said that the initiative eventually would help set up educational programs.
There also are plans to extend the program to nearby Indonesia, southern Thailand and parts of India. "These are front-line areas in the war on terrorism," he said in an interview.
Mr. Santoli, a Vietnam War combat veteran, set up the counterterrorism humanitarian organization after moving from the staff of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, in June. The initiative is part of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council.
Two months later, he was aboard a Philippine military helicopter on its way to what is considered one of the most dangerous Muslim areas in the world Sulu island in the southern Philippines.
Mr. Santoli arrived there with a small team of Philippine government officials two days after terrorists from the Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda group in the area, killed and decapitated two Jehovah's Witness missionaries and left their heads on display near a village marketplace.
The team met Muslim clerics who are the island's leaders and arranged for a shipment of $1 million worth of U.S. medical supplies. The island is a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, and more militants are heading there as neighboring Indonesia steps up pressure against terrorism after the bombings on Bali island.
"The most important part of this effort is to block the exploitation by the al Qaeda people of the poverty and lack of government programs that address the most basic needs of health care and education," Mr. Santoli said.
Before the visit to Sulu, he helped arrange an emergency shipment of medical supplies to the southern Philippines, where the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Group was deployed to help train the Philippine military in counterterrorism operations.
Washington-area pharmaceutical manufacturer MedPharm donated 40 pallets of medicines including antibiotics, anti-malaria and de-worming pills to the U.S. Special Forces in the Philippines. There was enough medicine to treat 20,000 people on nearby Basilan island, which has almost no running water, electricity or sanitation, much less medical care.
Special Forces civil affairs units conducted scores of medical missions off the coast of Mindanao on Basilan, where the troops are based. The humanitarian work is ongoing, Mr. Santoli said.
The soldiers also worked with doctors from Knightsbridge International, a California-based humanitarian group, in treating local Filipinos.
The private sector programs bolstered noncombat U.S. operations against terrorists in the Philippines because money from Washington for the training mission had run out in July.
Mr. Santoli, with help from Mr. Rohrabacher and Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, had the medical supplies expedited and administered even though the military mission in Zamboanga city had run out of money.
Army Maj. Don Bridgers, who works at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, said the program has been very successful.
"Six months ago this island [Basilan] was practically owned by the Abus," Maj. Bridgers said of the Abu Sayyaf. "When the Americans first showed up, people made slashing gestures [at us]. Now they wave and are happy to see us. Children are back in school and people travel the highway once known as the highway of death."
U.S. soldiers are still on the front line in the war on terrorism there. Abu Sayyaf-linked terrorists killed Army Sgt. Mark Wayne Jackson during a bombing at an open-air market near a Special Forces base in Zamboanga.

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