Will 'demilitarization' solve the Abu Sayyaf

By Ann Bernadette S. Corvera
Philstar.com 07/01/2002

Hunting season has begun anew. Knowing that the Abu Sayyaf is without any
hostage, the military is on a mission to search and destroy, crush the bandits,
rid the South of their terrorist activities, capture the top bandit leaders and bring
them to trial to answer for the numerous deaths of innocent civilians, both local
and foreign. Déjà vu. We’ve all heard of these lines.

Tough job. Can the military do all these? It's actually tiring to raise this
question again if we are to look at how the Muslim radicals always managed to
create and recreate one hostage drama after another for the past two years,
with their ill-famed leaders eluding arrest and taking all the loot from ransom
paid by hostages to procure high-powered firearms and entice young Muslim
men to join the gang.

Members of the Abu Sayyaf or the Al Harakatul al Islamiya, which means
Islamic movement, have "disguised" themselves as mujahideens but inevitably
became more distinguished as a band of kidnappers, says Basilan Rep.
Abdulgani "Gerry" Salapuddin in describing what the Abu Sayyaf has become
into since it was formed in the early '90s.

Abdurajak Janjalani, slain founder of the Al Harakatul al Islamiya, had been
identified with the Moro National Liberation Front since his youth but became
one of its many disgruntled members when the MNLF – then the largest
Muslim secessionist rebel group – signed a peace treaty with the government
in 1996.

The cycle goes on. The youth are drawn into some cause championed by
whatever organized group that exists in the South and they either stick to that
organization or in the end become disenchanted then leaves to form their own
group or link with some new sprouting pack.

However, unlike the MNLF or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu
Sayyaf’s supposedly original goal of attaining Islamic independence has
become obscured because they commit brutal criminal activities.

"They (Abu Sayyaf) say they are for Islam, that they want to establish an
Islamic Republic, they want to serve as alternative to the (former MNLF leader
Nur) Misuari-MNLF (group) because they consider Misuari and the MNLF a
failure for failing to achieve Moro independence and establish an Islamic state.
But on the other hand, what they’re saying is different from what they are
actually doing," Salapuddin tells Philstar.com in an exclusive interview.

Abdurajak Janjalani had exhorted Muslims to return to the pure practice of
Islam yet kidnappings and murders ultimately took place under his leadership.
His death in the hands of the police led to the takeover of the group by his
younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, at least in Basilan.

Residents of Basilan -- a known hub of the Abu Sayyaf along with Sulu and the
Zamboanga Peninsula -- are sick and tired of having had their home province
land in top news stories only because of the hostage crises that have hounded
them no end since the Abu Sayyaf ignited a kidnapping spree with the
snatching Christian teachers, students and a priest some two years ago in
Puno Mahadji in Basilan.

A familiar game of hide-and-seek followed whenever the extremists are not with
any pawn. And just when we start to ignore the Abu Sayyaf, they grab the
headlines out of bickering politicians and bring into being another hostage

So how do you solve a problem like the Abu Sayyaf? Salapuddin says
militarizing the strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf is no longer the best approach to
contain the bandit group.

In the Abu Sayyaf-infested areas, which are within the Autonomous Region in
Muslim Mindanao, Salapuddin proposes to "demilitarize" these territories then,
strengthen the Philippine National Police pointing out that kidnapping is a "pure
and simple criminal act."

"It follows that the autonomous region areas must be demilitarized or if not
completely demilitarized, the presence of (military) troops must be reduced to a
very manageable level," explains Salapuddin.

The strife-torn island-province of Basilan was included in the expanded
geographical coverage of the ARMM, along with Marawi City, with the passage
of the New Organic Act 9054 last year. The autonomous region previously
included only Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur; both in Central Mindanao; Sulu
and Tawi-Tawi, both in the far south. The Zamboanga Peninsula, however, is
not part of the ARMM.

Salapuddin says his provincemates could not get over the military lapses that
allowed the Muslim extremists to calmly escape through the backdoor of a
hospital compound in Lamitan just days after they raided the Dos Palmas
resort in Palawan on May 27, 2001. Worse, the bandits were able to seize
more hostages that included Filipino nurse Ediborah Yap who was killed along
with American missionary Martin Burnham during the surprise attack of
government forces that also led to the recovery of Martin’s wife, Gracia. The
military plan is known as Operation Daybreak.

Lamitan residents, according to Salapuddin, are not convinced of the military's
explanations, "no matter what they say," behind the sudden pullout of troops. It
happened just when everybody thought that the Abu Sayyaf led by the
outspoken Abu Sabaya were finally cornered. He also scoffed at the military's
strategy of repositioning, not withdrawal.

In the aftermath of Operation Daybreak, Salapuddin says Lamitan residents
were left asking how come it took the military so long to get into an
advantageous position against the Abu Sayyaf and when they did, it had to end
that way? The nagging question of why the armed forces committed that fatal
lapse in Lamitan, intentionally or unintentionally, comes to mind.

Police over military power

Sincerity, Salapuddin says is what the Philippine armed forces need in fighting
the Abu Sayyaf. Effective human intelligence and not the high technology that
the United States military can provide, will lead to the arrest of the bandits
especially their leaders, he adds.

