LITTLE MENTIONED in recent reports on the war on terror were the arrests last September of two men linked to al Qaeda. What makes these arrests particularly interesting is that they happened in Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines. Jasem Alhasan, a Kuwaiti, was detained along with a known Abu Sayyaf rebel, Ustadz Sanday. (Abu Sayyaf is the terrorist group that held Americans Martin and Gracia Burnham hostage for more than a year and beheaded another American, Guillermo Sobero.) Alhasan was later deported back to Kuwait on October 8. The other suspect, Mahmoud Afif Abdeljalil of Jordan, is still being interrogated--according to authorities, he plays a much larger role in the al Qaeda network, having taken over a construction firm and other business fronts from Jamal Khalifa, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden.
Philippine immigration chief Andrea Domingo explained that since Khalifa's departure in 1994, Abdeljalil has continued to use these fronts to funnel money to al Qaeda. His home in Zamboanga was also supposedly used as a safehouse for al Qaeda operatives in the region. It is still unclear to what extent Abdeljalil is actively involved in terrorist operations in Southeast Asia but authorities will no doubt take "pains" to extract it from him. (The Philippine National Police may very well order a "TI" or "tactical interrogation" as they did in 1995, when dealing with terrorist Hakim Abdul Murad. Connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and an assassination attempt against the pope, Murad was interrogated for 67 days.)
Already in custody is Taufek Refka, an Indonesian accused of financing several bombings in Mindanao earlier this year. He is also said to have learned his demolitions skills from Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, a high-ranking member of Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist group held responsible for the bombings in Bali last year that killed more than 200 people. Al-Ghozi, wanted for planting bombs that killed 22 people in Manila in 2000 and for plotting against Western targets in Singapore, was arrested in January 2002. But over the summer he managed to escape, embarrassing the Manila government and leading to an intensive manhunt. Finally, last month, al-Ghozi was spotted in a getaway car in North Cotabato, Mindanao. A short chase ensued, with al-Ghozi shooting out the back window of the car. Police returned fire and killed him.
THE ATTACKS, arrests, and escapes are now a frequent occurrence in the war on terror in the Philippines, as is the complex interplay between rival factions, terrorist cells, and separatist groups. To wit, al-Ghozi, who himself learned how to use explosives in Pakistan, trained Jemaah Islamiyah recruits at Camp Abubakar in Mindanao. The camp was run by the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is currently in the midst of peace talks with Manila. The Front is also helping the Arroyo government in its fight against a dwindling but persistent band of Abu Sayyaf rebels.
Defining the enemy can be frustrating: Some members of Abu Sayyaf are linked to operatives of al Qaeda, some of whom are connected with terrorists from Jemaah Islamiyah. At times these terrorists have interacted with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. (Currently, the Philippine government is focused on hunting down 40 members of Jemaah Islamiyah on the loose in Mindanao.)
As bad as that is, the situation can worsen with the involvement of the Philippine military. As chief of the armed forces General Narciso Abaya announced last August, "I admit there is graft and corruption at all levels." Officers have been accused of letting rebels escape, either in the jungles or from prisons, for a certain price. Some of the money from foreign aid meant to serve the poor Muslim communities in the south ends up in someone else's pockets. Caches of weapons, including M-16s and grenade launchers issued by the United States, have found their way into camps run by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf.
Last May President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that "the Abu Sayyaf are really on the run now." Six months later, these rebels are still active, causing some to question the current policies and tactics not only of the Philippine government but also of the Bush administration. On his stopover in Manila, Bush addressed the joint Congress (the first time an American president has done so since Eisenhower) and stressed the importance of the alliance and its commitment to ending terror. "Every nation in Asia and across the world now faces a choice," said Bush. "Nations that choose to support terror are complicit in a war against civilization. Nations that try to ignore terror and hope it will only strike others are deluding themselves, undermining our common defense, and inviting a future of catastrophic violence. Nations that choose to fight terror are defending their own safety and the safety of free people everywhere."
BUT HOW DOES ONE CARRY THIS OUT? In light of General Abaya's admission that corruption is widespread, Brett Decker of the New York Times suggests the best way to solve the terrorist problem is for the United States to do the job itself: "If Washington and Manila are serious about eliminating Abu Sayyaf, . . . Special Forces should be given the assignment. . . . [The terrorists] would be no match for American soldiers already in the Philippines, but they are still eluding Filipino troops." As for whether or not this violates the Philippine constitution, Decker mentions that the United States is allowed "to come to the defense of the Philippines if the islands are attacked. Such an action can be justified in the present case because the terrorist groups get foreign money."
Not so fast, say some. "We from Mindanao acknowledge that Jemaah Islamiyah operatives could very well be here--after all, our borders with Malaysia and Indonesia are porous," says Amina Rasul, formerly a presidential adviser to Fidel Ramos. "However, we do not agree that the hold of Jemaah Islamiyah is as strong as claimed by some government agencies." Rasul is currently the convenor of the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy, an organization devoted to studies in Islamic and democratic political thought and peaceful solutions for Mindanao. "Our group is concerned about the growing notion that Islam and democracy cannot coexist," she says. It's not that Rasul is against the American presence. Rather, she is pleased with the current arrangement, which is "seen as a positive, even by Muslim leaders. Thus far, the relationship between the American and Philippine Muslim communities has not been hostile."
Meanwhile, Al Santoli, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, has his own approach to the problem. "U.S. assistance programs have not been as effective as they could be, whether in the Middle East or Southeast Asia--because of the traditional institutional approach, which feeds into corruption," he says. "The key to success in what is, in fact, a cultural and religious-based conflict, is empowering local communities to help themselves with minimal targeted assistance." Santoli runs a program called Development for Peace in Sulu (a small island in the southern Philippines), which accepts no aid from either Manila or Washington and aims to build health and education infrastructures and "empower and develop moderate and enterprising leadership of men and women--such as doctors, school teachers, and clerics--who choose to live in their home community, regardless of the hardships."
President Bush has promised $340 million in aid to the Philippines this year. Arroyo said she is committed to a five-year military modernization plan in the hopes of cleaning up the corruption. The question remains: In light of the current situation, will all of this be enough to win the war on terror or do both countries now have to rethink their strategies?