Oef-P Case Study

Terrorism in Southeast Asia predates the American post-9/11 war on terrorism. But since 2001, terrorist groups in Indonesia and the Philippines have emerged as significant security challenges within these states, as well as indirect threats to U.S. national security. The United States has made substantial direct and indirect contributions to the counterterrorism (CT) efforts within these states, with varying returns on investment.

Despite differing responses to terrorism, Indonesia and the Philippines are both commonly viewed as CT success stories, as terrorist groups have been degraded and links to al-Qa’ida have been weakened. But while terrorist operations in Indonesia have declined in the post-9/11 era, attacks have increased in the Philippines. Last month, an operation targeting international terrorists on the southern island of Mindanao resulted in the death of 43 Philippine national police commandos.[1]

Between 2002 and 2013, the U.S. provided $262 million in security assistance funding to Indonesia, and $441 million in security assistance to the Philippines.[2] The U.S. has also provided direct military-to-military support in the Philippines, advising and training Philippine CT forces over the last decade. Due to differences in culture, institutions, capabilities, and U.S. assistance, the Indonesian and Philippine governments have implemented distinctive CT strategies. Indonesia has relied on national police to degrade terrorist networks, while the military has been the primary CT force in the Philippines.

This article evaluates CT efforts in Indonesia and the Philippines in order to compare and contrast host-nation approaches and corresponding U.S. support. This article also highlights American best practices, which may be transferrable to U.S. support for CT in other parts of the world.

Our research has led to two significant conclusions. First, based on several quantitative measures of effectiveness, the law enforcement-based Indonesian CT approach has been more effective than the military-based CT approach of the Philippines, although the multi-faceted nature of terrorism within the Philippines arguably makes the task of CT in the Philippines more difficult. And second, the U.S. can be most effective when providing tailored CT support, based on the nature of the terrorist threat and host nation culture and national capabilities.

Terrorism in Southeast Asia
Prior to 9/11, Southeast Asian states viewed terrorism as low-level, localized threats, with little impact on their national security interests. The United States, meanwhile, was largely preoccupied with Middle Eastern terrorist groups.[3] But following 9/11, as linkages between al-Qaeda and Southeast Asia emerged, the United States started to pay more attention to terrorism in the region—specifically in Indonesia and the Philippines.[4] The Bali bombings on October 12, 2002, however, were a wake up call for Southeast Asia. Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco, the Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations (U.N.), said that “10/12” was to Indonesia and Southeast Asia what 9/11 was to the United States and the West, “awakening Southeast Asia to the threat of Islamist terrorism.”[5]

Three types of terrorist groups exist in Southeast Asia: global, regional, and national.[6] Southeast Asian terrorist groups are interconnected, however, often sharing leaders, members, tactics, and objectives. Global terrorist groups such as al-Qa’ida have recruited and trained operatives throughout the region, and have maintained connections to Southeast Asian terrorist groups since the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Regional terrorist groups, such as the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), seek to create an Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia. And nationalist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)in the Philippines seek an Islamic separatist state in the southern islands of Mindanao. Al-Qa’ida’s persistent presence in Southeast Asia and its connection to regional and nationalist terrorist groups in Indonesia and the Philippines have prompted the U.S. to proactively support Indonesian and Philippine CT efforts over the last decade.[7]

Terrorism and CT in Indonesia
Jemaah Islamiyah—aligned with al-Qa’ida and overlapping in leadership and membership since the 1990s[8]—gained international attention through the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, which were the most deadly terrorist attacks in the world since 9/11.[9] Among the approximately 500 casualties were Americans, Australians, Canadians, Europeans, Japanese, and Indonesians.[10]

JI followed the Bali bombings with annual high profile bombing attacks in Indonesia over the next three years, to include the bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta on August 5, 2004, which killed 11 and wounded 150; the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta on September 9, 2004, which killed 11 and wounded 160; and another Bali bombing on October 1, 2005 which killed 20 and injured 129.[11]

In the aftermath of the 10/12 attacks, the Indonesian government accepted American and international assistance to combat terrorism, and initiated a thorough reform of the Indonesian national security apparatus.[12] Key aspects of Indonesia’s CT evolution since 2002 include legal reform to enable the prosecution of terrorists, improved domestic CT forces, and the deradicalization of convicted terrorists.

