US faces slog against Philippine militants, even with winning strategy
The US and Philippines can claim many successes since joining forces in counterterrorism after 9/11, but uprooting militancy altogether remains elusive.
It began not long after 9/11, another front in an unfolding global war on terror. A deployment of US Special Forces arrived here to train, equip, and share intelligence with Philippines troops battling Islamic militants in a lawless crossroads of Southeast Asia.Skip to next paragraph
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Eight years on, US and Philippine commanders can point to successes: 15 of 24 high-value targets have been captured or killed. Militants are holed up in shrinking enclaves on a chain of far-flung islands. Terror attacks on major cities, once prevalent, have fallen off dramatically.
But the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), as the US mission of about 560 troops is called, also offers a lesson in how long it takes to uproot militant groups and the fragility of any gains in Mindanao, a violence-torn region that has seen many false dawns.
This fragility may keep US forces here for longer, trying to shepherd aid projects, plug holes in the underfunded Philippine military, and close down sanctuaries for terrorist groups with global aspirations, however atrophied by recent setbacks.
“Even though they’ve been reduced, until you can neutralize them and prevent these safe havens, the concern is that they will regenerate later on,” says Col. William Coultrup, the JSOTF-P commander, and a veteran of Special Forces operations in global hotspots.
Top targets still on the loose
Among the remaining targets are two bombmakers from Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian group behind the 2002 Bali bombings and other atrocities. US commanders say the two men, Dulmatin and Umar Patek, are under the protection of Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that was formed on Jolo Island in the 1990s by ex-Afghanistan jihadists and later became known for audacious kidnappings.
Both men carry a generous US bounty on their head. Since 2001, the US has paid out $11 million here in reward money for tip-offs that net terror suspects, and the Philippines has given $2 million, according to the Philippine Army.
That nobody has turned in the two Indonesians points to the fearsome reputation of Abu Sayyaf, which has beheaded recent kidnap victims. It also underlines the limited reach of US and Philippine forces on Jolo, a rugged island of isolated valleys and dirt roads.