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Terrorism Havens: Philippines

Author: Preeti Bhattacharji
Updated: June 1, 2009

Introduction

The southern Philippines have long been a breeding ground for terrorist activity. Militant organizations like the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) operate in the Sulu archipelago and easternmost island of Mindanao, where a rugged terrain, weak rule of law, sense of grievance among the country's Muslim minority, and poverty make it difficult for the government to root them out. In recent years, the Philippine government has made significant progress in combating terrorism, due in part to counterterrorism aid provided by the United States. But experts are concerned by what appears to be increasing cooperation among the Abu Sayyaf Group, several major MILF commands, and elements of the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah. Counterterrorism progress in the region remains difficult, and the Philippines remains vulnerable to penetration by extremist networks like al-Qaeda.

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Are the Philippines a haven for terrorism?

The U.S. State Department has considered the southern Philippines a "terrorist safe haven" since the classification was created in 2006. According to the State Department's 2008 report, the Philippine government has little control in the Sulu archipelago and the island of Mindanao. The government has also had trouble combating resentment among the local Muslim minority regarding policies of the central government. As a result, the Philippines is home to a number of militant groups, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Communist Party of the Philippines/New Peoples Army, Jemaah Islamiyah, the Alex Boncayao Brigade, the Pentagon Gang, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). These groups have conducted over one-hundred attacks within the Philippines since 2004, the largest of which was a ferry bombing that killed 130 people. The Philippine government has taken significant steps to combat terrorism, but terrorists continue to use the country as a base to organize, raise funds, train, and operate.

Which terrorist groups operate in the Philippines?

The State Department has identified the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Communist Party of the Philippines/New Peoples Army, and Jemaah Islamiyah as terrorist organizations that are active in the Philippines. The Alex Boncayao Brigade-which splintered from the Filipino communist movement-and the Pentagon Gang-which was created by former members of the MNLF-have also been on the U.S. Terrorist Exclusion List since 2001, though their influence appears to be waning. The Rajah Solaiman Movement, whose membership consists of Filipino Muslim converts, has also been cited by the U.S. State Department as an established insurgent group in the Southern Philippines.

According a 2007 report from the Congressional Research Service, two more militant groups are worthy of attention: the MILF and the MNLF. The State Department has not classified either as a terrorist organization, but both groups have agitated against the Philippine government for thirty years. In 1996, the MLNF signed a peace treaty with Manila, which granted limited autonomy to four Mindanao provinces. The MILF has become the stronger of the two groups, with an estimated armed strength of 10,000 and alleged ties to both Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf. There is currently a cease-fire between MILF and the Philippine government, and negotiations for a final settlement are ongoing in Malaysia. The United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan institution funded by the U.S. Congress, is also involved in negotiations between the Philippine government and MILF.

Does al-Qaeda operate in the Philippines?

U.S. and Filipino counterterrorism experts say al-Qaeda does operate in the Philippines, but its influence appears to be channeled through regional and local organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group. According to the CRS, al-Qaeda's presence in the Philippines has had the effect of professionalizing local groups and forging ties among them—and between them and al-Qaeda—so that they can better cooperate. In many cases, this cooperation has taken the form of ad hoc arrangements of convenience, such as helping procure weapons and explosives.

Jemaah Islamiyah, which is based in Indonesia and has operated in the Philippines, has had particularly strong ties to al-Qaeda. There is some overlap in membership between the two groups, and they have shared training camps in Mindanao. Al-Qaeda has allegedly provided Jemaah Islamiyah with financial support, and the two networks have jointly planned operations—including the September 11 attacks. Often, these operations took the form of al-Qaeda providing funding and technical expertise, while Jemaah Islamiyah procured local materials (such as bomb-making materials) and located operatives. In an article for the Australian Journal of International Affairs, Sidney Jones, an expert on South East Asian terrorism, says that cooperation between Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda peaked between 1997 and 2002. She notes, however, that Jemaah Islamiyah was never folded into the al-Qaeda network because "there were always parts of JI that objected to the bin Laden interpretation of jihad."

Abu Sayyaf has also had ties to al-Qaeda, though they appear more tenuous. Abu Sayyaf's first leader, Abdurajak Janjalani, fought in the international Islamist brigade in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi expatriate who is Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, reportedly provided key financing and support for Abu Sayyaf in its early years. Abu Sayyaf seems to have provided support to Ramzi Yousef, an al-Qaeda agent convicted of planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In 1994, Yousef rented an apartment in Manila where he made plans and explosives in an attempt to blow up eleven U.S. passenger jets simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean.

How does the Philippine government handle terrorist activity?

