The Abu Sayyaf Group in its Philippine and International Contexts
by Jeffrey M. Bale
On 18 October 2003 President George W. Bush delivered a speech to the Philippine Congress, in the course of which he pledged that the United States and Philippine governments would “bring Abu Sayyaf to justice.” He noted that the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was made up of “killers” who “torture and behead their victims, while acting – or claiming to act – in the name of God,” but insisted that “murder has no home in any religious faith” and that “these terrorists must find no home in the Philippines.” He then emphasized that “Philippine security forces have the right and the duty to protect local communities and to defeat terrorism in every form,” since “there can be no compromise with terror.” Bush summed up the portion of his speech devoted to terrorism by stating that he and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had “agreed to update our defense cooperation” after completing “the comprehensive review of Philippine security requirements announced last May.” He then said that the United States was willing to “provide technical assistance and field expertise and funding” in support of “a five-year plan to modernize and reform” the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). This was merely the latest indication of the willingness of the United States Government (USG) to support attempts by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) to suppress the ASG. These cooperative efforts commenced in earnest after American security personnel investigating the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist bombing learned that the suspected bombmaker, Ramzi Ahmad Yusuf, had subsequently spent time in Manila organizing a clandestine cell, manufacturing explosive devices, and planning other terrorist actions against the United States. After the Philippine security forces reported that al-Qa`ida operative Yusuf had met with leading members of the ASG, the US Department of State (DOS) was prompted to list the group on its initial 1997 list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), a list whose purpose is to facilitate the freezing of assets of the terrorist groups listed, the criminalization of material support for them, and the exclusion of aliens associated with them, and the ASG has since appeared on every updated annual FTO list. USG support for the GRP’s anti-ASG actions was reaffirmed again in the wake of the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, in which some of Yusuf’s associates were implicated, but renewed cooperation between the two governments did not reach its present levels until after the catastrophic al-Qa`ida-sponsored terrorist attacks on American soil on 11 September 2001. On 24 September 2001, less than two weeks after those attacks, the ASG was one of the 27 organizations and individuals whose assets were officially frozen by the American government. Shortly thereafter, President Macapagal-Arroyo visited the US to meet with President Bush. She took the opportunity to emphasize the susceptibility of the Philippines to terrorism and to proclaim her vigorous support for American military actions in Afghanistan. As a result, she obtained an extensive aid package of loans and grants, along with 92.2 million dollars worth of military aid, which was then equivalent to around 10 percent of the Philippine military budget. In February 2002 the US sent over 600 troops to the southern Philippines, including 160 Special Forces soldiers, to participate in the initial “Balikatan” (“Shoulder-to-Shoulder”) exercises alongside select units of the AFP. The objectives of these exercises were 1) to improve the “interoperability” of Philippine and US forces against terrorism; 2) to enhance the combat capability of infantry battalions from the AFP’s Southern Command (Southcom), based in Zamboanga City; 3) to ensure better quality in intelligence processing; and 4) to upgrade joint Philippine-American capabilities to wage...
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