Philippines: Unexpected Progress

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February 8, 2019: Military intelligence believes ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is growing in the Moslem south. Visible evidence of this effort can be seen in the two suicide bomber attacks down there in January. That was followed by an upsurge in tips from local civilians (most of them Moslem) about Islamic terrorist activity. This included reports that an Arab ISIL member was seeking to expand the ISIL presence in the Philippines by organizing the January 27 attack in Jolo and the July 31 attack in Basilan. The elusive “Arab” working with Abu Sayyaf is believed to be from Yemen or Egypt and to have married a local woman. The two recent attacks were delayed because there was not enough money available to get them ready. Security forces are now putting a priority on finding this Arab attack organizer and disrupting any Abu Sayyaf fundraising activities, especially kidnapping for ransom. The suicide bombings, as well as the kidnapping, often involve local Moslems who tend to regard the local Islamic terrorists as a bunch of bandits with religious pretensions. This dislike is particularly acute right now as the Moslem south is finally going to get its long-sought autonomy and one thing that could derail that effort at this point is a lot of Islamic terrorism.

The government confirmed that a junior Abu Sayyaf commander, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, has become the new leader of ISIL in the Philippines. Sawadjaan had been acting leader after the death of Isnilon Hapilon during the battle in Marawi city during 2017. Sawadjaan got the top ISIL job by supporting the two recent suicide bombings and providing sanctuary for a growing number of foreign ISIL members fleeing the ISIL defeat in Syria and Iraq. The government has identified 14 local ISIL members believed involved in the two recent attacks. American and Filipino intel agrees that there are at least 300 ISIL members in the Philippines and perhaps as many as 500. There are currently 270 American special operations and intel troops in the Philippines working on the effort to destroy Abu Sayyaf and the growing ISIL threat. The peak strength of ISIL in the Philippines was about a thousand men but aggressive efforts by the security forces since 2017 have resulted in heavy ISIL losses. It is the new foreign arrivals that cause the most concern as these men have skills that local ISIL members lack, as well as more willingness to serve as suicide bombers. The foreign Islamic terrorists are particularly disliked by the Moslem population in general as they are seen as a poor reflection of Islam and a public danger to everyone.

While ISIL may be greatly diminished worldwide various al Qaeda franchises (in central Africa, Yemen, Syria and South Asia) are still very active and so are various Islamic terror groups that have been around a long time in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, northern Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus where they concentrate on non-Moslems or Moslems considered heretics. This is particularly unpopular in the southern Philippines where Moslems and non-Moslems have lived as alongside each other for over a century without much religious animosity. But in other parts of the world Moslem majority populations have been terrorizing their neighbors for centuries. What is different now is that most Moslem rulers recognize that this sort of thing does no one any good and is bad for Islam. Even the new ruler of Saudi Arabia accepts this and is seeking a solution that makes things better and not worse. The problem is that there is no one recognized (by even a majority of Moslems) authority on what (if anything) defines acts that justify Islamic terrorism. So the Islamic terrorism will still be out there in 2019 and beyond. Rising affluence, literacy and access to global media and the Internet has made Islamic terrorism more visible and more likely to occur outside Moslem majority areas. It will lead to some better educated Islamic terrorists but also more Moslems abandoning Islam. That is a capital crime in many Moslem majority states and that sometimes means execution or murder by mob. Such practices are alien to Filipino Moslems in part because Moslems are a small minority (8 percent) of the Filipino population. Worse yet Moslems are only about a third of the 22 million people on Mindanao and the smaller southern islands. The rest are Christians, who do not want to share the island with an autonomous Moslem regional government. Moreover, most of the Moslem population is intermixed with Christians, and the radical Moslems want these Christians expelled. But the radical Moslems are not strong enough to force the majority Christians out. Many Moslem majority areas have become largely Christian in the past decade. The Christian majority has been encroaching, on the sparsely populated areas of the Moslem south, for over a century. This movement of Christians has accelerated as the economy has improved in the last decade. Many Moslems see their culture threatened, but armed resistance has not done much to help. The Moslems are outnumbered and have been losing battles for decades. Radical Islam has not been able to halt this process, and fewer and fewer young Moslems are willing to die for that cause. But many young Moslems are willing to become bandits and outlaws, and that is what most of the hostiles down south are turning into. This sort of thing is a problem for everyone, no matter their religion.

War On Drugs and Corruption

President Duterte was elected three years ago because of his previous experience as a big city major showed that he might actually be able to carry out his campaign promises to reduce corruption and drug-related crime. According to recent polls, Duterte still has the highest approval and trust ratings of any Filipino president, especially this late in his term of office. Many other Filipino presidents got elected on the basis of promises they could not or would not keep. After two or three years such failure to perform was reflected in approval polls. Duterte used vigilante tactics to reduce the ability of drug gangs to terrorize the areas where they operated and openly bribe police and other officials. This is what most Filipinos disliked most about the illegal drugs, in addition to children or kin turning themselves into anti-social addicts. After three years most Filipinos still rate Duterte as effective and able to deliver on campaign promises. This was particularly true with the other campaign promise; to reduce corruption. The high levels of corruption make it easier for drug gangs to operate and Duterte went after anyone found to be corrupt for whatever reason. This included longtime friends and political allies as well as senior police commanders. The success of these tactics showed up in the latest international corruption surveys. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines has the most problems with corruption, and Duterte demonstrated that the Filipino situation was not hopeless.

