Why the U.S. is Entering the Philippine Minefield

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Filipino soldiers in 2002 on patrol near where Abu Sayyaf might be hiding

Going after al Qaeda in the Philippines will be even more difficult than hunting the terrorists in Afghanistan. The 650 U.S. soldiers who have been deployed on the southern island of Basilian to help the Philippine armed forces rout the fighters of a radical Islamist group known as Abu Sayyaf are stepping onto sometimes treacherous turf. That much was made clear Wednesday in neighboring Jolo province, where three Marines of the Philippine army were killed in a firefight — by Philippine police. (The guilty policemen were former guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim secessionist group that had been granted autonomous control of four provinces under a 1996 peace agreement.) The incident followed a clash Tuesday in which 18 people were killed during a rally in support of former governor Nur Misauri, recently jailed for launching an ill-fated rebellion in the area last November.

Of course none of this has any direct bearing on U.S. military support for government efforts to stamp out the Abu Sayyaf. But this week's clashes in Jolo are a reminder of the political complexity that prevails in Abu Sayyaf's stomping ground, in which there are a bewildering array of players in shifting alliances.

Abu Sayyaf itself is a tiny radical offshoot of a larger secessionist guerrilla movement. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) launched its insurgency in the 1970s, pressing for independence for the Muslim population of the southern regions of Mindanao and Palwan, who make up some 5 percent of the population of the predominantly Catholic Philippines. It is not the separatist insurgency that has put the Philippines on the U.S. anti-terrorism radar, but rather the links between Abu Sayyaf and Osama bin Laden's organization.

Afghanistan link

Abu Sayyaf was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Janjalani, who returned to his native Basilian after a spell in Afghanistan, where he'd gone to join the anti-Soviet jihad. Janjalani's militant group was funded by front organizations linked with al Qaeda, and had hosted 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef during his stay in the Philippines. Yousef, who had trained with Janjalani in a camp at Khost, hoped to use Abu Sayyaf operatives to attack U.S. airliners in the Philippines. The Filipino organization's longstanding affection for the Pakistani terrorist is reflected in the fact that they typically demand Yousef's release from prison in the U.S. as one of their conditions for freeing Western hostages. After Janjalani was killed in a clash with the Philippine army in 1998, Abu Sayyaf is believed to have split into three rival factions and there is some doubt as to whether the al Qaeda link has been maintained. Indeed, today not only the Philippine government but also the rival MNLF and MILF regard Abu Sayyaf as nothing more than a criminal gang whose primary activity is accumulating funds through taking hostages.

Still, its estimated hard core of 400 fighters is heavily armed, and dangerous. And besides their historic links with al Qaeda, they continue to pose a terrorist threat to U.S. citizens — the organization currently holds hostage the Wichita, Kansas couple Martin and Gracia Burnham, and last year kidnapped and beheaded Californian Guillermo Sobero. Sending U.S. troops to help wipe out Abu Sayyaf may be part of a strategy to eliminate havens of lawlessness in which al Qaeda may attempt to regroup. It's a project enthusiastically supported by the Philippine government, which has made heavy weather of its own efforts to destroy the group, and even fellow Muslim secessionists will weep few tears over the passing of Abu Sayyaf.

But the wider political context in the southern Philippines may pose problems. The MNLF, of course, is today the ruling party in Basilian, and five other regions that have joined the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao since the peace agreement of 1996. This week's firefight between police and soldiers appears related to a faction fight between rival factions of the MNLF — the imprisoned Misauri had launched his rebellion only after being voted out of office by his own party, and his support-base remains limited.

Unease over Americans

The rival MILF, which has remained outside of the 1996 peace deal, has nonetheless been in negotiations with the government since declaring a cease-fire last August. Although more Islamist in orientation than the MNLF, the MILF publicly rejected Bin Laden's calls for global jihad last October, emphasizing that its primary concern was to bring peace to the southern Philippines. So the tiny Abu Sayyaf is essentially alone, and could potentially be finished off even within the six months allocated for the initial joint exercise between U.S. and Philippine military personnel on Basilian.

The presence of U.S. personnel in the Philippines is not uncomplicated, however. The withdrawal of the U.S. from its longtime naval base at Subic Bay and Clark Airfield in 1991 came after decades of Filipino nationalist pressure, and inviting American troops back in remains a sensitive decision for President Gloria Arroyo. Her insistence that U.S. forces will be limited to advisory and support roles may reflect a concern that her political rivals may try to exploit nationalist sentiments against her over a renewed American presence. The Maoist New People's Army whose four-decade insurgency in the central Philippines continues has also vowed to keep the U.S. out, and there is some concern that the American presence may even prompt the MILF to end its cease-fire, or be exploited in inter-factional conflict on the southern islands.

Still, Arroyo may be hoping that U.S. assistance will ensure a quick and popular victory over Abu Sayyaf, shoring up her domestic and international standing. It would certainly help her render her country once again safe for American tourists — but decidedly uncomfortable for al Qaeda fugitives.