COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (1): Overview

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1st of 10 parts

Starting today, Saturday, 20 May 2017, MindaNews begins a 10-part series on the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) to stimulate discussion on how this over two-decade threat could be effectively addressed.

The author, Vic M. Taylor, originally from Cebu, has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) in the different positions he has held in government and the private sector over the last 50 years.   

He started as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College after his graduation from the Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1960s.  Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President.

Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, Mr. Taylor assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG.

Recently, he has been working with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area.  

This series is a revised version of a paper written by the author for the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian security think tank, in light of the execution of two Canadian hostages by the Abu Sayyaf last year.

This 10-part series will discuss factors which the author believes should be considered in addressing the challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf.

Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group: Overview
Vic M. Taylor
1st of 10 parts

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has once again been in the news.  Despite the claims of the Government that it has only 300 to 400 men, despite the non-stop military operations against the Group which have been launched in Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and mainland Mindanao (Isnilon Hapilon was supposed to be in the Lanao del Sur area linking up with the Maute Group) since last year, with some 10,000 Philippine Army and Marines soldiers mobilized against them, augmented by Philippine Navy vessels and Philippine Air Force reconnaissance and attack aircraft, the ASG has still managed to pull off some surprises.

There was the April 10 incursion of some 10 or 11 ASG members into Bohol – some initial reports said there were 60 of them – the operations against which ended a little over a month later, on May 15, with the killing of the last two members who survived  earlier encounters with pursuing military and police forces.

At one point, it was reported that two suspected members had managed to escape to Olango Island in Cebu and a hunt was undertaken, but nothing has been heard of about this since then.

There were also some reports that some members were sighted in Negros Oriental, but this was quickly denied.

On April 23, it was reported that there was an attempt by a ranking official of the Philippine National Police (PNP) to rescue some of the stragglers of the ASG band who were trapped somewhere in Bohol.  The PNP official, her driver and two passengers in their vehicle were intercepted and arrested.

When news of the Bohol incursion broke out, reports from Malaysia were released, revealing that the ASG had also hatched up plans to undertake kidnappings in Sabah (see “Large scale kidnapping plans foiled” The Star Online, April, 18, 2017).  The planned kidnappings were supposed to take place at two resorts and some fish farms off Sabah, but were thwarted when Malaysian authorities were alerted by their intel sources.

Alerts were issued recently by the US and UK Embassies regarding “credible reports” they had received about planned kidnappings in the Palawan area.  The Bohol incursion was preceded by a similar advisory by the US Embassy.

Some success has been achieved by the Philippine authorities in their campaign against the ASG.  In Bohol, the apparent leader of the group, Muammar Askali aka Abu Rami, self-styled spokesman of the Group, was killed during an encounter with pursuing military and police forces.  A little more than two weeks later, another ranking ASG commander, Alhabsi Misaya, one of the most prolific kidnappers in recent years, was killed in Sulu in an encounter with the military.

While the threat in the Visayas appears to have been contained and while the ASG forces in Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and mainland Mindanao are under constant attack, it would be foolhardy to say – as all government Administrations since the early 1990s have said – that the end of the ASG is near.  Even the current administration of President Duterte has set a deadline of June 30 of this year to “neutralize”, “finish off”, “crush”, “stamp out” the ASG.  While progress is being made by the military and police authorities, one needs to understand that it will take more than force of arms to really put an end to this.

After all, as President Duterte himself noted, the Abu Sayyaf problem is part and parcel of the larger issue of unrest and militancy in the southern Philippines, a situation which runs back for more than 400 years.  Colonial administration after colonial administration – and from the perspective of militant Muslims the Philippine Republic is likewise a colonial administration – has tried and failed to put an end to the unrest.  It is, needless to say, not a simple task.

Socio-Economic Development

To the credit of the Duterte Administration, it has recognized that military/police operations need to be supplemented by other factors.  For this reason, Negosyo para sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu was launched in Malacañang in December last year.  Under this initiative, leading businessmen based in Manila were asked to commit to undertake projects in Sulu in an effort to address the dire social and economic conditions in that province.  The pledges obtained covered an interesting mix of projects which included livelihood – coconut processing, feed mill, seaweeds, poultry – infrastructure – power, telecommunications, transportation – and social services – health, education, housing.  A balanced mix, all critically needed, but the overwhelming demand, if one is to ask people on the ground, is Kabuhianan, livelihood.

