As political talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) register strong progress, the military campaign to finish off the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the south continues. According to the October 13 edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which first broke the news, the government in Manila agreed to allow in principle Muslims in the south to “draft their own constitution, impose their own tax system, and to form and maintain legal and financial institutions.” The new entity, as yet unnamed, is to absorb over the next five years the existing Autonomous Region in Mindanao, along with other Muslim-dominated areas in North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga (Central and Western Mindanao) (https://news.inq7.net).
Since the success of the peace talks begun last April, the MILF has cooperated openly with the Philippines armed forces in its campaign to flush out the ASG, withdrawing its forces to give way to the military operations in areas of conflict. Recently, the Filipino Government and the MILF forged an initial agreement to jointly flush out terrorists from Mindanao. A list of 53 suspected terrorists has been handed the MILF, who on October 14 issued warnings that terrorists may hit civilian targets any time in Mindanao and, according to the Manila Times, have “alerted our forces to intensify the hunt for JI and Abu Sayyaf terrorists” (www.manilatimes.net). The agreement comes at a time of increased activity from the ASG. At the end of September, two suspected members were killed in a firefight at Panamao (Jolo island), and four Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)-trained bombers were arrested in North Cotabato suspected of planning a bombing campaign to precede the onset of Ramadan (https://news.inq7.net). On October 12 militants ambushed the Filipino military on the island of Basilan, and five days later a raid on an ASG safe house in Zamboanga City resulted in the deaths of two ASG members. Filipino security forces are hunting down the senior ASG member Isnilon Hapilon, said to be plotting a kidnapping spree in western Mindanao to raise funds and divert attention from the military hunt for the ASG leader Khaddafy Janjalani.
The fear that Indonesian JI members are bolstering the ASG ranks adds a particular urgency to the campaign. While much of the old network in Indonesia has been disbanded following the arrest of key figures, JI retains its status as the most significant regional terror threat and is active in promoting sectarian conflicts in the outlying regions of Indonesia. Some 33 JI members are believed to be operating in areas in the southern Philippines where, controversially, they continue to have access to MILF training camps. Four JI members are believed to have slipped into metropolitan Manila with plans to carry out bomb attacks.
The links between the JI and the Filipino arena are not new. A series of bombings in December 2002 that killed 22 people were ascribed to JI and rogue MILF members. The same combination was behind the Valentine’s Day bombings this year in Makati, Davao, and General Santos, which killed eight. These events have increased pressure on the MILF to make explicit efforts to distance themselves from the group by co-operating with Manila and with the Filipino armed forces, which have thrown up to 2,000 ground forces into the campaign to finish off the ASG. The campaign looks set to intensify with calls by the Filipino defense department for the approval of a budget of USD 800 million for the coming year. Part of this sum is to be earmarked for bounty payments for information leading to arrests of JI members. At the moment the U.S. has offered USD 11 million for the arrest of two leading figures, Dulmatin and Umar Patek, suspected of the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia, who are believed to be hiding out with the ASG on Mindanao island. The regional dimension of the threat is also reflected in the October 18 announcement by Australia’s Defence Minister Robert Hill, that Australia and the Philippines were putting the final touches to a “status of forces” agreement that would permit Australia to support Manila’s fight against terrorism by allowing joint exercises of Australian and Filipino forces on Filipino soil. As the Philippine Sun Star reported, Australia is not only to conduct joint sea patrols and provide the country with surveillance technology and long-range reconnaissance training, but also supply small watercraft capability to enable efficient patrolling of the southern river and marshland areas of Mindanao (www.sunstar.com.ph).