COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (8): Community Support

Eighth of 10 parts
27 May 2017

So far in this series, we have looked at factors which this writer believes should be considered in addressing the situation of violence brought about by the Abu Sayyaf, in particular, and by extension, other militant groups.  The last three articles in this series will discuss certain approaches which this writer believes would be helpful to adopt in whatever interventions are planned to be undertaken to address this situation.

Any intervention in society which aims to succeed over the long term must have the support of the community or its targeted beneficiaries.  Of course there are programs whose sponsors are interested only in short-term outcomes, such as projects sponsored by politicians shortly before a political contest or election is to take place.  In such a case, the sponsors are really not interested what happens to the projects after they have achieved their own objectives, e.g., winning an electoral contest and capturing a political position with all the financial benefits and power that come along with it.  But if one is aiming to bring about radical change in society – the kind of change required for an end to violence and the institution of a condition of long-term peace – the support of the members of that society, the acceptance of the goals and the means by which to achieve them, is essential.[1]

This is a principle accepted even by militants.  Jason Burke, a British journalist who has written extensively on Islamic extremism, for example, cites the concern expressed in 2005 by the senior leadership of Al Qaeda regarding the brutal methods employed by the “Emir of Al Qaeda for Jihad Organization in the Land of Two Rivers” (or Al Queda in Iraq), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.[2]  Burke recounts how

“Bin Laden’s deputy, al-Zawahiri, and others within the organization repeatedly wrote to the leader of their Iraqi affiliate to remind him of the importance of maintaining good relations with local communities and encourage him, for the moment at least, to put any battle with the Shia on hold.  Al-Zawahiri invoked his own experience in Egypt and spoke of how ‘popular support is a decisive factor between victory and defeat [for] in [its] absence, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful….Others reminded the Jordanian of what happened in the early 1990s in Algeria, where the militant campaign to create an Islamic state had imploded in a welter of indiscriminate violence directed largely at civilians.  ‘Their enemy did not defeat them…They destroyed themselves with their own hands by their alienation of the population with their lack of reason…oppression, deviance and ruthlessness,’ wrote Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a senior Libyan extremist based in Pakistan who had spent time in Algeria.”[3]

It is believed that the Philippine Government accepts this principle as well.  However, the way it is implemented by government agencies, in the author’s view, should be carefully considered.  To begin with, it is inevitable that government authorities are to a large extent constrained to working through the government bureaucracy and channels, and therefore any “community consultations” or interactions are, more often than not, consultations with local government officials (Governors, Mayors, Barangay Chairmen) or done through them.  Unfortunately, there often is the tendency for these elected officials to reflect not necessarily the views of the masses of their constituents but rather – if one has to be brutally frank – views that promote their own political ends and favor their political supporters.

Moreover, there sometimes is the tendency on the part of governmental and political authorities to try and manage the outcomes of any “consultations” undertaken.  One often goes into these discussions with preconceived notions of what the situation is and what the outputs should be at the end.  There should be a deliberate effort on the part of government functionaries who are tasked to interact with communities to truly listen to what other people have to say and try and see things from the perspective of their constituents.

Furthermore, there also often is the tendency on the part of people in authority to assume that they know what people need and what the solutions are to the problems of society.  And because they are in authority and have access to resources, more often than not it is their pre-identified policies, programs and projects which materialize, irrespective of whether they actually address the real needs or  not.

What is more – and this applies not just to Philippine governmental authorities but even to donor institutions, whether local or foreign – because of the pressure to show results, to account for funds allocated and to justify requests for new budgetary allocations (often increased from previous years), there is the tendency to “fast-track” project implementation, to show concrete results as quickly as possible, leaving beneficiary communities effectively as passive bystanders and recipients of the largesse of the project sponsors.

The author recalls a project showcased by a Philippine Marines battalion in the municipality of Patikul, one of the main areas of operation of the ASG in Sulu, in 2006.  This was a water supply project built by the soldiers for the community, consisting of water tanks and a three-kilometer long pipeline, bringing the water down from the source to service households along the route.  It was an impressive project, clearly well-intentioned, well built, clean, technically well planned, but within a year the Marines sounded out an NGO to help them get the community to take care of the project.  It had been built for the community, not with the community, and it suffered from neglect by the community and even deliberate efforts to sabotage it.

As recounted in an earlier article in this series, the same thing was experienced by the US Special Operations Forces that were working in Sulu in 2009.  We earlier described the lament of Sgt. Justin Richmond of the JSOTF-P regarding the death of two US soldiers, killed as a result of a roadside IED explosion, and why, despite the thousands of dollars poured into projects for the people in the area, no one had bothered to warn them of the impending disaster.

For several years between 2006 and 2010, this writer lived with a family in kilometer 4, Indanan municipality, whenever I visited Sulu.  Right beside the house was a US-AID funded deep well and water storage tank which, during the five-year period that I frequented Sulu, was not operational.  The community did not know why the system had not been activated but it is probable that that project had been listed as another “accomplishment” of the funding agency.

Every serious community development practitioner knows that a critical phase of any planned social intervention is the “social preparation” phase.  This is the initial phase of the intervention when the program facilitators work with the community to try and draw from them their perspectives on their situation and what they believe are the specific interventions needed.  It is during this phase that the community, through open dialogue, begins to understand the broader context of their situation, the underlying causes and, if handled properly, begins to realize that much of the power to address their condition lies within their hands.  This can lead to very surprising results.

