Abu Sayyaf: Target of Philippine-U.S. Anti-Terrorism Cooperation
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
From January 2002 until July 31, 2002, the United States committed nearly 1,300 troops to the
Philippines to assist Philippine armed forces (AFP) in operations against the Abu Sayyaf terrorist
group in the southern Philippines, on the island of Basilan southwest of Mindanao. From 2005
into 2007, the U.S. committed up to 450 military personnel to western Mindanao and Jolo island
south of Basilan These U.S. non-combat, support operations were in response to Philippine
President Arroyo’s strong support of the United States following the September 11 Al Qaeda
attack on the United States. A historic Muslim resistance to non-Muslim rulers in the Philippines
broke out into massive rebellion in the 1970s. Two large resistance groups, a Moro National
Liberation Front (MNLF) and a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fought the Philippine
government into the 1990s and entered into tenuous truces in 1996 and 2001 respectively. Abu
Sayyaf emerged in 1990 as a splinter group composed of former MNLF fighters and Filipinos
who had fought in Afghanistan. Abu Sayyaf resorted to terrorist tactics, including executions of
civilians, bombings, and increasingly kidnapings for ransom. Abu Sayyaf had links with Osamu
bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization in the early 1990s, but these links reportedly dwindled in the
late 1990s. After the 2002 Balikatan operation, the remaining Abu Sayyaf leadership established
links with Jeemah Islamiah (JI), an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Southeast Asia that had begun to
use Mindanao for training and organizing terrorist strikes. Abu Sayyaf also established links with
Rajah Solaiman, a radical Muslim group made up of Filipinos from the northern Philippines who
had converted to Islam. Together, these groups carried out major bombings after 2003, including
bombings in metropolitan Manila.
Philippine government policy has been to apply military pressure on Abu Sayyaf. Operations
have been constrained by several factors including difficult terrain, inadequate Philippine military
equipment, avoiding clashing with the MILF and MNLF, and reportedly high level of corruption
in the Philippine military. U.S. military support, however, did achieve successes. AFP operations
against Abu Sayyaf became more aggressive and effective against Abu Sayyaf on Basilan in 2002
and on Jolo island in 2006-2007; Abu Sayyaf strength was seriously eroded to an estimated 200-
intelligence gathering, and U.S. assistance in planning AFP operations. The U.S. military’s civic
action projects on Basilan and Jolo appeared to weaken support for Abu Sayyaf on the islands. In
2005, U.S. forces began direct support missions for the Philippine military in western Mindanao
against Abu Sayyaf, and U.S. military personnel began joint training exercises with the AFP in
MILF areas of Mindanao. U.S. officials expressed concern over the presence of JI on Mindanao
and links among JI, Abu Sayyaf, and the MILF. The Bush Administration supported the ongoing
peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF as the best means of eroding the
MILF-JI linkage. However, coordination among Abu Sayyaf, JI, and elements of the MILF
present the threat of a wider terrorist war in the Philippines and could confront the Bush
Administration with decisions for greater U.S. involvement.
Most Recent Developments.............................................................................................................1
The Philippine Response to September 11......................................................................................2
Historic Muslim Insurgency............................................................................................................2
Abu Sayyaf: Origins, Strength, and Operations..............................................................................3
Connections to Al Qaeda and Jeemah Islamiah...............................................................................5
Links to the MILF...........................................................................................................................6
Philippine Government and AFP Policies and Operations.............................................................7
The 2002 Balikatan Operation.........................................................................................................9
U.S. Support Role on Jolo Island and in Western Mindanao..................................................12
Implications of U.S. Military Involvement...................................................................................14
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................16
The cease-fire between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front
(MILF), in effect since 2001, became jeopardized by a military clash between a force of 50
Philippine Marines and a force of an estimated 400, including MILF fighters, on Basilan island
on July 10, 2007. Basilan is just west of the large Philippine southern island of Mindanao. The
Marines were ambushed by a force that Philippine military (AFP) spokesmen described as
consisting of MILF and Abu Sayyaf fighters. Fourteen Marines were killed, and ten were
beheaded. The beheadings especially raised the level of tensions.
The Marines entered an MILF area on Basilan designated under the 2001 cease-fire in search of
an Italian priest who had been kidnapped, in response to intelligence reports that he was being
held there. A MILF spokesman stressed that the AFP did not notify the MILF that the Marines
would enter the MILF area. Under the cease-fire, a joint government-MILF Committee on
Cessation of Hostilities is responsible for implementing the truce. Philippine government officials
stated that the MILF knew of the Marines’ rescue operations on Basilan and that the lack of
official notification was not a legitimate reason for attacking the Marines.
AFP officials asserted that Abu Sayyaf cadre likely did the beheadings, since beheadings are a
trademark of the organization. The MILF acknowledged that its forces had participated in the
attack on the Marines, but it denied that MILF cadre engaged in beheadings (beheadings, it said, 1
violate Islamic law). The MILF was ambivalent on whether Abu Sayyaf cadre participated in the
The situation escalated when the Philippine government demanded that the MILF turn over MILF
cadre involved in the ambush and set a deadline of Sunday, July 22, 2007. Philippine National
Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales stated that the government had submitted names to the MILF
of MILF cadre involved in the ambush. The MILF declared that it would not surrender its cadre.