The 2018 international corruption ratings show the world that the Philippines is making progress in dealing with corruption. Currently, the Philippines ranks 99th out of 180 nations compared with 111 in 2017. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Philippines score is 36 (versus 34 in 2017 and 2016) compared to 63 (61) for Taiwan, 40 (40) for India, 29 (29) for Russia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 14 (17) for North Korea, 33 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 39 (41) for China, 72 (73) for Japan, 38 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 31 (33) for the Maldives, 36 (34) for the Philippines, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 28 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 72 (75) for the United States, 27 (27) for Nigeria, 43 (43) for South Africa, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon,. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. The Filipino corruption score has not changed much since 2012 when it was 34. There is still a lot of corruption in the Philippines but it is no longer “acceptable” (as in “everyone does it”). The hardcore corrupt believe that once Duterte is gone (presidents can only serve one term of six years) the good old ways will return. Yet former presidents, especially notably effective ones, retain a lot of influence on who gets elected and what happens after the election.

February 7, 2019: In the south (Tawi-Tawi province), Shaifful Julaili , a notorious Abu Sayyaf organizer of kidnapping efforts, was killed when he was identified at a checkpoint and tried to shoot his way out. Shaifful Julaili is wanted in Sabah, Malaysia and the Philippines for kidnapping. This included kidnapping sailors from ships in the Sulu Sea.

February 6, 2019: In the two southern provinces (Lanao del Norte and North Cotobato), some  640,000 residents voted to include their provinces in the new Moslem Bangsamoro autonomous region in the south. The main election for Bangsamoro was held on January 21 and 88 percent of the 1.7 million voters in ARMM (Autonomous Region in Moslem Mindanao) voted to approve ARMM.

February 4, 2019: In the south, five Abu Sayyaf members sought for involvement in the July 27 suicide bombing surrendered and insisted that they were not involved in that attack but did have prior knowledge of it.

February 3, 2019: In the south (Maguindanao province), soldiers seized a BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) camp in a remote area. The camp had been hit by an airstrike before the troops arrived and found eight dead Islamic terrorists. BIFF had survived a three month effort (that ended in early September 2018) to eliminate their presence in Mindanao (where most BIFF members are). Over a hundred BIFF men were killed during that campaign and many others died of wounds or deserted. By the end of 2018 the army had found several BIFF camps including one with a bomb workshop. Also found were ammo and weapons supplies as well as military equipment and documents. What was not found by the end of the year was much evidence of BIFF members. When the army planned this offensive they believed there were as many as 400 BIFF members in the area of operations and had set no end date on the eradication campaign. The object was to destroy BIFF presence on Mindanao Island (including Maguindanao province) and captured documents and prisoner interrogations indicated that this was a possibility. But the reality is the BIFF are hardcore and consider themselves a branch of ISIL. BIFF has become a magnet for many Filipino Moslems who are unhappy with the Bangsamoro Moslem autonomy agreement and believe it does not go far enough (ISIL believes that all Filipinos should be Moslems). The BIFF camp captured today was believed to contain seven foreign Islamic terrorists (one from Singapore, two from Malaysia and two from Indonesia as well as two described as “Arabs.”) The Singaporean, Muhamad Ali Abdul Rahiman, was the most well-known for his ability to organize terror attacks. It will take a while to get positive IDs on the bodies.

February 2, 2019: In the south (Sulu), soldiers and about 150 Abu Sayyaf gunmen fought for several hours, leaving five soldiers and three Islamic terrorists dead as well as five soldiers and 15 Abu Sayyaf men wounded. The Abu Sayyaf force was able to withdraw. One of the Abu Sayyaf leaders of this force, Indang Susukan, was wounded and apparently died from his wounds several days later. Susukan was known to be one of the key Abu Sayyaf organizers of kidnapping for ransom operations.

January 31, 2019: In the south (Basilan), a Moroccan suicide truck bomber died when he detonated his explosives prematurely, killing ten Filipino militiamen and civilians and wounding eleven others. This bomber was headed for a gathering of 2,000 students and teachers. The bomber had stopped to ask for directions when someone spotted part of the bomb and alerted nearby militiamen who rushed over.

January 27, 2019: In the south (Jolo), two Abu Sayyaf suicide bombers from Indonesia attacked a Catholic cathedral, leaving 23 dead and over a hundred wounded.

January 26, 2019: In the South China Sea China has reduced to 42 the number of warships and naval militia boats near the Filipino island of Pagasa. China had as many as 95 of these ships off Pagasa in late 2018 as the Philippines began a construction project on the island to create more land and put up more buildings. China did not press the issue by having the militia fishing boats try to physically block Filipino commercial or military ship from getting to Pagasa. China has been threatening to do this since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa. China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel. Filipinos have lived on the island since 1956 and there has been a Filipino military presence there since 1970. China has been increasingly belligerent about its claims to Pagasa and threatens to “take it back” by force. After 2014 Chinese military and civilian ships were showing up near Pagasa with increasing frequency and sometimes the Chinese vessels tried (by getting in the way) to prevent non-Chinese vessels from getting too close to the island. The Philippines often has a coast guard patrol boat off the island (which is 480 kilometers from the nearest Filipino territory China does not claim) and that provides the possibility of a violent military encounter. China is also concerned with the increasingly frequent visits of American warships to the Philippines (for leave and maintenance) and the South China Seas (to challenge Chinese claims.) So far China has not been violent but with more and more Chinese warships, warplanes and troops showing up in the South China Sea there appears to be increased risk of someone opening fire. There are a growing number of “offenders” for the Chinese to shoot at. In addition to ships from the nearest countries (mainly Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan) there are the more powerful allies of these countries (mainly Japan and the United States).

January 21, 2019: In the north (Quezon province) ten NPA gunmen raided a construction site and burned construction vehicles, trucks and other equipment. The workers were unharmed. The NPA was punishing the construction company for not paying "revolutionary taxes" (extortion). This is how NPA finances itself and as a result of these attacks, the army high command has ordered more efforts to protect companies working down there. This NPA activity discourages economic growth in rural areas.

 

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