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Asia Times: Philippines the second front in war on terror?

  October 27, 2001  

Southeast Asia

Philippines the second front in war on terror?
By Marc Erikson

Walking through Zamboanga Hermosa, beautiful Zamboanga City at the southwestern tip of Mindanao, it is difficult to imagine that it should become the staging ground for the second active international military front in the war on terrorism. Jambangan, place of flowers, as Zamboanga was called before the Spaniards arrived, seems more like a piece of tropical paradise. And if you speak some Spanish, you'll be happily surprised at the ease of communication: Chavacano, the local dialect, is a mixture of 70 percent Spanish, 30 percent Malay.

But a mere two-hour ferry ride to the south is the island of Basilan where major contingents of the 1,000 or so members of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group are hiding out, holding hostages - including two American missionaries - and fighting bloody skirmishes with the Philippine military. Now some two dozen US military counter-terrorism specialists from the Pacific Command in Hawaii have arrived under tight security in Zamboanga City, headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Southern Command, to be deployed to Basilan. "They're there to assess how we might be able to help the [Philippine] military in combatting terrorism," said Lt Cmdr Jeff Davis at the Pentagon.

The Abu Sayyaf, which claims to be fighting for a separate Muslim state governed by Sharia law in the southern Philippines, is led by Abu Sabaya and Khadaffy Janjalani, whose fundamentalist Islamic preacher brother Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani founded the group in 1991 and is said to have fought alongside Osama bin Laden against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was killed in a 1998 clash with police. But since then the ASG (as the group is referred to in the Philippines with its fondness for abbreviations) has made major strides, gaining international notoriety with spectacular kidnappings and the beheadings of hostages.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has described the ASG as "a money-crazed gang of criminals" without any ideology. But as so often when GMA shoots her mouth off macho-style, that characterization is dangerously wrong and the American AFP Southcom advisers had better think twice before proceeding on the basis that they are merely pursuing a money-hungry kidnap gang.

According to Philippine and US authorities, the ASG was founded with start-up money from Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifah, a Saudi Arabian businessman who lived in the Philippines from 1987 to 1994. The funding conduit then and later is believed to be the Saudi-based International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which also built schools, mosques and hospitals in the Philippines and at one time had offices in Marawi City and Cotabato City in central Mindanao. The IIRO was registered with the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission on September 20, 1998. Authorities suspect that under the guise of scholarship programs it has been involved in sending Muslim Filipino rebels to bin Laden's terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Marine Col Frank Gudani, deputy commander of the AFP Southcom, said shortly after the September 11 attacks on the US that ASG founder Abdurajak Janjalani himself had confirmed that several of his fighters had trained abroad with bin Laden's financial support and that "They [the Abu Sayyaf] think of themselves as being under the umbrella of bin Laden."

Those are by no means far-fetched propositions and put a very different light on the ASG than President GMA's macho babble. The precise extent to which bin Laden's Al-Qaeda excercises influence and control over the ASG, or to which ASG members share bin Laden's beliefs and goals, is not known and perhaps never will be. But from the standpoint of running sophisticated international terror operations, exercise of direct control is in fact neither necessary nor desirable. Better to fund such outfits as the ASG at arm's length, provide them with some ideological snippets, and then turn them loose and let them go about their dirty business on their own. That the ASG has already inflicted massive damage on the Philippine economy by creating a climate of unacceptable political risk can hardly be doubted. That it has developed a network in the Philippines (not only in Mindanao and islands in the Sulu Sea) of which Al-Qaeda operatives can at any point avail themselves is equally significant.

ASG funder Khalifah was arrested in the US in December 1994 and in May 1995 was deported to Jordan where he faced the death penalty in a bomb plot conviction - only to be acquitted soon thereafter and allowed to return to Saudi Arabia. After September 11, according to the New York Times, he was arrested by Saudi authorities and questioned over Al-Qaeda links. His fate and whereabouts since then are unknown.

But he is also suspected by US authorities to have helped establish and fund the Islamic Army of Aden in Yemen, the group that claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the US Navy destroyer Cole. Khalifah thus has the profile of a sophisticated operative who travels to and sets up terrorist cells and organizations, nurtures them along for a while, then turns them loose and moves on - for plausibe deniability.

In response to reports of the arrival of US military specialists in Zamboanga, ASG chief Abu Sabaya told a Philippine radio station that he welcomed the development. "We have long wanted to fight the US ... We are not afraid," he said. As they are getting into the thick of it on Basilan, US officers may want to recall some history lessons they may have learnt at military school. Zamboanga City (whose central square is called Plaza Pershing) is where Gen John J "Blackjack" Pershing was stationed for a while after the US took control of the Philippines in 1898/99 and where he made his headquarters from 1909 until World War I as military governor of Moro Province. He made these comments on the Muslim Moro warriors he was fighting in Mindanao and the Sulu Sea islands in the protracted Moro Wars of the period:

"He [the Moro warrior] is absolutely fearless, and once committed to combat he counts death as a mere incident. The nature of the Moro is such that he is not at all overawed or impressed by an overwhelming force. If he takes a notion to fight, it is regardless of the number of men he thinks are to be brought against him. You cannot bluff him ..."

Another American commentary on what the US military was up against at the time reads: "A Moro who has worked himself up to religious fanaticism goes forth to kill all unbelievers in Mohammadanism until he himself is killed. It took some killing. Capt Wood watched as a Moro rushed out of the tall grass ... and made a beeline for one of our flankers. The man emptied his rifle into the Moro, but he came bounding on and did not stop ... That was why the War Department recalled its .38 caliber Colt and Smith and Wesson revolvers from the Philippines and substituted the heavier Colt .45 [for its superior stopping power]."

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