Philippines deployment: sign of US resolve

Special forces advise local military in effort to root out insurgents.

In the second overt US military deployment in the war on terror, the deployment of US special forces troops and weaponry to the Philippines is likely to help defeat the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group there, and possibly rescue American hostages.

Yet few experts see the defeat of Abu Sayyaf - with as many as 1,000 fighters - as a major prize in the war on global terror, or even the most important potential terrorist target in the Philippines.

Instead, they say Washington's decision to send troops to the Philippines marks a relatively quick, easy way to deliver a message, both to the American public and to the rest of the world, that the US military role in the anti-terror campaign will not end with Afghanistan.

"The important thing about what's taking place in the Philippines is that this is a global problem, that we are addressing it globally, not just in Afghanistan," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The deployment comes amid new, dramatic revelations of the extent of international terrorist networks in Southeast Asia - including the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia --findings that have apparently caught both local governments and US officials off guard.

"The scope of the Al Qaeda network in Southeast Asia has taken everyone completely by surprise," says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and an expert on Southeast Asian terrorism. "No one had started to connect the dots between terrorist groups in one country and another," Mr. Abuza said in a phone interview from the Philippines, where he is interviewing military and intelligence officials for a book on the subject.

Distant cells

The threat of Southeast Asian terrorism has been underscored in recent days by the breakup in the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia of a terrorist cell - linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network - that was allegedly plotting to bomb Western military, government, and commercial targets in the region.

In the past decade, Al Qaeda leaders - including Mr. bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa - forged ties with several domestic insurgent groups in the region, including Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Kumpulan Mujahedeen Malaysia (KMM) in Malaysia, and the Indonesian-based regional militant group Jemaah Islamiah.

Such groups had emerged since the 1970s along with a revival of fundamentalism, political activism, and economic grievances among Southeast Asia's 300 million Muslims.

Using front corporations and nongovernmental organizations, Al Qaeda operatives infused money, training, and weapons to the groups, both to strengthen them and forge an international terror network, according to Abuza. Meanwrhile, the political and economic unrest in the region following the 1997 Asian financial crisis meant that local governments failed to pay attention to the increasingly sophisticated, interconnected terror cells.

Abu Sayyaf, however, is only one, relatively minor threat, say experts, who consider the independent Al Qaeda cells more dangerous. Although Abu Sayyaf is believed to retain connections with Al Qaeda, and may provide safe harbor, the group has declined since the mid-1990s.

Currently, the group is holding an American missionary couple hostage in its holdout on an island, 600 miles south of Manila.

Helping the Philippine military to rescue those American hostages, as well as destroy Abu Sayyaf, is the mission of some of the 600 US troops - including 160 special forces and hundreds of support troops - currently in or bound for the Philippines.

The US forces will be training Philippine troops in counter-terrorism as well as participating in a military exercise. While barred by the Philippine Constitution from taking on combat roles, the US troops may take part in patrols with Philippine soldiers and can return fire if attacked. The Philippines is also receiving nearly $100 million in US military gear, including an AC-130 gunship and 30,000 M-16 rifles, Philippine officials say.

Weary host

Washington and Manila, which marked the 50th anniversary of a Mutual Defense Treaty last year, are touting their unified front against international terrorism.

Nevertheless, the arrival of the US troops is inciting vocal political opposition in the Philippines, which shut down large US military bases in the 1990s. Manila is worried about being cast as another Afghanistan, and this weekend castigated an American senator for suggesting as much.

Experts say that more than American troops, the Philippines needs high-tech intelligence tools able to track terrorists and gain control over its porous borders.

"There is a reason that the bombers from Sept. 11, the USS Cole, and US embassies have used the Philippines," Abuza says.

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