"The people of Basilan Lamitan in particular are not convinced until now that the
military’s very sincere in fighting the Abu Sayyaf," says Salapuddin.

Rep. Salapuddin noted that policemen killed Abdurajak in an encounter in
Lamitan, Basilan in 1998.

The solon also took notice of the role of the police in capturing high-ranking
leaders of the Abu Sayyaf in several areas in Mindanao. The government’s
biggest catch so far is Nadzmie Saabdulla, widely known as Commander
Global, who was nabbed in General Santos City last year for his role in the
Pearl Farm Resort raid on Samal Island.

Commander Global is also believed to have been involved in the hostage taking
of resort visitors at an island-resort in Sipadan, Malaysia. The infamous
Sipadan hostage dilemma brought the name Abu Sayyaf into the awareness of
the international community with their capture of foreigners.

Just last May, two ranking Abu Sayyaf leaders were separately nabbed by
police operatives. Satar Yacub, described as the No. 4 leader of the group on
Basilan, was apprehended in a house outside Zamboanga City while Salip
Abdullah, a key aide of Khadaffy Janjalani, was nabbed near General Santos

Salapuddin firmly believes that the police in the ARMM can handle the
kidnapping dilemma "if given the necessary equipment" and adds it’s only a
matter of improving their intelligence capability.

With this, Salapuddin urges President Arroyo to "evaluate the idea" of devolving
not only the powers of governance, but also even this problem of the Abu
Sayyaf to the autonomous leadership.

Article 10, Section 21 of the Philippine Constitution on the autonomous region
states: "The preservation of peace and order within the regions shall be the
responsibility of the local police agencies which shall be organized, maintained,
supervised, and utilized in accordance with applicable laws. The defense and
security of the regions shall be the responsibility of the National Government."

‘Acid test’

The "best acid test" for an autonomous region is when they are given the
"freehand" to act on the problems within the jurisdiction of the locale,
Salapuddin tells Philstar.com.

Diplomacy backed by sustainable socio-economic development programs of
the government and the "political will "of President Arroyo to tell the military
that it is "high time" for the removal or reduction of military troops in the ARMM
are the solutions proposed by Salapuddin.

The best approach to the Abu Sayyaf problem, he says, is "not largely a
military option," citing that even Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law
did not resolve the conflict in the South between separatist rebels of the MNLF
and the government. The MNLF-government peace treaty, brokered by the
influential Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), came only during the time
of former President Ramos in 1996. Salapuddin had been a former MNLF rebel

Asked about the implications of demilitarizing the ARMM to the presence in the
region of the MILF who has yet to reach a peace agreement with the
government, Salapuddin says the Arroyo administration must "intensify
negotiations" with the secessionist rebel group stressing that no betrayal, only
sincerity must be present for peace to be achieved.

A ceasefire pact signed last year has paused the discord between the
government and the MILF, which broke away from the MNLF after the 1996
peace agreement was reached.

Should they stay or should they go?

Meanwhile, as the Armed Forces of the Philippines continues its hunt against
the Abu Sayyaf, the nation remains fearful as the scampering bandits look for
either human shields or ransom-potential hostages and it’s back to square one
again for the military.

Recent reports indicate that the Abu Sayyaf could be behind the abduction of
four Indonesian crewmen in a remote town in Sulu. One was later able to
escape but the interrogation remains ongoing.

In spite of the vigilance of Basilan folks as they have lost their sympathy toward
the bandit group, Rep. Salapuddin calls on them to bond together with
government elements to get a better chance at thwarting any efforts by the Abu
Sayyaf to take new captives.

And even with the US military still in tow since the US-RP Balikatan joint
military exercises have yet to end, the legislator from Basilan believes it is not
their presence but the availability of the US’ modern hardware that will help their
local counterparts deal with the Abu Sayyaf.

Asked if he favors the American soldiers going into combat side by side with
Filipino soldiers in Basilan, Salapuddin expresses "certain reservations"
pointing out that it is a direct violation of the Philippine Constitution and the
Visiting Forces Agreement. He suggests for the US to give modern war
material equipment to the Philippines either as a form of donation or under
"whatever terms and conditions that the US government and our country may
enter into."

ARMM Gov. Parouk Hussin, on the other hand, had conceded to the
competence of the national government in deciding whether or not additional
RP-US joint military exercises would be conducted in the future.

Neither President Arroyo nor the Washington has given any official decision on
whether the Balikatan 02-1 should be extended or not but only recently, Mrs.
Arroyo hinted at a second joint military exercise.

"We can have another one," she was quoted as telling reporters after explaining
that "it is not really a matter of extending (the Balikatan) because (it) is a
continuing exercise."

According to a Philippine STAR report, President Arroyo also cited a recent
telephone conversation with US President George Bush where they agreed to
sustain the campaign to ultimately annihilate the Abu Sayyaf.

Because of its terrorist ways, the Abu Sayyaf has been linked to the al Qaeda
Network of Osama bin Laden that the American government holds as
responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks in the US.

The extension of the stay of US military engineers undertaking infrastructure
projects in Basilan is a matter that has the nod of Basilan officials and their
constituents, according to the Chief Executive.

The US government has allocated $4 million for the construction and
rehabilitation of roads, bridges, seaports, irrigation systems and an airstrip in
the island-province.