The U.S. has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in security funding to support CT in Indonesia, but little direct support in the form of military training and advising. The Australian government—motivated by the Bali bombings, Jakarta embassy bombing, and persistent terrorist threats throughout the region—has provided trainers and advisors to Indonesian CT forces. American funds and Australian direct support enabled the creation of the Indonesian national CT force, known as Detachment 88, in 2003. Detachment 88 is responsible for investigations, intelligence, and hostage rescue, in addition to traditional CT operations, and has distinguished itself as an elite CT force. It has had success in targeting and dismantling terrorist organizations throughout Indonesia.[13]

The evolution of the CT apparatus in Indonesia has yielded tangible results, including the detention and prosecution of a significant percentage of JI leadership, and a successful start to a deradicalization program and legal reforms. However, governmental corruption, prison over-crowding, and a recent wave of ISIS propaganda will lead to future terrorism challenges, despite the short-term successes against JI. Continued progress is required to maintain the success that Indonesian CT forces have achieved in the past decade.

Terrorism and CT in the Philippines
January’s tragic clash between members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) and members of the Islamic separatist group, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), highlights several notable security trends in the Philippines. The 12-hour firefight ensued during a raid to capture Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian-born operational leader and bomb maker within Jemaah Islamiyah, who had reportedly been in the Philippines since 2003 training ASG bomb makers. This incident highlights the long-standing connections between Southeast Asian terrorist groups, the continuing instability in the southern Philippines, and the new and increasing role of the Philippine National Police in the CT mission that had been dominated by the Philippine military until 2010.

The Philippines is confronted with the most diverse set of internal security challenges in Southeast Asia.[14] The Philippine communist insurgency, known as the New People’s Army (NPA), has existed since 1968,[15] and is—in the eyes of the Philippine government—the most significant internal security threat, because of the NPA’s dispersed disposition and ability to influence the Philippine capital region on the island of Luzon.[16] But in recent years, the most newsworthy security challenge within the Philippines has emerged in the southern island region of Mindanao, where Muslim separatist groups have sought autonomy for centuries.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has transitioned from separatist terrorist group to political party, as the peace process has achieved fragile autonomy for the MILF.  But radical factions such as ASG and BIFF seek a completely independent Islamic state under Sharia law. ASG has proven to be the most nihilistic terrorist group in the Philippines, conducting a bombing at the Davao International airport on March 5, 2003, which killed 21 and injured 148; and conducting a bombing on a Philippine super-ferry on February 27, 2004, which killed 116 and injured 300, the worst terrorist attack in Asia since the 2002 Bali bombings.[17]

In contrast to Indonesia, the Philippine government had been in conflict with terrorist groups for decades before the start of the so-called global war on terrorism. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has the structure, the aptitude, and support of both the government and the populace to pursue the terrorist groups. Philippine law enforcement forces, however, lack capacity and public support, based on a history of ineptitude and corruption.[18]

CT in the Philippines, therefore, has been traditionally a military responsibility, and while the military CT forces can effectively clear terrorist safe havens, weak local governments and law enforcement units are incapable, and often unwilling, to hold and build in isolate areas such as Mindanao.[19] Since 2010, the Philippine government has made an effort to pass the domestic CT mission from the military to the national police, but the transition has been slow and beleaguered by distrust and competition between the two organizations.[20]

American CT support has arrived in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars of security funding, as well as the continual deployment of U.S. troops to the Philippines to train and advise the Philippine CT forces. Due to the links between Abu Sayyaf Group and al-Qa’ida, ASG has been the primary focus of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) for the United States. Through OEF-P,American advisors have enabled the Philippine security forces to contain and severely disrupt ASG to the point where the group no longer poses a significant threat to the Philippine capital region in Luzon. But despite the commitment of the Philippine government and the support of the United States, ASG and other Islamic separatists groups remain persistent security challenge within the Philippines.

Effectiveness of CT Responses
Two quantitative measures can help explain the CT effectiveness of these two states from 2002-2013. The first is an assessment of the trends in terrorist attacks according to the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database (GTD).[21] The data clearly indicates that terrorist attacks have declined in Indonesia while increasing in the Philippines.

