Hunting Abu Sayyaf

The Philippines: No More Excuses

Philippines Abu Sayyaf Hostages
A video aired on the Philippine GMA TV network March 7, 2002, shows Martin and Gracia Burnham held hostage by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. On June 7, Martin Burnham was killed in a botched rescue operation (Photo: AFP).

Minutes after military operations against the Muslim extremist Abu Sayyaf group led to the June 7 rescue of American hostage Gracia Burnham and the killing of her husband, Martin Burnham, and Filipina nurse Ediborah Yap, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared the hostage crisis over.

But is it really over? As policy-makers and the media grappled with the question of whether the rescue attempt had been a success or a failure, one clear reality remained: Rebel leaders, who had held the hostages for 376 days, have managed to escape into the jungles of Zamboanga del Norte, in the southern island of Mindanao.

Local analysts say it is too early to declare the crisis over. The bigger challenge, they say, is to wipe out the group to prevent it from regrouping and taking new hostages. The Abu Sayyaf had its roots in Islamic fundamentalism but later degenerated into a kidnap-for-ransom gang after the death in the 1990s of its charismatic founder, Abdurajak Janjalani.

The rescue effort, bungled or not, “clears the way for the military’s pursuit of the Abu Sayyaf,” wrote political analyst Amando Doronila in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (June 8). “The Abu Sayyaf is clearly on the run. It would be a disaster for the military to squander this advantage.”

“Unless the bandit group is totally destroyed, the country will continue to suffer a hostage crisis,” warned a June 8 editorial in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It pointed out that a bigger contingent of the Abu Sayyaf still exists in the predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, led by leaders responsible for the brazen abduction of more than 20 foreign tourists in Sipadan, Malaysia, in April 2000. That hostage crisis resulted in multimillion-dollar payoffs to the Abu Sayyaf, enabling its leaders to buy high-powered firearms.

The Philippine Star (June 8) was more blunt in demanding results from the Arroyo administration. “President Arroyo has promised not to let the terrorists get away this time. Her troops better make sure she delivers on her promise,” it said in its editorial. “Now that all the remaining hostages are out of the way, there is no more excuse to let the terrorists remain scot-free. For too long the Abu Sayyaf has held several provinces in Mindanao in the grip of terror. The terrorists have survived two administrations, giving rise to speculations that the group is being coddled by the military.”

Arroyo is fully aware that the Abu Sayyaf has been her administration’s biggest headache. She has asked U.S. President George W. Bush to extend the Balikatan war exercise between Philippine and American troops and to provide more military hardware for the Philippine armed forces. About 1,000 America troops, the largest deployment outside Afghanistan,  have been stationed in some parts of Mindanao since February, where American launched its “war against terror” shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Despite lack of hard evidence, the U.S. government has linked the Abu Sayyaf to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

Still, with the rescue attempt ending in the death of two hostages, questions have surfaced as to what good the American presence has been in Mindanao. Journalist Glenda Gloria, co-author of Under The Crescent Moon, a book on the  Philippine Muslim rebellion, said she would like to find out “why, despite the much-vaunted American support and technology, it took them this long to conduct the operation” and why it ended the way it did. Questions have likewise been raised as to why the encounter took place near the village of Sirawai, 65 kilometers away from Basilan Island, where troops had been searching for the hostages. The arrival of the American troops and their supposedly superior technology had raised expectations that the hostages would be rescued in one fell swoop and the Abu Sayyaf wiped out.

“It shows that American technology can only do so much,” Gloria said in an interview with World Press Review. “In the end, it was the locals who gave the armed forces vital information.” The military had been alerted to the presence of the Abu Sayyaf by at least two residents, including one whose son was recently abducted by the rebels to serve as their guide in the area.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has acknowledged that the United States may have overestimated its capability to deal with the Abu Sayyaf, which is more familiar with the terrain of Mindanao and enjoys some local support. American technology also proved inadequate in pinpointing the precise location of the rebels.“They had intelligence from time to time that looked good, and then wasn’t so good,” Rumsfeld was quoted by wire reports as saying. A Pentagon spokesman said U.S. participation in the rescue had been limited to “planning and technical assistance.”