July 11, 2007
By Peter Brookes
When the U.S. counterterrorism operations against the Abu Sayyaf
Group, the Philippines-based al Qaeda affiliate, kicked off in late
2001, the Bush administration dubbed it the "Second Front" in the
War on Terror. Today, it's more like the "Forgotten Front."
But the lack of notoriety isn't necessarily a bad thing. The
joint U.S.-Philippine counterterror campaign in the southern
Philippines is going pretty darn well after 5½ years.
Indeed, some experts tout the "Operation Enduring
Freedom-Philippines" campaign as the most successful
counterterrorism/insurgency effort of the post-9/11 period.
Abu Sayyaf (ASG) is hardly a household name. But the Muslim
terrorist group has plenty of terrorist street cred: Osama bin
Laden's brother-in-law founded it, along with other jihadists who
had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The ASG also had ties to al Qaeda bigs Ramzi Yousef and his
uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who both spent time in the
Philippines and were involved in the 1993 World Trade Center
bombing, Operation "Bojinka" (an unsuccessful 1995 bombing of 11
airliners out of Manila) and 9/11.
Its stated goal is to establish an independent Islamic state in
the southern Philippines. But some believe its project extends to
all of Muslim Southeast Asia.
The ASG engages in kidnappings (for ransom), bombings,
beheadings, assassinations and even extortion of Filipinos and
foreigners (especially tourists). U.S. citizens and soldiers number
among its victims.
In 2004, it bombed a ferry in Manila Bay, killing more than 100.
The same year, an ASG cell was broken up while targeting the U.S.
embassy in Manila.
ASG also has ties to al Qaeda's pan-Southeast Asian terror
powerhouse, Jemaah Islamiya - the group that killed nearly 200 in
the Bali bombing in 2002. It also gets support from a range of
Middle East extremists.
The good news?
U.S.-Philippine operations have significantly weakened the
terrorist group. Philippines forces have killed two senior ASG
commanders since last December. One was sold out by an ASG
member-turned-informant, motivated by the State Department's
Once 2,000 fighters strong, ASG's been whittled down to around
200 to 300 today. As a result, its trademark bus and local market
bombings have dropped off, as has its once-lucrative kidnapping
practice. The threat has clearly receded.
But why has this operation shown success?
Indirect Approach: The United States isn't doing the
fighting. Philippine armed forces are - 15,000 of them, with 300
U.S. troops "advising and assisting." Our forces are not only
teaching counterinsurgency tactics and nighttime operations,
they're instructing the Filipinos to collect, analyze and fuse
intelligence - even when it comes from a high-tech U.S. Predator
This puts the local Philippine forces in the lead - and gives
them the training and battlefield experience to provide a lasting
capability that will endure long after the U.S. troops head
Hearts and Minds: A significant effort has been made to
win local hearts and minds. U.S. and Philippine civil-affairs,
humanitarian aid and exercises are helping separate the ASG from
the general population. During regular joint "Balikatan" military
exercises, Americans and Filipinos build roads, schools, water
plants and piers that allow locals to build a better future for
themselves - and instill trust and confidence in Manila.
Defense Reform: In 2002, the Pentagon undertook a
bilateral program to help the Philippines identify much-needed
defense reforms and boost our ally's armed forces'
That extends to unsexy but vital areas such as maintenance and
logistics. In 2001, Philippine military helicopters were
mission-ready just 15 percent of the time. Today, those helos are
ready for counterinsurgency 80 percent of the time.
Stick-to-itiveness: Despite up and downs in the bilateral
relationship (especially when Philippine President Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo withdrew forces from Iraq), Washington stuck to eliminating
the ASG. Resolve makes a difference.
Is this a model for U.S. counterterrorism operations elsewhere?
Maybe; maybe not. Some of the approach is similar, but the
Philippines is, without a doubt, unique. It's blessed with a better
(more popular and stable) government than Iraq or Afghanistan - and
isn't cursed with the same sort of poisonous neighbors.
There is no cookie-cutter approach to fighting terrorism, but
some lessons of the Philippines might be applied elsewhere. Indeed,
it should be an imperative.
Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation
and the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue
First appeared in the New York Post
When the U.S. counterterrorism operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Philippines-based al Qaeda affiliate, kicked off in late 2001, the Bush administration dubbed it the "Second Front" in the War on Terror. Today, it's more like the "Forgotten Front."
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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