New Roads and Buildings against jihad? Â Are Americans really such suckers for LOVE..?
Curbed in Towns, Philippines Islamists Take to the Forests
LAMITAN, Philippines â€” Early this decade, American soldiers landed on the island of Basilan, here in the southern Philippines, to help root out the militant Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf. Now, Basilan’s biggest towns, once overrun by Abu Sayyaf and criminal groups, have become safe enough that a local Avon lady trolls unworriedly for customers.
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Still, despite seven years of joint military missions and American development projects, much of the island outside main towns like Lamitan remains unsafe. Abu Sayyaf members, sheltered by sympathetic residents, continue to operate in the interior’s dense forests, even as the United States recently extended the deployment of troops in the southern Philippines.
Last month, Abu Sayyaf guerrillas killed 23 Philippine soldiers in a battle in the south of Basilan. This month, on the neighboring island of Jolo, Abu Sayyaf members, reinforced by a contingent from Basilan, killed eight soldiers in fierce fighting that displaced thousands of civilians. More than 40 insurgents were killed, though at least 10 were believed to have belonged to a different Muslim separatist group.
“We haven’t been able to eliminate the root cause of the problem,” said Maj. Armel Tolato, the commander of a Philippine Marine battalion here, explaining why Abu Sayyaf had not been eradicated. “It cannot be addressed alone by the military. It’s derived from the dynamics here, political and cultural. It’s very complex.” In an interview at a base shared with American troops, he said: “We’re just dealing with the armed elements. We might kill them. But there are young ones to take their place.”
- “To the Americans I say, you killed Mehsud, but you will not kill Islam or the Jihad. Islam doesn’t end by the death of one man.”/Hmm, why might he say that?
Basilan, like many other Muslim and Christian areas in the southern Philippines, has a long history of political violence, clan warfare and corruption. Experts believe that Abu Sayyaf has been protected not only by friends and family, but also by friendly political and military officials.
It received support fromÂ Al Qaeda in the early 1990s and is believed to be sheltering leaders of the Indonesian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah. But as most of its original leaders have been killed or captured, Abu Sayyaf and its new recruits are said to be motivated less by radical Islamist ideology than by banditry, especially the lucrative kidnappings for ransom for which it has become known.
Last month, after consulting with the Philippine government, the United States decided to extend the operation of its force in the southern Philippines, known as theÂ Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines and composed of 600 elite counterinsurgency soldiers. The announcement drew angry responses from left-leaning politicians and news media; American officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
Since establishing the task force in 2002, the United States has provided the Philippines with $1.6 billion in military and economic aid. Much of that, including $400 million from the United States Agency for International Development, has been funneled into Mindanao in the southern Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf and another Muslim separatist group operate.
Some 1,300 American soldiers first arrived in 2002 in Basilan, which has a population of less than half a million, to support the Philippine military against Abu Sayyaf. Today, a force of 600 soldiers remains, spread out here and in the region, supplying its Philippine counterpart with intelligence, training and technology. According to the agreement with the Philippines, the American soldiers are prohibited from engaging in direct combat.
The Americans have also been directing development assistance here, including building roads, bridges and buildings; improving cellphone service and encouraging local businesses; training teachers and wiring schools for the Internet; and providing temporary medical and dental clinics.
But American troops have typically let their Filipino counterparts deal with the residents, thereby burnishing the image of the Philippines military, which has long been viewed as an occupying force in the south’s Muslim areas. “More people are doing business in Basilan because there’s much less fighting and kidnapping now,” said Wilma Amirul, 30, the Avon saleswoman, who was taking the morning ferry here from Zamboanga, the nearest city on the mainland. “Before, even the poor were kidnapped for ransom.”
Ms. Amirul, who has been selling cosmetics in Zamboanga for six years, said she started coming regularly to Basilan five months ago to expand her clientele. Another passenger, Jose Wee, 63, a candle manufacturer, said he now visited Basilan freely to sell his products â€” an indispensable item because of the frequent blackouts here. “The situation is good now, but maybe for the meantime only,” he said. “If the Americans leave, the Abu Sayyaf might regroup.” [*] [worrisome that such comments are heard all over] [certainly suggests the US must be in the protection business for foreseeable future, a depressing thought] [*]
Under a deep blue sky with low-lying clouds, the ferry arrived in Lamitan, fringed with white beaches and palm trees, dotted with simple houses made of wood or concrete. Soldiers guarded 30 checkpoints along roads into town.
Lamitan, along with Isabela, the provincial capital, is the only town on the island with a sizable Christian population. Roderick H. Furigay, 47, the mayor of Lamitan and the only Christian among Basilan’s 12 mayors, strongly backed the American presence because he believed the Philippine military lacked “adequate capability.” He called himself the “No. 1 target” of Abu Sayyaf â€” “threats are like breakfast to me” â€” as he toured the American-financed projects around town, accompanied by bodyguards.
“Peace here in Basilan is so elusive,” Mr. Furigay said, adding that poor governance created an environment in which groups like Abu Sayyaf grew. “Most of our leaders in Basilan are not really sincere. Most of them are holding their positions just to enrich themselves.” He said that because Abu Sayyaf’s leadership had been decimated, the group’s members were now motivated by “grievances.”
“There’s little ideology,” he said, estimating that Abu Sayyaf’s core members numbered fewer than 20 in Basilan.
That assessment was shared by other islanders, including those less welcoming of an American presence. Al-Rasheed M. Sakkalahul, Basilan’s vice governor, estimated that only 10 were longtime, ideologically driven members. But he said they were able to mobilize about 100 supporters in a conflict.
“All the rest are ordinary bandits, even civilians without any training on how to handle firearms,” Mr. Sakkalahul, 52, said at his office in Isabela. “They join Abu Sayyaf so they can divide ransom money from kidnapping victims.” [peculiar] [but not unlike the jihadis in India’s prison for Thanksgiving attacks in Mubaiâ€”he and friend were criminals looking for way to make living] [*] He said that given those circumstances, he was skeptical of the American force’s presence here and complained that he had not been given facts about the mission. “You are my visitor in my house,” Mr. Sakkalahul said. “You just enter my house without even knocking on my door. What is your purpose in coming?”
Maj. Ramon D. Hontiveros, a spokesman for the task force’s Philippine side, said it was trying to “work through local politicians” and “keep the military footprint as small as possible.”
He said, “The Americans come with a lot of baggage, but the new roads and buildings they’ve brought here will outlive any controversy.”