As of this writing, ground-breaking has taken place for a poultry project in Patikul Municipality as well as housing projects in Talipao, Maimbung and Pata.  There may be others which have advanced which this writer is unaware of, but at least some of the projects committed appear to be taking off.

But this is just for Sulu.  Can similar initiatives be launched for Basilan and Tawi-Tawi?  And what about Lanao del Sur, the base of the Maute Group, now calling themselves IS (Islamic State) Ranao?  After all, Lanao del Sur has the highest poverty incidence in the country (as per the 2015 Family Income and Expenditure Survey) of 72%!  Maguindanao comes in second from the bottom at 57%.

Sufficient?

But will this be sufficient to address the challenge posed by the ASG?  Will, on the one hand, “neutralizing” the ASG leadership and killing off or capturing or effecting the surrender of its followers, coupled with the launching of social and economic projects in the affected areas put an end to the depredations of this group?

From this writer’s perspective, it is not.  There are a number of issues that need to be focused on if one wants to truly put an end to the violence and institute a long-term condition of peace in the areas that are affected by this group.

The situation is further complicated by the linkage established by the Islamic State with militant groups in the Philippines, a situation that the previous Administration tried to downplay but which can no longer be denied, leading the Duterte Administration to openly acknowledge it as a major threat.

What are some of these issues that need to be addressed?

Muslim-Christian Enmity

We start off with an uncomfortable question:  are there still vestiges of enmity or distrust or even hatred among Muslims and Christians vis-à-vis each other?

Depending on who one asks, one will likely get varying responses, but among “politically correct” circles – are there still any of those left in this Duterte era? – this would be vehemently denied.  This is, after all, the age of Inter-Faith Dialogues, of openness to persons regardless of faith or religious beliefs.

But if we were to examine the deepest recesses of our being, below the levels of our conscious actions, in those nooks and crannies where the instinctive reactions guiding our true feelings lie, will we in fact find that, yes, if we were Christian, we look with suspicion on those persons wearing a kuppiya or an abaya, that we would prefer to live in a neighborhood far from where Muslims reside or, if one were a Muslim, we need to be wary of those do-gooder NGO workers because they are really out to convert us?

This is a question we need to ask ourselves and answer truthfully because it underlies any efforts undertaken to fashion a just and peaceful society where Muslims and Christians and persons of other faiths can live together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Radicalization

The extent of radicalization, not just of individuals but even of communities, needs to be evaluated particularly in view of the observation that Salafi doctrines of Islam have been introduced in the Philippines for several decades now plus the recent onslaught of social media messaging by the Islamic State.  One report has stated that the IS has been using a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts to deliver messages, and that 200,000 pieces of social media were being created by IS on a daily basis.

Governance

Do we need to fashion a system of governance that is appropriate to the culture of the areas where violence is a way of life today?

One finds in these areas a handful of families controlling the political institutions and the coffers of the State.  One finds the IRA treated as a personal fund.

One finds poverty of alarming levels and social services virtually non-existent.  One finds the State unable to protect its citizens and likewise unable to dispense justice.

And, unsurprisingly, one finds the prevalence of violence.

Will the Bangsamoro Basic Law or changing the system of government to a Federal one be the answer?

Poverty

Poverty Incidence
                                                        2 0 0 3                                                     2 0 1 5
Provinces % Rank* % Rank**
Basilan 66% 75 37% 59
Lanao del Sur 39% 49 72% 81
Maguindanao 56% 72 57% 80
Sulu 89% 77 55% 77
Tawi-Tawi 70% 76 13% ???
*     Out of 77 provinces.

