Deadly Filipino 'slugfest' between soldiers and Islamists
Wednesday's firefight was the bloodiest battle involving the Abu Sayyaf in at least two years. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of US support to Filipino troops.
Insurgencies die hard.Skip to next paragraph
2011 Reflections: Suddenly, a new era in the Middle East
2011 Reflections: the end of a landmark year for Latin America
2011 Reflections: Africa rises, taking charge of its affairs
How the 'Year of the Protester' played out in Europe
In Prague, a tale of communism past
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That may be one lesson from a surprisingly lopsided firefight Wednesday from a group of separatists or bandits or Islamic militants (it depends on who you ask).
Filipino troops engaged in a bloody, hours-long battle with members of the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) militant group on Wednesday that claimed 55 lives, 23 of them Filipino soldiers. The general in charge of the operation on the southern of Basilan called the fight a "slugfest."
The BBC reports that the assault on the ASG encampment was apparently an attempt to capture two of the group's leaders, Khair Mundus and Furuji Indama.
Though this bloody encounter may seem obscure from an American perspective, there's a lesson in the surprising resilience of the Abu Sayyaf, which is classified as an Al Qaeda aligned terrorist group by the State Department but is seen by most scholars of the Philippines as a kidnap-for-ransom gang with a gloss of Islamist ideology. Though no US troops were reported involved in the latest firefight, a small contingent of US soldiers have been patrolling Basilan and working on hearts and minds operations with Filipino troops since 2002 – before the invasion of Iraq.
Seven years ago, when the US was looking to expand the war on terror beyond Afghanistan, the southern Philippines, seemed a natural fit. Islands like Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago (here's a map of the island chain) were hives of piracy and lawlessness, not to mention crawling with Muslim independence groups – Abu Sayyaf was just one of them.
The group had some historic ties to Al Qaeda and had recently been involved in the kidnapping of two American missionaries. A joint mission with the Philippines' army to hunt them down seemed ideal; US special forces would pass some skills on to their Filipino counterparts and get practice going after Islamist insurgents somewhere other than Afghanistan. A 2007 Monitor story explains how the US military supported development projects on Basilan were dissuading residents from supporting Abu Sayyaf.
Yet seven years on, it's hard to assess what exactly has been achieved, especially in light of Wednesday's events.
Back in 2002, I was covering this story for the Monitor. Filipino Army intelligence told me that the Abu Sayyaf had no more than 60 armed gunmen on Basilan, and about 200 total in the Sulu Archipelago.