The Magazine

Treading Softly in the Philippines

Why a low-intensity counterinsurgency strategy seems to be working there.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By MAX BOOT and RICHARD BENNET
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Zamboanga City, Philippines

The war on terror that the Obama administration is inheriting comes with a decidedly mixed record. Stopping attacks on the American homeland since 2001 has been the Bush administration's biggest accomplishment. Turning around the war effort in Iraq, which was on the verge of failure in 2006, has been another signal success. But, as the Mumbai attacks remind us, the threat of Islamist terrorism has hardly been extinguished. Al Qaeda and other extremists have found in Pakistan the haven they lost in Afghanistan after 2001. Since then they have waged an insurgency, with growing success, against governments in both Kabul and Islamabad. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be an active sponsor of terrorism as well as a seeker of nuclear weapons. Its proxies may have been routed in Iraq, but they remain as powerful as ever in Lebanon, and their tentacles spread as far as South America.

Almost forgotten amid these major developments is a tiny success story in Southeast Asia that may offer a more apt template than either Iraq or Afghanistan for fighting extremists in many corners of the world. The southern islands of the Philippines, inhabited by Muslims known as Moros (Spanish for "Moor"), have been in almost perpetual rebellion against the Christian majority ruling in Manila. They fought the Spaniards when they arrived 500 years ago, and they fought the Americans when they arrived more than 100 years ago. The latest rebellion broke out in the early 1970s and has killed well over 120,000 people. It was led initially by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which challenged a martial-law regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That group began to reach accommodation with Manila in 1975--a process completed by a democratic government in 1996. The MNLF demobilized its fighters, and most of its members melted back into the populace. Some even took positions in the local government or the security forces. But along the way several dangerous splinter factions broke off.

The largest and most moderate of these is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which, as the name would indicate, has a more religious emphasis than its socialist-nationalist forerunner. It, too, has been in negotiations with the government, but the peace process broke down in August after the Philippine Supreme Court, much to the consternation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, ruled unconstitutional a plan to grant the Muslim region a large degree of autonomy. (Judicial activism, it seems, is one of many American exports that have taken root here.) While most of the MILF, 8,000-10,000 strong, remained at peace, several of its "base commands," numbering a few thousand fighters, declared war on the Philippine government and the non-Muslim inhabitants of the island of Mindanao, burning Christian villages and slaughtering their inhabitants. An estimated 200 people were killed, and tens of thousands turned into refugees.

The more extremist of these base commands have established a symbiotic relationship with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian terrorist group that carried out the infamous bombing in Bali that killed over 200 people in 2002, and Abu Sayyaf, a homegrown Filipino jihadist group launched by veterans of the 1980s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Those groups, in turn, developed close ties in the 1990s with al Qaeda. Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, moved to Manila to provide financing and organizational assistance to local radicals. Training camps were set up in the poorly policed hinterland in the Muslim south, and ambitious plots were hatched. These included plans to blow up 11 airliners in midair, crash a hijacked airliner into the CIA's headquarters, and assassinate Pope John Paul II while he was visiting the Philippines in 1995. Among the chief plotters present in the Philippines were Ramzi Yousef, coordinator of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who would go on to mastermind the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The attacks on New York and Washington finally awakened the U.S. government to the need to do something about the Philippine branch of the global jihad. Military exercises were conducted with the Philippines, and Special Forces and CIA teams were dispatched to provide training and intelligence support for local security forces. An early, largely successful example of Philippine-American cooperation came in the search for an Abu Sayyaf squad that in 2001 abducted 20 people, including three Americans, from a beach resort in the southern Philippines. Eventually the kidnappers were hunted down and captured or killed, although two of the Americans died as well--one executed by the kidnappers, the other killed in a bungled rescue attempt by the Philippine Army.