US takes war on terrorism to Philippines
Troops begin mission to 'train' Filipinos to wipe out guerrillas
John Aglionby on Basilan
Friday February 1, 2002
The corporal at the front of the patrol held up a clenched fist. In a well-rehearsed move the two dozen heavily-armed elite Scout Rangers dropped to a crouch and quickly disappeared behind the forest foliage.
For a minute, the only sounds were leaves rustling on the branches and a lone buffalo hollering in the distance. Then, deciding there were no enemy fighters nearby after all, the commander of the Philippine army unit, Lieutenant Ramon Gurat, ordered his men to advance again.
"The jungle is so thick you could be two metres from the enemy and not know he is there," he said. "They can just fade away into the trees and come at you from the rear. There is no front line."
Yesterday Basilan, a hot, humid, jungle-covered island in the southern Philippines, became the latest focus of the US war on terrorism with the launch of a six-month mission in which American soldiers will train Filipinos in their fight against Islamic extremism. The exercise, which will eventually involve 650 US personnel, including 150 special forces, amounts to Washington's first major military operation outside Afghanistan since September 11.
The enemy is a rag-tag band of no more than 100 guerrillas. They claim to be fighting for a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines, but indulge in little besides kidnapping people for ransom. They are called the Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword), have close links with al-Qaida, Washington says, and are holding three hostages - an American missionary couple seized last May and a nurse.
Officially, none of the US soldiers will be going into combat, merely advising and training the Philippine military on how to defeat the Abu Sayyaf. But the exercises are using the rebels as the real-life enemy and the US special forces will be attached to genuine frontline units.
Washington's acting ambassador, Robert Fitts, summed up the US involvement at yesterday's simple ceremony attended by about 150 Philippine and American personnel to mark the start of the exercise, named Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder).
"We are here to help eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten Filipinos as well as the United States," he said. "For those of you that would wish the Filipino ill and would terrorise the people, I can assure you that this exercise would develop the skills and maintain the determination of the armed forces of the Philippines to eliminate you."
Despite its "training" label, the US mission is fraught with potential dangers. Basilan is a land where local clan warlords hold sway over small fiefdoms, thanks to heavily armed gangs. "There are so many guns it is often impossible to tell who is a member of what group," said Rosco Kalif, an Islamic preacher in the village of Puntocan, in the foothills of Mount Basilan. "It will be hard for the Americans to know who is the enemy and who is someone just carrying a gun."
Washington is providing 30,000 M-16 rifles, night-vision equipment, eight helicopters, a coastal patrol boat and $100m.
"That is why the Americans are here," said Major General Glicero Sua, commander of the 6,000 troops hunting the Abu Sayyaf. "We need their skills, their technology and their expertise."
It is the alleged al-Qaida link that is sucking Washington into the region, many analysts believe. "The current administration is a one-trick pony and knows only one way to go about tackling a problem," said an American businessman who asked not to be named.
Officials believe that Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, recruited the Filipino Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani to form the Abu Sayyaf after the latter fought against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Mr Khalifa lived in the Philippines from 1986 to 1994, working for the International Islamic Relief Organisation. But the link between al-Qaida and the Abu Sayyaf has never been proven.
Some analysts believe there may have been a financial link, but a Philippine military intelligence agent based on Basilan is convinced that the connection is stronger. He claims that in the late 1990s, up to 30 foreigners from Pakistan and the Middle East lived and preached an extreme form of Islam among Basilan's 300,000 residents. "They were saying it was a Muslim's duty to kill at least one Christian," he said, referring to notes taken at meetings dating back to 1995. "They were giving out money as well."
The agent, who works most of the time in an everyday job in the local community, also said he had evidence that two Abu Sayyaf sleeper agents left Basilan last October and at least one went to Pakistan. "We believe he went there to discuss future plans," he said.
Formed in 1988, the Abu Sayyaf shot to prominence almost three years ago when it abducted more than a dozen foreigners from a Malaysian diving resort. It made more than £10m in ransom money and as a result saw its membership soar to several thousand fighters. But in the last year, as the Philippine military has steadily intensified its campaign, support has floundered. In addition to the 100-odd fighters, military intelligence puts the number of sympathisers at about 500.
The group's leaders are under intense pressure, according to Rey Bayoging of Radio Mindanao in the nearby city of Zamboanga , which the rebels use to communicate with the outside world. "They used to call us often, but now we hear from them less and less," he said.
In the group's last message, sent about 10 days ago, the rebel leader, Abu Sabaya, branded the Americans as "the real bandits". "We are only exercising our God-given rights to protect ourselves," he said. "God willing, you will be the losers and the struggle won't run out of volunteers."
Many people believe elements of the Philippine military are cooperating with the Abu Sayyaf. Cirilo Nacorda, a priest in Lamitan, Basilan, who was kidnapped for two months by the group in 1994, is convinced that collusion is rampant.
He described how the Abu Sayyaf invaded his church-and-hospital compound last June. "The military had them surrounded for 18 hours and then they suddenly withdrew one company, leaving the way clear for Abu Sayyaf to escape."
The military denies any collusion. Gen Sua says their failure to defeat the group is because of the inhospitable terrain, the rebels' superior knowledge of the island and the authorities' desire to free the hostages rather than just crush the Abu Sayyaf. "We could just deliver bombs and fire on them", he said, "but we're giving premium to the safety of the hostages."
The island's governor, Wahab Akbar, a former guerrilla with the Moro National Liberation Front, believes that the military should withdraw. "We will deal with it in our own way," he said. "If necessary we will get their [Abu Sayyaf's] families and they will suffer the same problem."
Mr Akbar says the trouble on Basilan, with kidnappings and gun battles a way of life, is "70% poverty, 20% history, 5% the economy and 5% the rest". Community leaders agree. The government is making some political progress, but few people on Basilan believe that the US presence will help the search for a permanent peace.
"I'm glad the Americans are here, but I think it is still going to be a long struggle," said Lillian Lan, a shopkeeper in the island's main town, Isabela. "I think the fighting will last for at least another year."
· Gunmen yesterday shot dead an American tourist, named locally as Bryan Thomas Smith, climbing Mount Pinatubo. His German companion was injured. The Philippine army said it suspected guerrillas from the Communist New People's Army "making a statement of resistance to the presence of the US soldiers".
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002