Philippines faces uphill battle to beat top terrorist group

The Abu Sayyaf is still a potent threat to security, analysts say, despite millions of dollars spent on anti-terrorist training.

MANILA // Despite millions of dollars spent on anti-terrorist training and the presence of US Special Forces, the Philippine military has made little impact on tackling the Abu Sayyaf, the country's most deadly terrorist group. For more than 20 years the Abu Sayyaf has been behind a string of high-profile kidnappings and bombings and, despite losing a number of leaders, there is no shortage of people to take their places, analysts say.

"The Abu Sayyaf is still a potent threat to the nation's internal security," Lt Gen Ben Dolorfino, the head of the armed forces' Western Mindanao Command, said recently. Gen Dolorfino said that by targeting the Abu Sayyaf's leadership this year the military can "effectively neutralise" the group. The military also said the number of members at the end of last year stood at 391 - down from the 1,500 or so during the 1990s.

Rommel Banlaoi, a terrorism expert, disputed the figures and questioned the military's impact. "The Abu Sayyaf is cash-rich following a series of very successful, high-profile kidnappings-for-ransom last year, and young out-of-work Muslims are queuing up to join," Mr Banloi, the head of the Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said. He said no one knew the actual number of members "because the group is fragmented and has no command structure".

Dan Cox, an associate professor at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, wrote in the latest issue of Terrorism Monitor: "Terrorist activities, including kidnappings for ransom and beheadings of captives for effect, have recently been conducted by the most notorious terrorist group in the Philippines - the Abu Sayyaf." He added that, despite claims by the Philippine government that the group has been dealt a crippling blow by the US-trained Philippine military, the Abu Sayyaf has resurfaced and is as deadly as ever.

Mr Cox, said that in 2009 the group managed to kill two US Special Forces soldiers with a roadside bomb. He wrote that the Abu Sayyaf was "operating at a very high level and that the group had reorganised at an alarming rate". So much so that the Malaysian government had stepped up border patrols in the waters separating the southern Philippines from the state of Sabah over which the Philippines still claims sovereignty.

The Malaysians fear that members of Abu Sayyaf are already in Sabah. Julkipli Wadi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of the Philippines who has closely followed Abu Sayyaf, said recently that a constitutional ban on foreign troops joining combat missions in the Philippines had tied the Americans' hands. "If the gauge of success is the elimination or neutralisation of the Abu Sayyaf, then it would appear that the cooperation has been a failure," Mr Wadi said.

The Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s and was initially funded by al Qa'eda to fight for an independent Muslim state in the south of this mainly Catholic country. Of its population of 90 million, less than five per cent are Muslim. Although it primarily operates on the islands of Basilan and Jolo, cells have launched successful bombing campaigns in Manila and towns in Muslim Mindanao. In 2001, US Special Forces advisers arrived in the south to "train and equip" the Philippine military in counterterrorism. It was part of the then US president George W Bush's "war on terror", and the jungles of Basilan and Jolo were seen as an important part of the south-east Asian theatre.

Initially the military scored successes, killing some leaders. But others quickly took their place. Clarita Carlos, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, said: "When the government says the Abu Sayyaf is under control, the question should be asked: who exactly are under control? There are so many different factions within all these groups and so many cross over from one group to another it is impossible to keep track of who is who. So when the government says the Abu Sayyaf's strength is 300 to 400 it is meaningless."

Mr Banlaoi agreed: "The Abu Sayyaf is not a united group with a command structure. Basically, it is a bandit group that makes money from kidnapping. Their members float between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front.(MNLF)" Mr Banlaoi claimed Abu Sayyaf was establishing networks in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei - mainly to launder money. "There is no shortage of recruits to the Abu Sayyaf as it has money. Although it is split into many factions led by different people, many of them are linked to the MILF or MNLF through blood or marriage," he said.

"What we are looking at today is a regenerated Abu Sayyaf but not a united group - Eighty per cent are bandits and 20 per cent driven by ideology. Those driven by ideology have studied in the Middle East, Pakistan or Afghanistan. "Whether criminals or fundamentalists, the Abu Sayyaf is still an enormous challenge to internal security."