The Philippines: One Area of Progress in Terror War

Paul Wiseman’s story in USA Today Feb. 14 is heartening. The Philippines, with U.S. help, is making progress against its homegrown Islamists:

CAMP BAUTISTA, Philippines — Thousands of miles from the bazaars of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, U.S. military forces are quietly helping defeat terrorists in the jungles of the southern Philippines, a forgotten front in the global war on terrorism.

Working behind the scenes with a rejuvenated Philippine military, U.S. special forces have helped kill, capture or rout hundreds of Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who have links to the Islamic terror groups Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda, Philippine and U.S. military commanders say.

In a Feb. 5 piece for World Politics Review, Richard Weitz highlighted one recent success in the Philippines — the death of Abu Sulaiman — and also reported the good news there:

Thanks in part to U.S.-supplied training, intelligence, and money (the U.S. government had offered up to $5 million for Sulaiman’s capture or killing), some 7,000 Philippine troops have succeeded in applying intense pressure on the ASG in recent years, especially under the “OPLAN Ultimatum” campaign that began in August 2006. Besides Sulaiman’s killing, the offensive resulted in the death of then ASG leader Khaddafy Janjalani in a clash with Philippines Special Forces in September 2006. Signal intelligence has led the Philippines military to conclude that ASG explosives expert Dulmatin, suspected of organizing the October 2002 Bali bombings, might also have been wounded in a recent firefight.

These successes have led American and Philippine officials to express optimism about their ability to suppress the ASG. Experts estimate the number of people active in the group has already declined to some 350 fighters, down from nearly 1,000 combatants in 2000. Although completely eradicating the ASG may take years due to the organization’s deep entrenchment within the jungles of the Sulu Archipelago, the constant military pressure and the elimination of key ASG leaders will hinder the group’s ability to recruit and operate outside its base on the islands off the coast of Mindanao. Forcing its geographic concentration will in turn facilitate operations against the group.

For an in-depth look at how U.S. intelligence and military forces assist the Philippine armed forces, and a vivid sense of the geography of the southern Philippines, get your hands on the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly (or, if you’re a subscriber, see here) and read Mark Bowden’s account of the hunt for Aldam Tilao, aka “Abu Sabaya.” As one our colleagues here at WPR would say, Bowden’s piece is “a hell of a yarn.” Here’s a taste:

Aldam Tilao would in fact be hunted down and cornered, in a Philippine military operation that involved the CIA and the American military. Eliminating him was a small, early success in what the Bush administration calls the “global war on terror”; but in the shadow of efforts like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it went largely unnoticed. As a model for the long-term fight against militant Islam, however, the hunt for Tilao is better than either of those larger engagements. Because the enemy consists of small cells operating independently all over the globe, success depends on local intelligence and American assistance subtle enough to avoid charges of imperialism or meddling, charges that often provoke a backlash and feed the movement.

The United States would play a crucial but almost invisible role in finding and killing Tilao, enlisting the remarkable skills of the Philippine marine corps for the most important ground work, and supplying money, equipment, and just enough quiet technological help to close in for the last act. Such an approach does present problems; the Philippine operation exposed some of the legal, logistical, and moral challenges of this kind of work. For one thing, the Americans worked hand in hand with Philippine forces who almost certainly murdered people standing in the way of their intelligence operation.

One thing that’s clear from Bowden’s piece is that U.S. money and technology is a huge help, but in the end there’s no substitute for local, human intelligence. It helps greatly in this respect that in the Philippines the United States has a viable state to work with, which isn’t the case in Afghanistan or Iraq. Invading and building states, of course, presents its own set of “legal, logistical, and moral challenges.”