In the south (Jolo Island) the army continues its pursuit of a large group of Abu Sayyaf men. The fleeing Islamic terrorists include five Malaysian members of al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah and a policeman captured in 2014 and still held for ransom. The pursuit has gone on for a week and left 24 Abu Sayyaf men dead and at least as many wounded. The troops have suffered two dead and 26 wounded. Most of the soldiers are members of the Scout Rangers, who are expert at tracking people on foot and handling ambushes. The trackers believe the Islamic terrorists have not been able to resupply and are probably running low on ammunition and options. The troops have radio, artillery, air support and the ability to block access to inhabited areas. The fleeing Abu Sayyaf are responsible for most of the kidnappings in the area and three of the Malaysians are experienced bomb makers and believed responsible for most of the bombs used in the south.
This all began on February 24th when troops found and attacked the major Abu Sayyaf base in Sulu and encountered several hundred of the armed Islamic terrorists. The army ground, artillery and air attacks drove the Islamic terrorists out of their camp and into the forest. The army used superior numbers, greater mobility to pursue. What is important here is the fact that all this is taking place on an 868 square kilometer island surrounded by the navy and patrolled from the air as well. This makes it difficult for the enemy to escape. Moreover the Sulu Islands are in the southeast, between the main Filipino islands and Malaysia. Given the size of the Abu Sayyaf group the army expects most of them to be captured or killed although some will break away and blend in with local civilians and a few might make it to sea and sneak past the maritime blockade. Then again Abu Sayyaf has proved imaginative and able to evade similar army operations in the past.
A major problem is that the Islamic terrorists are largely local guys who have made a lot of money from ransoms and spread it around to friends and family. Thus these Islamic terrorists have a lot of friends on an island with a population of 120,000. But not all the Abu Sayyaf men in this group are locals. The reason there were so many Islamic terrorists on the island is because they were hosting many who had fled from similar military operations on nearby (and larger) Basilan Island. Nearly a decade of operations against Abu Sayyaf in the southeast was paying off, driving the Islamic terrorists from many islands and into a larger concentration on Jolo. The army is intent on making the most of this opportunity and the epic pursuit is big news in the Philippines.
Meanwhile the government is still dealing with the January revelations that the main separatist organization in the Moslem south (MILF) had deliberately sheltered two notorious international Islamic terrorists, including Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir. This man was a member of the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiah, had a $5 million price (offered by the U.S.) on his head and was killed in the January 25th police raid. A finger was cut off as proof and the American FBI later analyzed the DNA in the finger and confirmed the finger belonged to a brother of Hir that the U.S. had a DNA sample of. This forced the government to openly call for the MILF to hand over Abdul Basit Usman, who was believed to be staying in the same village as Hir but seems to have escaped. Bowing to government threats MILF said they do not have Usman and ordered their men to arrest Usman if they encountered him. The government now believes both foreigners were killed during the January raid.
The worst aspect of that raid was that its aftereffects left 44 police commandoes dead as well as 17 MILF gunmen and at least one civilian. This incident puts the recently signed peace deal with MILF at risk. That’s because the raid was carried out without informing MILF beforehand. That, however, was done on purpose because the national police knew that MILF would alert any of the Islamic terrorists they are sheltering if informed beforehand and the police raid would find nothing. MILF and the government are not happy that this unofficial arrangement is now out in the open. It got worse as evidence recently surfaced showing MILF and Abu Sayyaf fighters training together.
The person in charge of the January raid, police general Alan Purisima, was the one who obtained the location of Hir and arranged to have the raid carried out without informing MILF or the army (which has been diligent about following the terms of the ceasefire and informing MILF about any operations in MILF controlled areas). It was hoped that the size of the raiding force (325 police commandos) would discourage armed opposition from MILF. But the local MILF men did come out shooting and did so in large numbers even as the commandoes sneaked into the village where Hir was staying. This triggered an eleven hour gun battle. The raid did result in Hir being killed but as the commandos withdrew more and more MILF gunmen came after them. Because the police had not told the army about the raid, the army did not have a rapid reaction force standing by to move in and help. So it took several additional hours for the army to get troops to the area and help get the commandos out of a major battle with MILF. Now there is outrage over MILF’s continued sanctuary for wanted Islamic terrorists. MILF also said it would not punish, or turn over to the government, any of the MILF gunmen involved in fighting the police commandos to protect the Islamic terrorist sanctuary the village had become.
MILF has a problem in that a sizable minority of southern Moslems (ten percent or more) want to hold out, and keep fighting, to establish a separate Moslem state in the south. MILF leaders know this is impossible because a majority of the people in the south are opposed to this. That includes a majority of the Moslems and the nearly all the non-Moslems in the south. Moslems are only eight percent of all Filipinos, and an even smaller proportion of the economic activity. MILF wants control of more of the economy, which meant control of "ancestral Moslem areas" in the south that are now populated by Christians. The Christian majority refused to allow domination by Moslems in a larger and more autonomous Moslem south. MILF settled for a smaller autonomous area that had a Moslem majority. This issue is still a big deal for many Moslems. Because of the aftereffects of the January 25th raid the peace deal (for autonomy in Moslem majority areas of the southwest) MILF signed could now turn into an armed rebellion against MILF and the collapse of the plan for an autonomous Moslem area in the south.