From 2002-2007 the relative number of attacks for the two countries are similar, with the Philippines experiencing slightly more attacks throughout this period, which is understandable due to the diversity of Philippine terrorist groups. In 2002, Indonesia suffered 43 terrorist attacks compared to 48 attacks in the Philippines. In 2007, terrorist incidents in the Philippines spiked upward to 65 attacks, while attacks in Indonesia fell to only two attacks.

Attacks increased in both countries over the next six years, but overall, attacks in the Philippines increased 13-fold between 2002 and 2013 (from 48 attacks to 652) and fell by 26 percent in Indonesia during the same time period (from 43 attacks in 2002 to 32 in 2013). Although one could argue that the uptick in the Philippine attacks is due to the relative strength of the various terrorist groups that operate there, another plausible argument is that Indonesian CT has been more effective than Philippine CT.

The second quantitative measure of effectiveness is an analytic tool that measures national responses to terrorist activity. This tool was first featured in a 2014 article that evaluated the relative effectiveness of CT operations in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailan.[22] The model determined the average time between CT operation and a subsequent terrorist attack to be eleven days in Indonesia, as compared to eight days in the Philippines. Thus, a CT intervention such as an arrest, indictment, or imprisonment had a larger magnitude of effectiveness in Indonesia.[23] Although there are several factors that could explain the lag in a terrorist group’s ability to operationally respond in these cases, this model provides a second quantitative indication that Indonesian CT efforts may have been more effective than Philippine CT efforts.

American Lessons Learned
There are several lessons to be learned from American CT support in Indonesia and the Philippines. These conclusions, though germane to the terrorism threats and responses within these specific states, may also be applicable to other international situations where the United States must assist a host-nation with CT efforts.

1. When planning a CT strategy, the United States must consider the unique history, culture, and capabilities of the host nation. These factors, combined with effectiveness of the host-nation’s military, law enforcement, judicial system, and local governance, must be understood to properly tailor CT strategy. The Indonesian law enforcement-based CT approach has been more effective than the military-based Philippine CT approach, but Philippine culture and national capabilities would not have supported an Indonesian-style CT program in the Philippines in 2002. So the United States was wise to tailor support through the Philippine military, while concurrently working with Indonesian law enforcement for CT purposes. Properly tailored American CT support will best contribute to the effectiveness of the collective CT strategy.

2. Local governance, to include effective legislative and judicial systems are prerequisite ingredients if the host-nation military is to be the leading CT force. The Philippine military-led CT model had effective results against the terrorist groups, but weak local governments and law enforcement were not prepared to follow up on the security gains achieved by the military. If an initial military-based CT response is required, then the host nation should employ a dual-track approach to develop the capacity of the host-nation’s civil institutions. Transitioning the CT mission from the military to the police requires national support, and the military must be willing to share intelligence and tactics, techniques, and procedures with law enforcement. Friction remains between Philippine military and law enforcement, due to many years of military-led CT in the Philippines.

3. Technical and tactical training to support CT functions such as investigation, intelligence, and targeting are more helpful than blindly-sent financial aid. For example, in Indonesia, the investigative and forensic training provided to Detachment 88 greatly enhanced its targeting effectiveness in recent years, and the training of a cyber investigation team led to a new means of gathering intelligence and prosecution of terrorists that otherwise would have been unavailable.[24] Cyber team training and integrated targeting methods for Indonesian CT practitioners provided more of an impact than purchased equipment alone.

4. The U.S. should seek to capitalize on the capabilities, expertise, and positive reputation of allies in the host-nation’s region to assist in CT efforts. In Indonesia, Australia took an active role in providing aid and training to Indonesian CT forces, complementing the financial aid from the United States. Australia provided specialized law enforcement training for Detachment 88 as well as funding for its training facilities.[25] Additionally, Australia still provides forensic assistance to support Indonesian CT operations, enabling Detachment 88 to successfully prosecute the insurgents that are captured.
Australian involvement was also more palatable to the Indonesian population than American involvement. In Indonesia, direct American support would have likely been negatively perceived, while direct support from Australia was not seen as threatening to the Muslim majority. In future situations, the United States should encourage direct support from allies who have similar interests within the host-nation, but might be perceived in a more positive light than Americans.

