A bloody prison revolt Tuesday in the Philippines was the latest dramatic evidence of the power and influence of the Abu Sayyaf, an Al Qaeda-linked terror group that the government thought it had marginalized as a serious threat.
By the time the shooting had stopped and the smoke and tear gas had cleared on all four floors of Camp Bagong Diwa in Manila, at least 23 people lay dead, including three Abu Sayyaf leaders and one police officer.
Upwards of 300 policemen joined in the assault on the crowded prison, packed with more than 400 inmates, including 129 suspected Abu Sayyaf members.
President Gloria Arroyo said the violent ending to the prison revolt, which began with an escape attempt, showed that "terrorism will never win" and called the denouement of the fracas "a lesson in sustained vigilance."
But the incident also displayed Manila's inability to stop Abu Sayyaf from mounting such deadly attacks, despite numerous army operations and help from US military advisers. Analysts say Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, another Al Qaeda-linked organization, are benefiting from the protection of extremists in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a group currently in a "peace process" with the government. Such attacks call into question the viability of the talks, which have so far yielded little.
"[The MILF] are in total control of their territory," says Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian terror groups who is currently doing research in the Philippines. The failure of the MILF to turn in "hard-core first-generation" Jemaah Islamiyah leaders on the island of Jolo, he says, "is getting completely untenable because at some point governments are going to lose patience."
The result, Mr. Abuza says, is that the MILF may find itself on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations even though President Arroyo has denied the MILF leadership has any terrorist links. Indeed, Arroyo said recently: "America will be the last one to put the MILF in the list of terrorists because it is supporting our peace process."
But government officials concede that renegade former members of MILF may be in cahoots with Jemaah Islamiyah, a group responsible for terrorist episodes throughout the region and is currently said to be training terrorists in MILF camps.
The MILF, for its part, claims to be doing what it can. Eid Kabalu, a MILF spokesman, says his group and the government are planning to "interdict" some of the extremists from Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf, long viewed as the hardest-line of Islamic groups in the Philippines. The country's southern regions are predominantly Muslim and home to a number of factions fighting the government of the Philippines, a majority-Christian nation.
Police said the Abu Sayyaf leaders killed in this week's prison revolt were "commanders" with intimidating code names who were previously involved in deadly attacks in the region.
Alhamser Limbong, known as "Commander Kosovo," has been blamed for the bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay last year in which more than 100 people were killed. He also is said to be behind the kidnapping of tourists, including three Americans, at a resort in May 2001. He allegedly beheaded one of them.
Galib Andang, code named Commander Robot, is accused of leading a raid on the Malaysian resort of Sipadan in April 2000 in which 21 people were kidnapped and later released in return for millions of dollars in ransom money.
Recent Abu Sayyaf attacks have targeted the port city of Davao, including a Feb. 14 bomb that killed eight people. Abu Sayaf has also staged bombings in Manila and General Santos City, a major industrial center in Mindanao.
Philippine troops - along with Americans - had considerable success three years ago in driving Abu Sayyaf terrorists from the islands of Basilan and Jolo but have been frustrated of late. Muslim rebels killed five soldiers in an ambush last week on Jolo, a month after having killed 13 soldiers in an ambush that showed the weakness of Philippine forces in the region.
Philippine officers, however, said that they had killed five rebels in another battle last week during an offensive in which an Abu Sayyaf base on Jolo was overrun. Overall, they said, 100 rebels and 40 soldiers have died in fighting this year.