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The Philippines and Terrorism

Posted: April, 2004

The Philippines is a strong political, economic and military ally of the United States and a close partner in the global war on terrorism. With the spread of Al Qaeda across the globe and the growth of the Al Qaeda-linked South East Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the stability and security of the Philippines and U.S.- Philippines counterterrorism efforts take on a new urgency.

Political and Strategic Background

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. The nation was under American administration until the Japanese took control during World War II. In 1946, the Philippines became an independent representative democracy.

From 1946 to 1992, the U.S. maintained air and naval bases in the Philippines. They were closed at the request of the Philippine government in 1992. In 1952, the two nations forged the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and in 1998, they concluded the Visiting Forces Agreement, paving the way for increased military cooperation. The U.S. conducts ship visits to Philippine ports and engages in military exercises with Philippine forces. In May 2003,President Bush announced that the U.S.would designate the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally.

The Philippines receives various forms of U.S. military assistance. The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, $2.4 million in FY 2003, was the largest in Asia and the second largest in the world. The Philippines is the number one recipient in Asia of Excess Defense Articles from the U.S. military.

The U.S. and the Philippines also maintain strong trade ties. The Philippines ranks as America's 19th-largest export market and 20th-largest supplier. The U.S. is the Philippines' largest foreign investor.

Terrorist Groups in the Philippines

There are four major terrorist groups active in the Philippines today: The Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf and the New People's Army. The first three are Islamic groups that operate primarily in the south of the nation, where most of the country's Muslim minority live. The Communist New People's Army operates in the northern Philippines.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)
Emerging in the early 1970s, the MNLF sought an independent Islamic nation in the Filipino islands with sizeable Muslim populations. In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace agreement with Manila that created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an area composed of two mainland provinces and three island provinces in which the predominantly Muslim population enjoys a degree of self-rule. MNLF chairman and founder Nur Misuari was installed as the region's governor but his rule ended in violence when he led a failed uprising against the Philippines government in November 2001. He is currently in jail and MNLF leader Parouk Hussin took over as ARMM governor in 2002. Nur Misuari reportedly still has a small band of followers who remain actively opposed to the current arrangement.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
The largest Islamic extremist group in the Philippines, the MILF split from the MNLF in 1977 and continues to wage war against Manila. Headed by Islamic cleric Salamat Hashim, the MILF seeks a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Although it signed a peace agreement with Manila in 2001, MILF-sponsored violence has continued. Manila accuses the MILF of responsibility for the March 2003 Davao City airport bombing that killed 21 people, and for harboring members of the small militant Pentagon gang accused of kidnapping foreigners in recent years.

The MILF has an estimated strength of 12,000 members.

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) The smallest, most active and most violent Islamic separatist group in the southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf (Bearer of the Sword) emerged in 1991 as a splinter group of the MNLF. Its founder, Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, was a veteran of the Islamic mujahideen movement in Afghanistan and was killed in a clash with Philippine police in 1998. ASG's current head is thought to be Janjalani's younger brother Khadafi Janjalani.

Abu Sayyaf engages in kidnappings, bombings, assassinations and extortion from businesses and wealthy businessmen. Most of its activities are centered in the southern island of Mindanao, but in recent years, the group has broadened its reach. In April 2000, ASG kidnapped 21 people,including 10 foreign tourists, from a resort in Malaysia and in a separate incident, abducted several foreign journalists and an American citizen. In May 2001, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 people from a resort island in the Philippines and murdered several of the hostages, including American citizen Guillermo Sobero. In June 2002, U.S.-trained Philippine commandos tried to rescue three hostages being held by Abu Sayyaf on Basilan island.Two of the hostages, including American citizen Martin Burnham, were killed in the resulting shootout. Philippine authorities believe that the ASG had a role in the October 2002 bombing near a Philippine military base in Zamboanga that killed three Filipinos and a U.S. serviceman.

In February 2004, Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for a Philippine ferry fire, but at this writing, Philippine authorities doubted the claim.

