- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

Al Qaeda’s March 11 attack in Spain was a tragic reminder that the dark shadow of Islamic terrorism still hangs over the world. It was also a reminder that every major al Qaeda attack has had a Philippine connection. Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law laundered terror money in Manila, the first World Trade Center bombing was plotted in Manila and the September 11 hijackers had visited and trained in the country. One of the groups claiming responsibility for the recent bloodshed in Madrid is the Moro Islamic Combat Group, a new guerrilla army from the southern Philippines that was unknown until recently. In many hot spots in Southeast Asia, radical Islam is still growing and attracting new recruits. The need for a tough response likewise increases in step.

In a private interview with The Washington Times on the Philippine island of Negros, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo mapped out the victories her government has won in the war on terror. At the top of the list is what she characterized as the decimation of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, the ranks of which have fallen from 2,000 armed warriors to approximately 100 during the past two years.

A major cause for the success is the support she has received from President Bush. There are currently 1,400 U.S. troops in the archipelago. Since Mrs. Arroyo became president in 2001, U.S. military aid has jumped from $1.2 million in a year to $80 million this year. In three-and-a-half years, she has negotiated more than $400 million in U.S. assistance, including provision of thousands of assault rifles, gunboats, helicopters and hi-tech combat equipment, such as night-vision goggles and live-time satellite-imagery analysis. To her credit, Mrs. Arroyo bravely announced immediately after the Madrid attack that the Philippines would not withdraw its troops from the U.S.-led operations in Iraq.

The strategic difficulty now is finding the right policy to build on the successes against the Abu Sayyaf. Since the foundation of the Islamic separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1969, more than 50,000 Filipinos have been killed or wounded in the rebellion in the southern islands. The region has been an international center for terrorist training, which has been funded predominantly from the Middle East. Eventually the MNLF signed a peace accord with the government, at which time the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) split off to keep up the fighting. Now the MILF is at the peace table. Over lunch at his Manila home, Philippine House Speaker Jose de Venecia told us that the tentative timeline for peace is 30 to 60 days, which would fall right before the May 10 presidential election.

Many in the Philippines are skeptical that dialogue can successfully pacify terrorists. Sen. Ping Lacson, a former chief of the Philippine National Police who is running against Mrs. Arroyo for the presidency, is pushing for relentless attacks to wipe out terror camps and force the separatists to surrender. The president maintained to us: “The conditions for lasting peace are there. The ceasefire (with the MILF) is holding and (economic) development is starting.” Internal polling at Malacanang Presidential Palace shows that Mr. Lacson has a slight edge over Mrs. Arroyo if the opposition unites behind one candidate. The May election will determine whether the future policy of the Philippine government will be to step up the fighting against or the negotiations with radical Islam.

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