- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2010

On Feb. 21, under cover of darkness, a 30-man Philippines marine special operations platoon crawled into a jungle encampment of Abu Sayyaf terrorists. After an ensuing hourlong firefight, six Abu Sayyaf gunmen, including the group’s brashest young leader Albader Parad lay dead. One marine was killed and three others wounded.

During the following two weeks, on the orders of Philippine Western Mindanao commander Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino, the pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf Group has intensified. This has led to the capture or killing of other terrorists and the release of civilian hostages in remote hideouts.

The recent captures and killings of feared Abu Sayyaf Group leaders in the southernmost Philippine islands, such as Sulu and Basilan, are part of the military’s success at using community engagement by local military units. Local intelligence tip-offs by community residents and the rejection of the ASG’s terror tactics by the vast majority of Muslim Filipinos have been the key to success.

In recent years, the U.S. military employed a civil-affairs-style approach to counterterrorism, especially the successful counterinsurgency strategy used by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander in Iraq and later U.S. Central Command leader, and being adapted in the current surge in Afghanistan. Even before U.S. forces used local engagement programs, allied militaries such as those in the Philippines were using similar techniques such as engaging with local communities.

Despite battlefield and law enforcement victories of the U.S. military-backed counterterrorism campaign in Mindanao, which has led to the elimination of a number of Abu Sayyaf “commanders,” military operations have failed to eradicate the organization. The loose-knit Abu Sayyaf and other groups designated as “lawless elements” by Philippine officials have shown themselves capable of inflicting damage on both military and civilian targets even after high-profile group leaders were neutralized.

Terrorists in the most impoverished provinces are motivated by kidnapping and banditry rather than religious ideology. Recent kidnapping victims in Sulu and Basilan identified Abu Sayyaf members as young as 13 years old. Not surprisingly, the school dropout rate in these provinces is the highest in the country.

Many high-ranking Philippine military officials have spent most of their professional life in Mindanao fighting either communist or Muslim insurgents. Philippine Marine Corps Commandant Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban believes that poverty and corruption must be replaced by opportunity for economic advancement and rule of law in order for sustained eradication of terrorist groups.

“The campaign against terror is ongoing and cannot be resolved only by military action,” Gen. Sabban said. “Lawless groups like ASG are fragmented without central leadership. Rather than advocating for an Islamic state, they are seeking money.”

The Abu Sayyaf Group was originally created in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1990s among Filipino mujahedeen, or holy warriors, who had fought against the Soviet Union. Estimates put the number of members at around 300.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center, Abu Sayyaf is the most violent of the Islamic separatist groups operating in the southern Philippines. Their original members claimed to want an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.

“The ASG has used terror both for financial profit and to promote its jihadist agenda,” the center said.

Returning to the Philippines, the group became notorious for its cold-hearted violence, especially toward Christians. A series of kidnappings and grisly beheadings of prisoners reached an apex in 2001 with the kidnapping of an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham.

Their plight led to the U.S. advisory operation on Basilan code-named Balikatan. A rescue operation by Filipino troops led to a chaotic firefight in heavy monsoon rains where Mrs. Burnham was freed while her husband perished in the crossfire.

Abu Sayyaf is blamed for orchestrating some of the worst terror attacks in the Philippines. These included the bombing of a passenger ferry boat in Manila Bay in 2004 that killed more than 100 people. On March 2, in Manila, some 800 miles north of Basilan, police captured three Abu Sayyaf terrorists already wanted for arson and robbery during deadly urban bombing attacks in Mindanao. In their Manila safe house, police found grenades, detonating cords and blasting caps.

Gen. Dolorfino, a former commandant, is now the joint commander of all military forces in Western Mindanao. As a Muslim, Gen. Dolorfino is sensitive to the well-being of the civilian community. He has been a strong proponent of civil affairs community improvements, even while he has called for an “upsurge in the operational tempo” against ASG leadership and driving out any foreign terrorist elements hiding in Mindanao.

The approach produced some positive results, such as the capture of high-profile Abu Sayyaf member Mujibar Alih Amon on the island of Jolo, based on information willingly provided by villagers. For years, Amon was on the Philippines’ most-wanted list for cross-border kidnappings. Last year he was accused of involvement in the kidnapping of three International Committee of the Red Cross workers in Jolo, who were eventually released.

One advantage for security forces in the war against Abu Sayyaf is the tradition of fierce loyalty among tribes. While some of Abu Sayyaf members’ relatives and neighbors join them in firefights and battles against the military and local police, the majority of the religious leaders tend to be moderate and abhor the extremists’ criminal mentality and horrific violence.

Philippine marines have been supporting local education programs since 2002 and have worked with senior Muslim religious and community leaders in the south. The elders in the local community were concerned that without effective schools their boys would be prompted to join radical Islamic groups abroad.

The local ulema (council of Muslim scholars), which includes women, emphasized that those boys would come back, as one elder put it, “no longer like us” and would bring “more war and suffering to our people.”

As part of an integrated campaign to end terrorism’s foothold in southern Mindanao, Philippines’ marines and army are working with nongovernmental organizations to support education and medical support programs. The U.S. military also has provided construction assistance to expand road-building, well-digging and construction of local schools.

Gen. Sabban, who has also been a field commander in Basilan and Sulu, said in an interview that “education and opportunities for development are the keys to a lasting solution to end the terrorism problem.”

“We must remain committed to an ongoing multifaceted approach,” he said.

c Al Santoli, a former congressional staff member, is currently president of Asia America Initiative, a humanitarian organization. He has worked extensively in southern Philippines.

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