The deadline passed, and the government and the AFP threatened to open major military 2
operations against the MILF on Basilan and said that the AFP would hunt down the ambushers.
The MILF countered that its forces on Basilan would “defend themselves to the death” and that
an AFP offensive on Basilan would jeopardize Philippine government-MILF peace talks and that 3
renewed fighting on Basilan could spread to Mindanao.
The outcome of this confrontation has potential implications for the U.S. policy of providing
military support to the AFP for operations against Abu Sayyaf in the southwest Philippines. The
Bush Administration has sought to keep its military support role confined to operations against
Abu Sayyaf. It has supported the cease-fire and peace talks between the Philippine government
and the MILF. However, a breakdown of the negotiations and the cease-fire likely would confront
the Bush Administration with policy decisions regarding a U.S. role in a wider war. (See the final
section of this report, “Implications of U.S. Military Involvement”)
1 Militants kill 14 Philippine Marines, behead 10: military, Agence France Presse, July 11, 2007.
2 Backing away from the edge in Basilan, The Manila Times (internet), July 23, 2007.
3 Verlin Ruiz, War in Basilan to spread to other regions, Remate (Manila), July 23, 2007.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo voiced strong support for the United States in the aftermath
of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. The Philippines, she said, is prepared to “go every step
of the way” with the United States. President Arroyo allowed U.S. military forces to use Filipino
ports and airfields to support military operations in Afghanistan. She cited morality and
Philippine national interests as reasons for her pro-U.S. stand. She defined the national interest as
linking a struggle against international terrorism with the struggle against terrorism within the 4
Philippines. She supported the U.S. war against Iraq in March 2003, offering the U.S. military air
space and refueling facilities and sent about 100 Filipino military personnel to Iraq for postwar 5
assistance. However, in 2004, she withdraw the Filipino contingent from Iraq after Iraqi
insurgents kidnaped a Filipino contract worker and threatened to kill him.
Philippine terrorism has been multifaceted for at least three decades and has been carried out by
different groups with different agendas. A significant communist insurgency, the New Peoples
Army (NPA) in the 1970s and 1980s engaged in bombings, assassinations, and kidnapings. The
communists today still have an estimated armed strength of over 10,000; and the Bush
Administration designated the NPA as a terrorist group in August 2002. Criminal syndicates have
practiced widespread kidnapings for ransom. The target of President Arroyo’s policy, however, is
Muslim insurgency and terrorism.
This report provides an overview and policy analysis of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the
Philippines and the Philippine-U.S. program of military cooperation against it. It examines the
origins and operations of Abu Sayyaf, the efforts of the Philippine government and military to
eliminate it, the implications of a greater U.S. military role in attempts to suppress it, and the
implications for dealing with the broader problem of Muslim insurgency and terrorism in the
Philippines. The report will be updated periodically.
Located on the big southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu island chain southwest of
Mindanao, Filipino Muslims, called Moros, since the time of Spanish rule, revolted against th
Spanish colonizers of the Philippines from the 17 century on, the American rulers of the early th
20 century, and Philippine governments since independence in 1946. From 1899 to 1914, the
U.S. military conducted a number of campaigns to suppress Muslim insurgents in the southern
Philippines—campaigns which were controversial because of heavy civilian casualties. Muslim
grievances after 1946 focused on the growing settlement of Catholic Filipinos on Mindanao,
which reduced the geographical area of a Muslim majority (there are about 7 million Filipino
Muslims). Muslims revolted in the 1970s under a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF),
which demanded an independent Muslim state. An estimated 120,000 people were killed in the 6
4 Landler, Mark. Philippines Offers U.S. Its Troops and Bases. New York Times, October 2, 2001. P. 5.
5 Pazzibugan, Dona Z. RP to Open Air Space, Refueling Facilities to US. Philippine Daily Inquirer (Internet version),
March 22, 2003. Garcia, Danilo. 700 Soldiers to be Sent to Iraq, Pilipino Star Ngayon (Internet version), March 29,
6 Sales, Peter M. War in Mindanao. Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, October-November 2000, pp. 8, 10.
Since the late 1970s, there have been two trends in the Muslim problem. The first has been
negotiations between the Philippine government and the MNLF. As a result, the MNLF
abandoned its goal of an independent Muslim state. An agreement was reached in 1996 that
created an autonomous Muslim region. This apparent positive trend was countered by the
fragmentation of the Muslim movement. A segment of the MNLF broke away in 1978 and formed
the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF demanded independence for Muslim
populated regions and proclaimed that a Muslim state would be based on “Koranic principles.”