**   Out of 81 provinces.

Source:  Philippine Statistics Authority, Family Income and Expenditure Survey

 

Need one say more, other than to point to the clearly anomalous low poverty level of Tawi-Tawi in 2015?  If one is to accept these figures (although admittedly the Philippine Statistics Authority has pointed out that this figure reflects a high coefficient of variation of 41%) Tawi-Tawi is even better situated in terms of poverty than Cebu (21%), Bohol (26%), Quezon Province (23%) or Nueva Ecija (23%)

The Shadow Economy

The informal sector or the underground economy or the shadow economy takes many forms and employs a very significant portion of the Philippine population.  It can be as simple and innocent as the vendor selling cigarettes or Halls mentholyptus candies on the street or the office worker with a drawer of mamon or ensaymada or bangbang for sale to her office mates, to something more insidious and sinister as a drug pusher selling sachets of shabu or ecstasy pills or a gunrunner selling M14s and ammunition to questionable characters.

Lara and de la Rosa have pointed out that while for the Philippines as a whole the percentage of persons engaged in the informal sector dropped from 56% to 48% between 1988 and 2009, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanoa (ARMM) the percentage of people involved in the informal sector in the latter year was 83% (Francisco Lara Jr. and Nikki Philline de la Rosa, “Robustness in Data and Methods: Scoping the Real Economy of Mindanao”, in Francisco Lara Jr. and Steven Schoofs, Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao).  In the ARMM, the shadow economy is the REAL economy.

The writer is of the view that “high risk” ventures of the shadow economy – specifically kidnapping for ransom, gunrunning and the trade in illegal drugs – not only contribute directly to strengthening the ASG through the generation of revenues and the build-up of its firepower, but protectors of these ventures enable the perpetrators to ply their trade with impunity.

Moreover, Cagoco-Guiam and Schoofs observed in a study of two ARMM provinces that “gaining access to the trappings of public office is critical…because it determines entry into other illegal businesses which are part of the shadow economy of Mindanao” (Rufa Cagoco-Guiam and Steven Schoofs, (Rufa Cagoco-Guiam and Steven Schoofs, “A Deadly Cocktail? Illicit Drugs, Politics, and Violent Conflict in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao”, in Francisco Lara Jr. and Steven Schoofs (ed.), Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao).  In short, narco-politics.

Collusion with the Abu Sayyaf

Charges have been hurled back and forth about how members of the security agencies — AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and PNP — and the Local Government Units have been colluding with the ASG, protecting them and utilizing them for their own purposes.  One very recent example involves a high-ranking official of the PNP who was apprehended purportedly in the act of trying to rescue the remaining members of the ASG who “invaded” Bohol in early April.   (The PNP official concerned claims the effort was part of a plan to penetrate the ASG in order to find out what other plans they had, but the PNP Director General has denied this, saying no such infiltration plan had been sanctioned by the PNP.)

On the other hand, a few months ago it was reported that a Barangay Chairman in Sulu was found with P6 million from a P30 million ransom payment which had been paid for the release of a kidnap victim.

Needless to say, this matter of collusion needs to be investigated with severe punitive actions taken against parties involved to send a message that such betrayals of public trust will not be tolerated.

In addressing these and other issues, the writer suggests certain approaches that could be considered for adoption.  These include the following:

Community Support

Obtaining the support of beneficiary communities is essential for any long-term efforts of change or reform.  The approach taken in generating community support, however, is critical and will determine whether the changes introduced will take root or will die on the vine.

Islamic Framework

The adoption of an Islamic framework for any program to be introduced is recommended as it will enable people to see these programs from the perspective of their faith which should provide greater meaning or significance of these programs to them.

Religious Sector

The involvement of the communities’ religious leaders in any program of change or reform is essential as they can strongly influence the faithful in pursuing certain desired courses of action.  In fact, it is suggested that these religious leaders should not just involve themselves but should in fact spearhead and take the lead in these efforts.

Needless to say, the military operations that are currently ongoing should be continued without let-up but should be undertaken in a manner that will not foster ill-will among affected communities and create more militants over the long term.

These various points will be discussed in succeeding articles.  Undoubtedly others will have suggestions of their own regarding factors and approaches that should be considered.  This series is presented in the hope that informed discussion will be elicited on the part of all who desire to see a resolution of this scourge that has plagued not just the BaSulTa area, not just Mindanao but the country over the last 26 years.

Tomorrow: Muslim-Christian Enmity

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1 COMMENT

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