5. A form of de-radicalization or reintegration should be considered as a part of the legal and judicial reforms within the host-nation. Both Indonesia and the Philippines incorporated de-radicalization programs with varying degrees of success. The host-nation will have to develop such a program based on its cultural norms and national goals, but the United States can assist in this process by providing funding and infrastructure. Deradicalization is essential to reintegrate captured terrorists into the host-nation society.

The United States has made significant direct and indirect contributions to CT efforts in Indonesia and the Philippines, with varying returns on investment. The United States seems to have received a better return on CT investment in Indonesia as terrorist attacks have declined since 9/11, while attacks have increased dramatically in the Philippines during the same time period. It is difficult, however, to determine whether these trends should be attributed to Indonesian CT efforts, or the efficacy and resilience of Philippine terrorist groups (or a combination of both). The United States can learn many lessons, however, from its CT support in Indonesia and the Philippines, and these lessons should be applied to future CT assistance efforts.

Majors Scott McKay and David Webb are currently Wayne A. Downing Fellows pursuing Masters of Arts Degrees at Stanford University in International Policy Studies.  They have served in a variety of conventional and special operations assignments including and most recently with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Arlene Samson-Espiritu and Tim Hume, “43 Philippine police killed by Muslim rebels while hunting bomb makers” CNN, January 27, 2015.

[2] Aid data was compiled from the U.S. State Department FY Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations..FY data was taken from the FY +2 request for 2002-2013.  INCLE, FMF, IMET, and NADR funds were included in these figures.

[3] Rommel Banlaoi, Counter Terrorism Measure in Southeast Asia: How Effective Are They? (Philippines: Yuchengco Center, 2009), pp. 23-24.

[4] Banlaoi, p. 24.

[5] Alfonso Yuchengco, “Islamist Terrorism in Southeast Asia,” Issues and Insights, no. 1-03 (Honolulu:
Pacific Forum CSIS, January, 2003), p. 1.

[6] Banlaoi, p. 23.

[7] Bruce Vaughn, “Terrorism in Southeast Asia,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, February 7, 2005, pp. 4-5.

[8] Vaughn, pp. 6-7.

[9] Ibid., p. 11.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Banlaoi, p. 20.

[12] Peter Chalk, “The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment,” Rand National
Defense Research Institute (United States: 2005), p. 152.

[13] Ibid., p. 154.

[14] Ibid., p. 33.

[15] Chalk, p. 36.

[16] Virginia Bacay-Watson, interview August 2014, at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in
Honolulu, Hawaii.

[17] Banlaoi, p. 64.

[18] Gentry White, Lorraine Mazerolle, Michael Porter, and Peter Chalk. “Modeling the Effectiveness of Counter-terrorism Interventions.” Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 475 (2014), p. 472.

[19] Chalk, p. 144.

[20] Dennis Haney, interview, February 2015, at Stanford University.

[21] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland, Website accessed on December 1, 2014.Number of attacks were documented for each year in both Indonesia and the Philippines.

[22] White, p. 461.

[23] White, p. 468.

[24] Kristen E. Schulze, interview, November 2014, London School of Economics, London, U.K.

[25] Chalk, p. 154.

United States military personnel have been deployed to the Philippines for over a decade, participating in military operations known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P).  These troops, primarily Special Operations Forces and their support staff, have assisted the Philippine military in their fight against Muslim insurgents on the island of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.  While the terrorist networks targeted by Philippine military units supported through OEF-P have been greatly degraded over the last ten years, the impact of US military presence on Philippine internal security and the strategic relationship between the two states remains unclear.  While the Abu Sayyaf Group is much less of threat, security gains in the southern Philippines have been mixed at best. 

In May 2001 two missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and another American, Guilllermo Sobrero, were kidnapped from a resort on the Philippine island of Palawan by members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).  Founded in the early 1990s, the ASG was an offshoot of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).  The September 11 attacks against the US a few months later, however, elevated a kidnapping by a criminal group with terrorist ambitions into the key event in the Southeast Asian front of a larger conflict due to ASG’s pretensions of being part of Al Qaeda’s global jihad.  The increased American sense of urgency resulting from the kidnapping was demonstrated when President Bush assured his Philippine counterpart, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, that the United States would help “in any way she suggests.”

