Hundreds of troops and policemen continued to hunt militants Wednesday in the southern Philippines after terrorist bombings yesterday that left at least 13 dead, including civilians and suspected militants. The attack demonstrated the continued volatility of the southern Philippines, where US troops have been stationed since 2002 to train and equip local forces in their fight against separatists.
On the southern island of Basilan, men dressed in military and police clothing set off a series of bombs in the city of Isabela and fired on people trying to flee. Lt. Gen. Ben Dolorfino told the BBC that the Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant organization that is sometimes described as Islamist separatists but which is also heavily involved in kidnap-for-ransom and other criminal enterprises, was behind the attack. One Abu Sayyaf leader, Bensar Indama, had been reported among the dead. The Abu Sayyaf is small, with about 390 fighters according to the Associated Press, but still manages to pull off the occasional spectacular attack:
The Abu Sayyaf is the smaller of at least four Muslim groups fighting for decades for a separate homeland in the predominantly Catholic nation's south. The government has often dismissed the Abu Sayyaf as a bandit group crippled by relentless U.S.-backed military offensives.
Authorities called yesterday's attack the bloodiest on civilians in Basilan in the past 20 years, according to the Philippines GMA News TV. Two bombs went off near a sports field and a Roman Catholic church, while a third was found near a mini-bus terminal and detonated by the military. Hundreds of marines and policemen sealed off the island's capital but the army did not send additional forces today, saying that "everything's in control there," according to the Philippines Inquirer.
The Abu Sayyaf's plan seemed to be to take hostages while detonating bombs as a diversion, Rear Admiral Alex Pama, head of an antiterrorism force, told Al Jazeera. The Abu Sayyaf was formed in the 1990s by Filipinos who fought in the Afghanistan war against the Soviet Union and earned a reputation for audacious kidnappings. The group is blacklisted by Washington and is accused of receiving funds and training from Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, according to the AP. "They had a big plan, a major attack that we foiled," Pama told Al Jazeera.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the US sent troops, who are forbidden to engage in combat, to the Philippines with the mandate to share intelligence, train, and equip local forces as they battle Islamic militants. The US provides aerial drones with which the Philippines forces now carry out sophisticated attacks on rebel hideouts, as the Christian Science Monitor reported.
Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino, commander of Philippine forces in Western Mindanao, insists that it’s just a matter of time before Abu Sayyaf leaders are captured or killed. “It’s like boxing. It will just require one lucky punch to get these leaders,” he says.
By itself, that won’t end the alienation on which militants have fed, he adds. Just as important, and fully endorsed by US commanders, is the need to extend government services to villages that have long festered in poverty and neglect. “It’s the task of nationbuilding,” says Dolorfino