Was U.S. correct in scaling back anti-terrorist operations in the Philippines?

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On February 26th a video emerged of Islamic Abu Sayyaf militants beheading the 70-year-old German Jürgen Kantner. Kantner and his partner Sabine Merz were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf last November while they were sailing near the Malaysian state of Sabah and taken to the militant stronghold of Jolo. Merz was killed immediately when she tried to resist the militants.

Abu Sayyaf is still holding 26 other hostages (among them Vietnamese and Filipino nationals) and will exchange them for cash. The militants use the money from the kidnappings to buy weapons, high-speed boats, and modern navigation equipment which they use to conduct terrorist attacks and stage more kidnappings.

Abu Sayyaf was founded in the 1990s, an offshoot of the country’s ongoing Islamist insurgency. Their stated goal is to establish a Muslim state in the south of the Philippines. The militants operate from the jungles of the Basilan and Jolo islands where they can count on the Muslim population for cover.

After 9/11 attacks the U.S. sent 500 Special Forces advisors to help them fight the jihadists. The operation successfully degraded Aby Sayyaf from about 1,000 men to about 300.

However, America scaled back assistance in 2014 arguing that Abu Sayyaf’s ability to conduct international terrorist attacks has been destroyed. In addition to the perceived degradation of Abu Sayyaf’s forces during this period, the terrorist group also suffered from loss of leadership and internal rivalries, with both Abu Sayyaf factions losing their leaders in 2006 and 2007.

The same year U.S. made its decision to scale back aid, Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. At first Philippine authorities thought the pledges were opportunistic, but after IS propaganda reported on Abu Sayyaf’s clashes with the Philippine army the government admitted that a more significant relationship between the two terrorist organizations might exist.

Since 2014 the militants have also grown bolder and began attacking Malaysian and Indonesian vessels in the Sulu Sea. The situation has worsened to a point where both countries are discussing conducting joint naval patrols of the area.

Kantner and his partner were not the only hostages that Abu Sayyaf has killed. Last year the militants beheaded two Canadian hostages after Prime Minister Trudeau refused to pay their ransom.

The U.S. drawdown might be responsible for the regrowth of Abu Sayyaf’s activities.

The group remains fragmented, but they have been able to expand their kidnappings as far as Malaysia and managed to inflict substantial Filipino casualties. When one of Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping leaders was killed last year it was not done by Filipino soldiers, but by the Malaysian military.

The fact that it was the Malaysians and not the Filipinos who managed to kill Abraham Hamid may suggest that the Philippine military is not capable of dealing with Abu Sayyaf and requires foreign help.

Since America withdrew its military assistance Abu Sayyaf may have taken advantage of U.S. absence to expand its operations and form an alliance with IS. Its recent spate of kidnappings indicate that the group remains a danger to the region.



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