The US Military and Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines

The results of that promise are still evident in the Philippines over a decade later, despite the rescue of Gracia Burnham (her husband was killed during the rescue) and death of the leader of the raid, Aldam Tilao AKA Abu Sabaya, in 2002.  The current US force in the Philippines participating in ongoing operations is the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P).  Its mission statement is simple:

“At the request of the Philippine Government, JSOTF-P works together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fight terrorism and deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Mindanao.  U.S. forces are temporarily deployed to the Philippines in a strictly non-combat role to advise and assist the AFP, share information, and to conduct joint civil military operations.”

The American forces deployed as part of JSOTF-P do not engage in combat themselves, but rather train and guide the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to better prosecute the fight against violent groups such as the ASG.  Colonel William Coultrup, a former JSOTF-P commander, once described its “desired end state” as one in which “leadership and safe havens” for foreign jihadists “have been neutralized and the conditions for their presence no longer exist."

The initial group of US personnel actually arrived from Special Operations Command-Pacific (SOCPAC) in 2001 before the Burnhams were kidnapped, and were tasked with “advising and assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines” against ASG on the island of Basilan, the home of senior leaders such as Abu Sabaya and the suspected location of the hostages after they had been kidnapped. According to another former JSOTF-P commander, Colonel David Maxwell, the initial team from SOCPAC was a Mobile-Training Team formed of US Special Forces (SF) operators tasked with training a “Philippine light reaction company (LRC) drawn from the ranks of the Philippine army's special forces and scout ranger organizations.”  After September 2001, US Pacific Command (PACOM) drafted a plan which included “the deployment of about 160 American SF advisers to Basilan to train, advise, and assist AFP units.”  This unit was known as JTF-510, and arrived in February 2002, with its headquarters in Zamboanga City.  JTF-510 eventually evolved into what is now known as JSOTF-P, incorporating a wider scope of Special Operations personnel and occasional support by conventional military units such as Navy surface vessels and aviation assets such as  P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.

OEF-P as a Success and the Basilan Model

Although the US forces participating in OEF-P over the last ten years have been based in a variety of locations across the southern Philippines, including the islands of the Sulu Archipelago (Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi Tawi) and much of Mindanao itself, the island of Basilan has often been the focus of operations from the beginning.  American advisors, working closely with host-nation forces at the tactical level, have encouraged the improvement of security for locals and conducted Civil Military Operations to entice the populace to share information regarding the location of insurgents.  Using the resultant close ties with local residents and acting upon information they provide, Philippine military units were soon able to conduct operations against the ASG that were “intelligence-driven and surgical.”  This approach became known as the “Basilan Model” in the American and Philippine militaries and provided a recent real world case study as American counter-insurgency doctrine was revamped for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The tactics employed on Basilan, especially in the initial era of JTF 510,  entailed an “aggressive increase in AFP patrolling,” denying “Abu Sayyaf its habitual sanctuary and curtailing the group's movement,” as well as rigorous training of AFP units in order to improved their ability to conduct combat operations.   American members of JTF-510 felt that these tactics were successful, resulting in the locals being more willing to support US-enabled AFP operations.  One operator felt the population had clearly changed its attitudes towards the ASG and both AFP and US troops, noting that “by the time we left, they were our friends. That led them to question everything the guerrillas had told them about Americans.”

Boosters of the US mission in the Philippines have used several different arguments to claim it as a success.  Strictly in financial terms, US operations in the Philippines have been efficient compared to those in other countries.  The difference between US operations in the Philippines and Afghanistan is stark, with approximately $50 million per year needed to sustain 600 personnel in the Philippines, compared to the campaign in Afghanistan, which was costing $2 billion per week by 2011.  It’s also been much cheaper than Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of lives, with 17 US killed (3 dead in attacks on Jolo and in Zamboanga City, the rest in a helicopter crash and other accidents) over ten years. 

