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.

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.

Wednesday's battle suggests that at least that many remain on Basilan, which is home to 500,000 people and is slightly smaller than the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

In 2002, I didn't talk to members of the Abu Sayyaf – given their penchant for kidnapping Americans and occasionally murdering their hostages. But I did spend a lot of time with Muslim civil society activists and leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a far larger separatist group that has since entered into intense peace talks with the government.

At the time, these local Muslims described the Abu Sayyaf as a marginal group. But they warned that tough military tactics on Basilan were bound to step on more
toes than the ASG's and could even prove a recruiting boon to the organization in an area that is not only culturally estranged from the Catholic-dominated rest of the country but that still remembers the scorched-earth tactics of US General John "Black Jack" Pershing in the early 20th century as the US consolidated its control of the country.

The loss Wednesday of so many Filipino troops in such a short period of time also calls into question how effective their training has been. By comparison, 27 US Marines died in the month long battle for Fallujah in Iraq, a battle in which the opposition numbered in the thousands.

The Philippines Daily Inquirer quotes enlisted Filipino men from one of the elite units that have been receiving US assistance, and who participated in the battle, as saying the militants brought in about 150 reinforcements during the firefight and that they seemed to have inside information about the Philippines Army's movements.

The wounded soldiers were puzzled that the Abu Sayyaf bandits seemed to know government troops' movements, including the 8 a.m. arrival of the 67th Marine Raider Company, which served as reinforcement... I’m wondering why they know our movements. If we were not brave enough, we would have been wiped out," (Private First Class Randy) Liboon said.

The firefight was the bloodiest battle involving the Abu Sayyaf since at least 2007, a reminder that lasting counter-insurgency successes are tougher to achieve than often advertised.

In 2006, the US Embassy in Manila said in a report that the approach developed by the US and Filipino forces in the area was then being called the "Basilan Model." It described the model as combining "the iron fist and the hand of friendship" and said that it "succeeded in driving the ASG from Basilan and restoring both peace and hope to the island."

There have been signs that things were not as rosy as the Embassy said for some time. Last year, we reported that the situation in Basilan appeared to be fraying.

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