The Philippine government has taken steps to combat terrorism in recent years. In 2007, Philippine officials killed 127 alleged members of Abu Sayyaf and arrested an additional thirty-eight. The same year, Philippine courts sentenced fourteen members of Abu Sayyaf to life imprisonment for their role in the May 2001 Dos Palmas kidnapping of twenty people. The government also passed the Human Security Act (HSA) in 2007, which allows for the wiretapping of members of judicially designated terrorist organizations and the financial investigation of individuals connected to terrorist organizations. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has also issued digitized, machine-readable passports as part of its counterterrorism initiative.

But despite these efforts, terrorist activity in the Philippines persists because of limited financial resources, inadequate salaries, corruption, low morale, limited cooperation between police and prosecutors, and other problems in law enforcement, according to the CRS. Rugged terrain, weak rule of law, and poverty, coupled with local resentment among the Muslim minority, has also made it especially difficult for the Philippine government to combat terrorism in the southern and eastern islands.

The passage of the 2007 HSA prompted concern among human rights groups about the status of human rights in the Philippines. Human Rights Watch warned that the law contained overbroad and dangerous provisions that could allow authorities to hold detainees indefinitely and engage in spurious prosecutions. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedom also opposed the legislation, arguing it "undermines the rule of law" and "could have a negative impact on human rights in the country." The Philippine government insists that the HSA preserves civil liberties, though activists have catalogued rights violations that have allegedly occurred under HSA.

How did the Philippine government react to the September 11 attacks?

Philippine officials pledged to support the United States. The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, and during the Cold War Washington supported Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorial regime, which was strongly opposed to Communism. While post-independence ties often have been touchy, the two countries have a long-standing mutual defense treaty and close cultural ties. The Philippines continues to receive tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid annually, as well as substantial private investment. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called President Bush shortly after the September 11 attacks to pledge to "help in whatever way we can to strengthen the global effort to crush those responsible for this barbaric act." The Philippines also offered to share intelligence and open its airspace to U.S. aircraft. According to the State Department, Philippine officials have cooperated with the American Embassy by giving them access to terrorist detainees and witnesses for FBI interviews, and access to criminal, immigration, financial, and biographic records via the mechanisms established in the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.

What has the United States done to combat terrorism in the Philippines?

For almost one hundred years, the United States had access to two major bases in the Philippines: the Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Naval Base. But amidst souring U.S.-Philippine relations following the overthrow of the Marcos regime, the United States was forced to withdraw from the Clark Base in 1991 and the Subic Base in 1992.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Macapagal-Arroyo pledged to help the United States in its counterterrorism efforts and offered to give the United States access to its former military bases. Once it became clear that some of the September 11 planners had held meeting in the Philippines, the United States reestablished a military presence in the country under Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOPAC). Since then, U.S. forces have engaged in dozens of counterterrorism exercises with the Philippine military. In 2006 alone, the United States and the Philippines scheduled up to thirty-seven joint exercises, including as many as six thousand U.S. troops (AsiaTimes). Most notable is the annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) bilateral military exercises, which the State Department says "contribute directly to the Philippine armed forces' efforts to root out Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists."

Increased coordination between the United States and the Philippines on law enforcement has been an established priority since 9/11. According to the 2008 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism, special programs such as the Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA) have been used to increase Filipino law enforcement capabilities through equipment grants and training. Between 2006 and 2007, ATA assistance for the Philippines totaled $7.8 million. The U.S. Department of Justice/International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program has trained over four thousand police personnel, mainly in the south, on basic police operations and investigative techniques.

The United States has also increased the number of arms that it sells to the Philippines. According to the Center for Defense Information, U.S. arms sales to the Philippines were 63 percent higher in the five years after September 11 than during the five years prior to September 11.

The State and Defense departments also reward informants in the Philippines whose information leads to the capture or killing of suspected terrorists. In 2007, the United States paid more than $10 million for information leading to the arrest or killing of thirteen alleged members of Abu Sayyaf. U.S. prosecutors and FBI agents have also provided training to thirty-four representatives of the Philippine Anti-Terrorism Council. The United States has helped the Philippines establish interagency intelligence centers to support maritime interdictions against transnational criminal/terrorist organizations and a "Coast Watch" system in Mindanao.

While the United States has increased aid to the Philippines, reports indicate the United States may want to re-establish its own military base in the terrorist haven. Talk of this alleged desire was encouraged in February 2006, when a bomb exploded near a Philippine army base that was being used by U.S. troops. The United States continues to deny any plans to build a base in the Philippines, but it has reportedly funded a host of projects across Mindanao, including a deep-water port and a modern airport. According to Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based research institute, the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command awarded a $14.4 million contract to a Texas-based company for "operations support" for the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.