Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Abu Sayyaf COIN Challenge in the Philippines

In class yesterday we discussed the regional combatant commands, and I couldn’t help but look at the Pacific Command (USPACOM) and think of the vast range of security issues that Combatant Commander Admiral Willard must face. He’s got to deal with North and South Korean hostilities including the recently sunk naval vessel Cheonan, the Japanese wanting to kick us off our base on Okinawa, and anything and everything pertaining to China. Another issue that frequently receives lesser billing is the presence of the Abu Sayyaf Islamic fundamentalist group in the Philippines.

Since 2001, the U.S. has lumped the Philippines (along with two other smaller scale operations) in with Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, or the greater “war on terror.” The U.S. State Department considers Abu Sayyaf to be a terrorist organization with links to Al-Qaeda. By July 2002, the Special Operations Command Pacific began deploying U.S. military units to the Philippines to assist in training the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which coincided with a various humanitarian assistance projects. The Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Philippines (JSOTF-P) supports the AFP in combating Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and other radical Muslim terrorist groups. Approximately 600 U.S. military personnel assist in this training and capacity-building operation from all four U.S. military services and include Army Special Operations Forces, Navy Seals, and Air Force special operators.

An April 13th attack in Isabela City on the island province of Basilan killed at least 9 victims and wounded another 9 (3 militants were also killed and several captured). Militants disguised themselves as policemen and soldiers for a coordinated attack that involved at least 3 bomb blasts. When Filipino police and military forces engaged the militants, gun battles filled the streets and Abu Sayyaf snipers killed 3 marines. It appeared the attackers means to take hostages and carry out a larger “Mumbai-style” attack.

Despite the U.S. military’s involvement for almost a decade, Abu Sayyaf continues to terrorize the southern Philippines in its attempt to push for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf rebels have been involved in bombings, beheadings, and kidnappings of both Filipinos and foreigners/Christians. Attacks have picked up in recent weeks, ahead of national elections to be held on May 10th. Another attack in February left 11 dead, while the group has also been blamed for a 2004 ferry bombing that killed 130, the worst terrorist attack in the Philippines’ history.

The U.S. continues to provide training, weaponry, and intelligence to the Philippines to crack down on Abu Sayyaf, but these recent attacks imply that much is left to be done. While the U.S. estimates the group now is comprised of less than 400 militants (from a high of 1,200 in 2002), our experience with Al-Qaeda in Afghan demonstrates a force only couple hundred strong can seriously destabilize a region. Further, like Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf has been able to gain support from other militant groups and even the local Muslim community.

Though it seems unlikely that Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines poses the same degree of threat to American interests that Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan posed in 2001, at this point the U.S. seems poised to maintain its deployment in the Philippines. While some have argued these highly-trained American units should be assigned to Iraq or Afghanistan, lessons from these two campaigns point to the need to maintain counterinsurgency forces lest militants reorganize and retool. The Filipino armed forces seem just as needy as those in Afghanistan for American logistical support to capture and kill militant leadership. Furthermore, an extended counterinsurgency operation allows the U.S. to complete infrastructure projects and extend development assistance. Despite the recent series of attacks, it appears the U.S. military operation in the Philippines has been in keeping with counterinsurgency principles and has led to some degree of success.

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