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A War Grows

A widening war against terrorism brings together the military interests of the U.S. and Philippines


By Deidre Sheehan and David Plott/MANILA

Issue cover-dated October 11, 2001


ON THE NIGHT of September 25, Adm. Thomas Fargo boarded the Philippine presidential yacht in Subic Bay, a former United States naval base north of Manila. The admiral, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, met Philippine National Security Adviser Roilo Golez and the two men discussed the campaign against Osama bin Laden.

Fargo didn't stay long, leaving the next day for Jakarta. But the significance of his visit was missed by few. Relations between the U.S. military and Manila have been cool since 1992, when Congress voted to kick America's armed forces out of a country where it had bases for almost 100 years. But ties are warming fast, as the interests of both countries begin to dovetail under the banner of a war against terrorism.

The Philippines gave unqualified backing to the U.S. campaign against bin Laden, which, in turn, has shone a spotlight on the Philippines' own Islamic extremist group, the Abu Sayyaf. The Filipino rebels, who had links with bin Laden in the past, have badly damaged the country's reputation and investment prospects by kidnapping tourists for ransom. Now Philippine officials are eager to seize this golden opportunity to press for U.S. help in stamping out the group.

But they don't want to appear too eager. A request for U.S. military aid was discussed when the Philippine National Security Council met a week after the September 11 attacks, according to Rep. Gerry Salapuddin, who attended the meeting. The biggest issue wasn't whether military aid should be sought, but how to go about it, said Salapuddin, a Muslim congressman from Basilan, the home province of the Abu Sayyaf. In the end, the council decided against making a direct demand for aid in exchange for support, because it might appear the Philippines was capitalizing on the war against terrorism to solve a festering domestic problem. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and former President Fidel Ramos spoke out most forcefully at the meeting against making a direct appeal for support, Salapuddin said.

President Arroyo told the REVIEW that there won't be a "shopping list" presented to Washington as a quid pro quo for Philippine support. Instead, she said, any request would come about in the course of the two countries "working together" to battle terrorism.

It's unlikely at this stage that the Philippines would ask for American troops to land on the jungle-covered island of Basilan and hunt down the Abu Sayyaf--currently hiding along with some 18 hostages, including a U.S. couple seized in May. A U.S. troop presence on Filipino soil would probably be vociferously protested by many nationalist and leftist groups.

But the armed forces would like helicopters, cargo planes, sophisticated communications equipment, fast frigates and corvettes from the U.S. The Abu Sayyaf is reported to have earned more than $15 million in ransom from hostages it seized in April last year from a Malaysian diving resort and spent much of it on firearms and powerful speedboats. The U.S. doesn't currently give the armed forces direct military aid, but it does sell them some second-hand equipment. "All we need is the equipment. We have the warm bodies, but we aren't equipped," says Brig.-Gen. Edilberto Adan, the armed forces spokesman. "Mobility is the most important thing."


Although there are no signs as yet that the United States is prepared to expand its military action beyond the immediate targets of bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the Philippine request for equipment may fall on friendly ears. The Abu Sayyaf is on a list of groups that the U.S. has identified as being linked to bin Laden. And the Philippines is seen as a potential haven for terrorists because of the country's somewhat tenuous grip on law and order.

"The Philippines is probably a choice for terrorists establishing a support cell," says Alfredo Filler, a former military intelligence chief now with the security-consulting firm Independent Insights. "We have a Muslim insurgency, we have a communist insurgency, we are strategically located, and we are an open society."

But the Pentagon may think twice about turning over matériel with no strings attached to a military that has been battling the Abu Sayyaf without success since 1995. Even the military concedes it made a serious "chain of command errors" that led to the embarrassing escape in June of the Abu Sayyaf from a hospital surrounded by troops. Not a shot was fired, leading to an inconclusive congressional inquiry into allegations that army officers looked the other way in exchange for a share of the ransom. No wonder that 10 years after kicking the U.S. bases out, Filipinos are starting to feel a little warmer toward help from the U.S. military.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 08, 2001


I have friends who don't even realize how far flung the Muslim world is. They had no idea that the Philippines are full of Muslims.

-- Chance (, October 08, 2001.