The quality of life for residents of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago has also arguably improved.  In addition to Civil Military Operations events providing medical, dental, and veterinary care, as well as construction of public works, the improved security environment on Basilan has enabled better medical care overall through an expanded hospital and new women’s clinic.  A branch of the popular Philippine fast food chain Jollibee even opened up in the island’s largest city, Isabela City, an important signifier that it had joined the ranks of “normal” Philippine cities. 

The ASG as a network has clearly been degraded by US-enabled AFP operations.  Always less a jihadist group in practice than a criminal gang with a special focus on kidnapping-for-ransom, ASG is now estimated to number about 500 fighters, a decrease from 1,200 in 2002.  There are also no evident operational ties with the larger Al Qaeda network, although that absence could also be attributed to Indonesia successfully crippling its own Jemaah Islamiyah, whose members often served as the link between Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan/Pakistan and various groups in Southeast Asia, or the elimination of most of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership over the years.  ASG’s senior leadership has been devastated, with fifteen of twenty-four named “High Value” leaders targets captured or killed by 2011.  2006’s “Operation Ultimatum” on Jolo resulted in the death of Khadaffy Janjalani, younger brother of ASG’s founder and leader of the group during the 2001 kidnappings.   

These successes were achieved by more capable AFP units that had been trained and mentored by the US.  Counter-terrorism aside, it has also been argued that US operations in the Philippines have been a success by providing a framework for improved military cooperation between the Philippines and the US.  Those ties had frayed following the closure of the major US bases in the Philippines during the early nineties.  While many Filipinos still dislike the US military presence, ten years of operations in the south have set a new precedent for combined US-Philippine military cooperation.  This relationship could prove strategically useful to the US as it re-prioritizes its global military commitments, with a greater emphasis on the Pacific

The Basilan Model as a Failure?

In spite of these documented successes (killed or captured ASG leaders and a significantly smaller sized terrorist group, some improved economic development, improved military-to-military ties between the Philippines and US), security on islands such as Basilan has fluctuated wildly since 2002, with periods of relative quiet interspersed with outbreaks of kidnapping and conflict between the Philippine military and various local groups.  Critics have argued that the AFP drew down its forces on Basilan too quickly in 2004, and that the resulting vacuum was exploited by ASG members, who were able to return to Basilan after having fled to nearby Mindanao and Jolo.  Unable to pressure the enemy everywhere in their various havens across the archipelago, the AFP and their US supporters could do nothing more than to chase them from island to island. 

Despite the initial successes of 2002-2004, there have been multiple ASG-linked terrorist attacks in the Philippines since, and multiple outbreaks of violence and clashes with the military on islands such as Basilan (although the ASG itself was not always responsible for this violence).  In 2004 fourteen people were killed and 116 injured following a bomb attack onboard SUPERFERRY 14 while it traveled from Manila to Mindanao, in an attack attributed to ASG and linked groups.  ASG was also blamed for multiple bomb attacks in Manila and Mindanao on Valentine’s Day 2005 in which eleven people were killed.   In 2007 a bomb attack against the Batasang Pambansa, the building in which the Philippine House of Representatives meets, killed six people, including Wahab Akbar, the representative for Basilan and former Basilan governor.  Akbar, who had a particularly complex history with the various insurgent and Islamist groups in the region (he had been a MNLF deputy commander and was accused of being one of the ASG’s founders), was allegedly targeted by rival Basilan politicians on Basilan.

Basilan itself has been the site of much combat between Philippine troops and the locals.  In July 2007 fourteen AFP Marines were killed in Al Barka, a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stronghold in the southeastern part of the island. Although blame has been attributed to the Marines entering a MILF-controlled area without proper coordination with MILF leaders (per a pre-existing arrangement between the MILF and Philippine government), incidents such as these have recurred in recent years. 

Kidnap-for-ransom and violence on Basilan also picked up in late 2008 and early 2009.  In 2008 twenty-six people were injured after a grenade was detonated outside the much-heralded Isabela City Jollibee.  Clashes between the AFP and local groups in late 2008 displaced 3,000 villagers.  In January 2009 three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) employees were kidnapped.   The nadir in 2009 was a mass escape from a jail in Isabela City in which at least 31 prisoners from the ASG and MILF were freed by attackers who allegedly broke through the wall.  The most prominent of the escapees was Dan Laksaw Ustaz Asnawi, one of the senior leaders of the MILF unit on Basilan, the 114th Base Command, who had been blamed for the 2007 ambush of the Marines in Al Barka. 