The group finances its operations primarily through robbery, piracy and ransom kidnappings. Both the MNLF and MILF condemn Abu Sayyaf's activities. Philippine forces have apprehended a number of Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Most recently, in December 2003, Philippine soldiers captured senior Abu Sayyaf commander Ghalib Andang, a.k.a. Commander Robot. Andang is suspected of involvement in the April 2000 kidnapping of Western tourists in Malaysia.

Today, Abu Sayyaf is composed of several semi-autonomous factions with an estimated cadre of several hundred active fighters and about 1,000 supporters.

New People's Army (NPA)

The NPA is the military wing of the Communist People's Party of the Philippines (CPP). Founded in 1969 with the aim of overthrowing the Philippines government through guerrilla warfare, the NPA strongly opposes the U.S. military presence in the Philippines and publicly expressed its intent to target U.S. personnel in the Philippines in January 2002, warning that any American troops who enter their stronghold areas will be considered "legitimate targets." The NPA primarily targets Philippine security forces, politicians, judges, government informers and former NPA rebels. The NPA's founder, Jose Maria Sison, lives in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands and reportedly directs operations from there.

Manila is committed to a negotiated peace settlement with the NPA but peace talks between the CPP and the Philippine government stalled in June 2001, after the NPA admitted killing a Filipino congressman. In September 2002, the NPA claimed responsibility for assassinating a mayor, attacking a police station and killing the police chief, and blowing up a mobile telecommunications transmission station.

The NPA derives most of its funding from supporters in the Philippines and Europe and from so-called revolutionary taxes extorted from local businesses. Together, the CPP/NPA has an estimated strength of over 10,000 members. have links with international terrorism, particularly with Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaeda. The MILF is suspected of training JI members at MILF training camps in the southern Philippines.

It is suspected that early funding and organizational support of Abu Sayyaf was provided by Osama Bin Laden associate and brother-in- law Muhammad Jamal Khalifa. In 1997, the U.S. State Department designated Abu Sayyaf a foreign terrorist organization.

In January 2002, Filipino police arrested Indonesian Islamic extremist Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, 31, a self-confessed member of Jemaah Islamiyah and an Al Qaeda explosives expert. Following his arrest, Ghozi led Filipino authorities to a large cache of arms and explosives in Mindanao and told a Filipino court that he planned to use the explosives for jihad attacks in Asia. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison. In July 2003, Al-Ghozi escaped from prison and in October 2003, Philippine forces tracked him down and killed him. In November 2003, the Philippines arrested Taufik Rifki, who reportedly admitted he was the financier for a Jemaah Islamiyah training camp in the southern Philippines.

Most recently, in February 2004, Filipino Jaybe Ofrasio, 31, was arrested in Belfast,Northern Ireland, and charged with funneling money to JI.

The U.S. designated the CPP/NPA a foreign terrorist organization in August 2002, and listed NPA founder Jose Maria Sison as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). Authorities in the Netherlands froze assets in his bank accounts there and cut off his social benefits.

Anti-Terror Initiatives and U.S.-Philippines Counterterrorism Cooperation

The Philippines combats terrorism through political, legal and military means. The U.S. assisted the Philippines in amending their anti-money laundering legislation to meet international standards, and Manila passed its revised legislation in March 2003.

Washington also installed the Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP) in the Philippines with equipment, software and training to enhance their capacity to secure their borders.

U.S.-Philippines law enforcement cooperation is strong. In 2002, the two nations' law enforcement agencies cooperated to bring charges against 15 Abu Sayyaf terrorists, implement an extradition treaty and train some 700 Filipino law enforcement officers.

The Philippines receives anti-terrorist financial assistance from the U.S. Following Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's May 2003 visit to the U.S., Washington pledged to provide new funds to the Philippines for training and equipping Philippine forces to deal with terrorist groups and funds to spur development in the Mindanao region, where Islamic extremists are based.

In 2002, the U.S. sent about 650 American advisers to train Philippine soldiers in counterterrorism techniques. The Bush administration proposed sending U.S. combat troops to the Philippines in March 2003, but was met with strong Philippine opposition to the idea.

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2004 Anti-Defamation League