The writer was involved some ten years ago with a group that worked with several communities in the province of Sulu to address the dire situation of potable water supply.  At that time, national government data showed that only 27% of the population of the province had access to clean water.  However, based on actual surveys undertaken by the project team, it was discovered that of the close to 200 water sources tested for potability, 92% were contaminated with fecal coliform.[4]  The project team thus worked very closely with one community to explore with them their appreciation of the water supply situation.

The community shared how they identified and developed their existing water sources.  With the help of the project team, they learned how certain daily activities which they took for granted impacted the quality of their water and the health of their family members.  They also learned how to make certain devices which would enable them to identify potential sources of water and even how to analyze the quality of their water.

As a result of their interaction with the project team and their newfound knowledge and skills, the community became more confident, open and vocal.  Their confidence in their new-found strength spilled over beyond the project and led them to engage with their local chief executive on other matters more openly and directly.  It came to a point where the chief executive of the municipality, who had initially enthusiastically encouraged and supported the project, began to feel that his authority was being challenged.  In fact at one point he asked the project team leader, “Unu na in nahinang niyo ha raayat ko?  Maytah biyahan na sila magbissara kakoh?”  (“What have you done to my people?  Why are they speaking to me like this now?”)

To gain community support, one must be willing to work with the community on its terms and to help the community discover their strengths.  In dealing with the community with openness, one generally will find a greater responsiveness on the part of the community and a willingness to establish a relationship of mutual support, even though there may initially be some hesitation to open up, particularly if the facilitators are not well-known to or trusted by the community.  If handled properly, the interaction will eventually develop into a relationship based on mutual respect.

The responses one gets when one deals openly with a community and shows respect for their views are refreshingly frank.  In a research undertaken in 2013 as part of the security sector reform program, to determine whether the responsibility for internal security could be transferred from the AFP to the PNP, consultations were held with community leaders in Patikul, generally considered to be the nerve center of the ASG in Sulu.

When asked about the conflict in their area, one of the participants, for example, described a difficulty that they were encountering:

“Under the 9th Marine Battalion, the marines set a perimeter of one kilometer from the highway where local residents from the barangay were allowed to move.  Going beyond the boundary means that you will be apprehended or even shot at.  The problem was that the Provincial SWD (Social Welfare Department) came only once to distribute food (about three kilos of rice, half kilo sugar, canned goods, noodles, etc.).  They never came back.  As we were away from our farms, many took the risk to go to their farms to get food.  That was why many people were arrested for the violation, because of hunger.”

When asked how conflicts were settled within their community, participants described how they went about this.

“Internal and smaller conflicts are managed and settled by our elders without the intervention of higher authorities.  We have our traditional way of addressing conflicts based on our old system of governing our community affairs.  Sadly, it is no longer honored by our present set of government leaders.”

“Today, local conflicts are rare, and they are mediated by the elders immediately.  Even as we depend on our barangay officials, they would always request the presence of our elders especially on mediation between two warring groups.”

When asked how they viewed their government leaders, several of the participants expressed the following views:

“No one from among our government leaders come to visit our place to address our concerns.  If ever they did, they were not effective in resolving the local conflicts.” 

“As far as we know, our local government leaders set aside our situation and do not take appropriate action or intervention to resolve the problems.”

When asked whether they felt that the PNP could take over the security concerns of their community, participants expressed the following views:

“The community is not ready for the police to replace the military because even in the town of Jolo, the PNP forces cannot perform their duty well.  They can only catch the dead body but never the suspect.”

“Our local policemen are all manipulated by the politicians.  We doubt if they can truly manage the peace and order situation.”[5] 

These types of responses were elicited because the study team leader, a Tagalog from Manila who nevertheless had many years of experience working in Sulu (and BaSulTa as a whole), wisely chose a facilitator who was respected by the community.  The facilitator was a former militant himself who however eventually decided to focus his energies to helping his community and set up a cooperative which has now become quite successful in bringing livelihood to his village-mates.  The study team leader did not even appear at the consultations so as not to inhibit the free expression of views by the participants.

This, then, should be a key approach taken by any effort to address the problem of violence and the seeming absence of law and order in the areas where the ASG operate:  interacting with the affected communities, exerting efforts to understand the situation from their perspective, and working jointly with them to address the situation.  If one demonstrates an openness to the community and a willingness to listen to and act on their views and recommendations, showing true respect for their perspectives, the greater are the chances that they will take the lead to manage their own situation, enhancing the chances that a condition of sustainable peace can be attained.

TOMORROW: Islamic Framework for Development

[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]

[1] My former colleague in Jolo, now retired Professor of History Rudy Rodil, has reminded me that as we focus on the immediate community that is the subject of the interventions, there is the larger community of the Philippine Republic that likewise needs to understand what is going on and whose support is equally important.

[2] Joby Warrick, “Maniac who created ISIS:  His medieval barbarity was too much even for Al Qaedda.  Now a chilling new book charts the rise and fall of the ‘Slaughter Sheikh’”, Mail Online, September 27, 2015,

[3] Jason Burke, “The New Threat:  The Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy”, (New York:  The New Press, 2015), pages 67-68.

[4] John Ong et al., “Water for Peace”, (unpublished report on a water project undertaken in the province of Sulu, funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Assissi Development Foundation Inc,, 2009).

[5] All quotations from study notes provided by the Study Team Leader, Milet Mendoza.  The writer thanks Milet for sharing these notes and her valuable insights on grassroots interactions.