A month before the 2010 national elections, violence on Basilan was topped off by a coordinated set of attacks in Isabela City, resulting in at least thirteen killed and fifteen wounded on 13 April.  While Basilan-based ASG or MILF elements received most of the blame (a brother of Furuji Indama, one of the senior ASG leaders on Basilan was believed killed in the attack), one of the losing candidates for governor, Ungkaya Pukan mayor Joel Maturan, accused another losing candidate, Mujiv Hataman, of masterminding the attack as part of a plot to discredit the Basilan governor and Isabela City mayors, both of whom ultimately retained their seats (and happen to both be Wahab Akbar’s widows).

Violence continued in 2011 and 2012, even after responsibility for Basilan shifted from a Brigade commanded by and primarily composed of AFP Marines to a Philippine Special Operations Forces-led unit.  In October 2011 nineteen soldiers were killed in Al Barka in circumstances similar to the 2007 ambush, while entering MILF-controlled areas in search of fugitives.  Another nineteen troops were killed in July 2012 in Sumisip, the mountainous area in the center of the island. 

What is the True Impact of US Operations in the Southern Philippines?

Evidence of improved security aside, it’s unclear whether the Basilan model can be repeated in other countries.  As the Economist observed, the US “is unlikely to find other partners as perfect as the AFP, which is modeled on America’s armed forces. Filipino officers speak English, know and admire America, once the colonial power, and can bond with their comrades over beer and karaoke. Try that in Yemen.”

Success in the Philippines may also have been not as important in terms of combating terrorism in Southeast Asia than events in neighboring Indonesia.  There has been little direct US involvement in Indonesian counter-terror efforts, but authorities there have been able to crush Jemaah Islamiyah and eliminate its senior leaders such as Dulmatin, one of the masterminds of the 2002 Bali bombing who also served as a link between Al Qaida and the various jihadist groups in the Philippines.  Dulmatin lived on Mindanao between 2003 and 2007, but was only killed in 2010 after his return to Indonesia.

Despite the emphasis on security for the locals and improved infrastructure through Civil Military Operations, US-backed counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism has done little to address the long-festering socio-economic problems of the southern Philippines.  The Muslims of the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao are still much poorer than their Catholic countrymen.  In October 2012 the Aquino government signed an agreement  with the MILF which would provide a new framework for developing self-government for Muslims in the south (replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the result of previous negotiations with the rival MNLF in 1996).  It’s unclear whether the new agreement will be the key to peace in the region, or will founder due to conflicts between the MILF and MNLF.  It is also unclear whether US-enabled counter-insurgency had any role in pushing Philippine President Benigno Aquino towards attempting to resolve the decades-long crisis (it is likely that an agreement with the MILF would have been an administration priority regardless). 

It was noted above that OEF-P could be seen as a strategic success because it established a framework for continued and enhanced US military presence in the Pacific.  However, it could be argued instead that the Philippine government, concerned with a “rising” China, would have sought a closer military relationship with the US regardless of whether US troops had helped prosecute a military campaign against domestic insurgents for a decade.  While Presidents Bush and Arroyo may have had a close relationship, based in large part by their shared priorities regarding the war against terror, a reasonable argument could be made that a close US-Philippine security relationship would have been pursued by the Obama and Aquino administrations due to converging geopolitical interests, regardless of the relationship between their predecessors.

Ultimately, Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines can be judged as a mixed success at best.  It provided a sense of urgency which motivated efforts to eliminate havens exploited by foreign jihadists to seek shelter among their co-religionists in the Philippines.  Despite success at degrading Philippine terrorist networks, however, much of the resulting security gains have been transitory, and the social and economic problems causing decades of violence in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are still in place. 

Categories: Philippines - OEF-P - Mindanao - insurgency - counterinsurgency - COIN - Basilan - Abu Sayyaf

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About the Author(s)


Mark Munson

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2).  In 2010 he deployed as the Intelligence Officer for Task Force Archipelago, the Naval Special Warfare component of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

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