I have a friend who is a missionary to the Phillipines. The area where she works, on Mindanao, has experienced quite a bit of trouble from the Muslim guerillas in the last few years, though thankfully she's been safe. But she knows people, and has people in her church, who have lost family members to the guerillas.

-- Kathleen Sanderson (, October 08, 2001.

US military to crack down on Philippine rebels

ANILA: The United States will send military officers to the Philippines this month to help crack down on Muslim guerrillas linked to Osama Bin Laden, Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes said on Friday.

The self-styled Abu Sayyaf rebels, who Washington has said are linked to Bin Laden's Al- Qaeda network, executed an American tourist they kidnapped in May and are holding a US couple seized in the same raid on a southern tourist resort.

The US team of 15 or 16 officials, including military officers, would be in the Philippines by the end of the month, Reyes told foreign correspondents.

They would provide advice on combating the Abu Sayyaf and the two sides would also discuss coordination and cooperation in the global fight against terrorism.

"This (team) would contain people that could cooperate, coordinate with us on the military side of it, on how to handle the legal activity, perhaps, the financial aspect...the information sharing," Reyes said.

The predominantly Catholic Philippines was a US colony and the two countries have enjoyed close relations for decades.

The U.S. team was expected to visit Basilan, a remote Philippine island 900 km south of Manila, where the Abu Sayyaf have been holding American and Filipino hostages for months.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila said on Friday remains found on a southern Philippine island last week were those of a Californian tourist killed by the rebels in June.

A Filipino hostage who escaped from the guerrillas said two other Americans, missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham, kidnapped along with Guillermo Sobero, were still alive.

"The United States has two remaining hostages in the Philippines and they are naturally concerned about terrorism in the Philippines and the safe recovery of the Americans," Reyes said.


Reyes said the Philippines had not asked for additional military equipment from the United States and did not see any need for U.S. troops to join the battle against the Abu Sayyaf.

"We don't see that happening...the Armed Forces of the Philippines can handle the situation ourselves," he said.

Reyes said he did not think protests by Muslims, about five percent of the country's population, against the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan would turn violent as most Muslims were moderates.

Several hundred Muslims held a protest outside a mosque in Manila after weekly prayers on Friday, but the crowd melted away when it began to rain. Protest organisers cancelled plans to march on the U.S. embassy because of the weather.

Reyes said he did not anticipate Manila being targeted by international terrorists, but said the Abu Sayyaf were capable of launching attacks on the capital. But the government would consider such attacks as isolated and not linked to Bin Laden.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in a statement also denied the Philippines as being a "major operational hub" of international terrorists.

"We neutralised a major international terrorist cell in the mid- 1990s. Since the ASG (Abu Sayyaf group) emerged in the early 1990s, our security forces have been vigilant in blocking the formation of new cells and in preventing local Islamist groups from linking up with international terrorists," she said.

"While the Philippines is not at all a 'major operational hub' of international terrorists, our security forces -- even before the September 11 attacks on the U.S. -- have been vigilant in ensuring that no Al Qaeda cell is established in the country." ( REUTERS )

-- Martin Thompson (, October 12, 2001.

Abu Sayyaf behead two Filipino Christians

Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels, holding 14 American and Filipino hostages, beheaded two Christian farmers seized in the southern Philippine island of Basilan today, the provincial police chief said.

Abu Sayyaf members, who are fleeing from military pursuit, entered an isolated farming district in Lantawan town, seized four Christian coconut farmers and later beheaded two of them, Senior Superintendent Bensali Jabarani said.

The other two farmers escaped and informed the police, Jabarani said.

They had told the military of the guerrillas' last position and soldiers were now trying to cut the rebels off.

There was no mention of the two Americans and 12 Filipinos held by the Abu Sayyaf since May.

Military troops have been closing in on the Abu Sayyaf in Lantawan leading to the deaths of 21 guerrillas in recent clashes and the escape of four Filipino hostages in the past days.

Other Abu Sayyaf members however have staged bombings in the southern city of Zamboanga in an apparent attempt to divert the attention of the troops in hot pursuit.

In August, while being pursued by the military in Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf raided the town of Lamitan, seized 10 Christians and later beheaded them.

Earlier this year, they beheaded four Filipino hostages and one American hostage, Californian Guillermo Sobero, who they seized in their latest kidnapping spree that began in May.


-- Martin Thompson (, October 13, 2001.

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