Most Filipinos are angry because a major part of the cease fire and peace deal was MILF agreeing not to provide sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. Now MILS has been exposed of doing what they promised they would not do. MILF is also not willing to fight local Moslems who guard and shelter these wanted killers. In part that is because Islamic terrorists who have killed non-Moslems are considered heroes by many Filipino Moslems. All this becoming widely known puts pressure on Filipino legislators to not ratify the MILF peace deal (signed in March 2014.) Meanwhile five more Malaysian Islamic terrorists are with an Abu Sayyaf force being pursued by troops in the south. Capturing some of those foreigners alive might prove even more embarrassing for MILF.
The ongoing problems with China have finally gotten some really useful help from the Americans. The new American P-8A maritime surveillance aircraft began operating out of a Filipino airbase this year and have been flying over the South China Sea about 60 hours a week in the last month. This gives the Philippines a good look at what the Chinese are doing down there. Since the P-8A is American the Chinese are unlikely to interfere with it, as they tend to do with Filipino ships and aircraft.
February 28, 2015: In the south (Maguindanao province) troops are closing in on a group of BIFF rebels that they skirmished with the day before. There were no casualties but the troops continue to track and pursue the rebels. MILF commanders in the area have been ordered to stay away from the fighting. Thousands of civilians are fleeing to avoid any combat. BIFF is a renegade MILF faction that opposes the peace deal, and the presence of Christians in any area where Moslems also live.
February 26, 2015: In the north (Ilocos Sur province) five soldiers died when they were ambushed by NPA rebels.
February 24, 2015: The government demanded that MILF leaders explain photos that were captured in late 2014 showing MILF and Abu Sayyaf men training together at a new MILF training facility in the Sulu Islands. This facility is to turn out police for the new autonomous Moslem region of Bangsamoro. MILF explained that the presence of the Abu Sayyaf men had something to do with local politics down there. That did not satisfy the non-Moslem politicians in the capital who are now investigating further. The photos only recently became public.
February 22, 2015: In the south (South Cotabato province) two soldiers were killed and 13 wounded when they encountered landmines planted by the NPA rebels they were seeking.
February 21, 2015: In the south (North Cotabato province) members of BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters) were driven from three villages they had occupied for nearly three weeks. These villages served as a headquarters for most of the remaining BIFF members. The fighting with the soldiers involved artillery support. The troops believe twenty of the over 200 BIFF med died (based on fresh graves later found) during the attack. All this was part of an operation to destroy this BIFF group, which apparently split up as it fled the area. Over a thousand families fled the area to avoid the three days of fighting.
February 18, 2015: MILF returned 16 of the 63 firearms lost on January 25th when MILF attacked police commandos and killed 44 of them. The government wanted all the weapons returned and were not pleased when they found most of the 16 returned weapons had components missing.
February 17, 2015: In the south (North Cotabato province) members of BIFF attacked two villages and set fire to many structures and 21 buildings were destroyed.
February 16, 2015: In the south (Davao Occidental province) troops killed six NPA rebels and seized nine firearms.
February 15, 2015: In the south (Basilan Island) troops encountered Abu Sayyaf gunmen and in the ensuring battle two Islamic terrorists were killed and two wounded along with five local civilians and six soldiers.
In the south (Davao Occidental province) about fifty NPA rebels attacked a police station. The police held out and another NPA force ambushed army reinforcements, killing four soldiers but were forced to flee. As the soldiers neared the police station all the NPA men fled, losing at least one dead and many wounded. The army organized a pursuit of the retreating rebels.
Elsewhere in the south (Basilan island) troops clashed with Abu Sayyaf gunmen.
February 9, 2015: In the south (Agusan del Sur province) police and NPA rebels clashed leaving one policeman and one rebel dead. But the dead rebel turned out to be a senior NPA leader. Several weapons and other equipment were seized as the rebels fled.
February 8, 2015: In the south (Jolo Island) troops clashed with about a hundred Abu Sayyaf men and killed at least nine of them. Eleven soldiers were wounded and these were evacuated as the rest of the troops pursued the fleeing Islamic terrorists.
February 7, 2015: In the south (Basilan Island) soldiers were sent to rescue a group of MILF gunmen who were surrounded by Abu Sayyaf fighters and under siege. The MILF men were there to facilitate an investigation into which MILF and Abu Sayyaf gunmen were involved in a January battle that left 44 police commandos dead. Elsewhere on Basilan a bomb was found (near a gasoline storage depot) and disabled. Islamic terrorists were suspected.
The government revealed it had recently captured three NPA leaders during several operations in the south (Mindanao) and was interrogating them.