The MILF gained strength into the 1990s. By 1995-96, U.S. estimates placed armed MILF
strength at 35,000-45,000 in seven provinces on Mindanao. The MILF had large base camps and
functional governmental operations. Its operations included attacks on the AFP and planting
bombs in Mindanao cities. A Bangsamoro Peoples Consultative Assembly of approximately
Stepped-up MILF military operations in 1998-99 prompted Philippine President Joseph Estrada
to order an all-out military offensive against MILF base camps. The AFP captured the MILF’s
main base on Mindanao and damaged the MILF militarily. Since then, MILF armed strength has 8
fallen to an estimated 13,000; but it remains the largest Muslim armed force. In 2001, Philippine
government-MILF negotiations resulted in a cease-fire. The cease-fire had held, and there have
been periodic peace negotiations between the government and the MILF. However, peace talks
have come to a stalemate, and elements of the MILF have increased cooperation with Jeemah
Islamiah, an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group that emerged in Malaysia, Singapore, and
Indonesia after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States.
Abubakar Janjalani, the son of a fisherman on Basilan island, formed Abu Sayyaf in 1990.
Janjalani had become connected with a Muslim fundamentalist movement, Al Islamic Tabligh, in
the 1980s. That organization received financial support from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan,
including funds to send young Muslim men to schools in the Middle East. Janjalani studied in
Saudi Arabia and Libya and became radicalized. When he returned to Basilan, he recruited two
groups into Abu Sayyaf (meaning “sword bearer” in Arabic): dissidents from the MNLF and 9
Filipinos who had fought with the Afghan mujaheddin rebels against the Soviet Union.
Over the next five years, Abu Sayyaf staged ambushes, bombings, kidnapings, and executions,
mainly against Filipino Christians on Basilan and the west coast of Mindanao. Its strength grew 10
only slowly to an estimated 600 by 1995. Abu Sayyaf operations declined for four years after
In 1998, AFP troops killed Abubakar Janjalani. His brother, Khadaffy, and Ghalib Andang took
command. Then in 2000, Abu Sayyaf began kidnaping operations aimed at foreigners, with a
7 Tiglao, Rigoberto. Hidden Strength; Crescent Moon Rising. Far Eastern Economic Review, February 23, 1995. P. 22-
28. Tiglao, Rigoberto. Moro Reprise. Far Eastern Economic Review, December 26, 1996-January 2, 1997. p. 22.
8 Gomez, Jim. Philippine Muslim guerrillas agree to return to Malaysian-brokered peace talks. Associated Press,
November 29, 2006.
9 In Mindanao, the Islamic Fundamentalist Movement Appears to be Spearheaded by the Tabligh and Abu Sayyaf.
Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 29, 1994. p. 1.
10 Richburg, Keith. Spoilers of the Peace. Washington Post, May 25, 1995. p. A33.
principle aim of extracting ransom payments. In April 2000, Abu Sayyaf forces commanded by
Andang, aboard fast speed boats, attacked a tourist resort in the Malaysian state of Sabah and
kidnaped 21 foreigners, including Malaysians, Frenchmen, Germans, Finns, and South Africans.
In July 2000, Abu Sayyaf seized three French journalists. It released the hostages later in the year
after it received ransom payments, including money reportedly from European governments
funneled through the Libyan government. Estimates of the amount of this ransom range from $10 11
to $25 million.
According to Philippine government officials, Abu Sayyaf used the 2000 ransom to recruit new
members, raising its strength to an estimated 1,000 or more, and acquire new equipment,
including communications equipment and more fast speedboats. Abu Sayyaf used speedboats
again on May 27, 2000, in venturing 300 miles across the Sulu Sea to attack a tourist resort on
Palawan, the Philippines’ large, westernmost island. Khadaffy Janjalani commanded the
operation. Abu Sayyaf kidnaped 20 people, including three Americans. It took them to Basilan
where they were held by a faction of Abu Sayyaf headed by a volatile individual, Abu Sabaya.
Abu Sayyaf announced in June 2001 that it had beheaded one of the Americans, Guillermo
Sobero, of Corono, California. It continued to hold Martin and Gracia Burnham, Christian
missionaries of Wichita, Kansas, and Deborah Yap, a Filipino nurse. Most of the other abductees
from Palawan were freed after more ransom was paid, reportedly as much as $1 million per
person. Throughout 2000 and 2001, Abu Sayyaf kidnaped numerous Filipinos on Basilan and
Mindanao, releasing some after ransom payments and executing others. Ex-hostages claimed Abu 12
Sayyaf was demanding $2 million for the Burnhams.
Philippine military operations since 2001, supported by the United States, have weakened Abu
Sayyaf on Basilan and in the Sulu islands. Abu Sayyaf’s armed strength is estimated to have
fallen from 1,000 in 2002 to 200-400 in 2006 (200 estimated by Philippine National Security 13
Adviser Norberto Gonzales). However, under the leadership of Khadaffy Janjalanai, Abu Sayyaf
reoriented its strategy and appears to have gained new effectiveness as a terrorist organization.
Janjalani de-emphasized kidnapings for ransom and instead emphasized developing capabilities
for urban bombings. He improved ties with key military factions of the MILF and established
cooperation with JI. He also re-emphasized the Islamic nature of Abu Sayyaf. Khadaffy moved
some of Abu Sayyaf’s operations and leadership from the Sulu islands to the mainland of western
In March and April 2003, Abu Sayyaf, JI, and MILF cadre carried out bombings in Davao on
Mindanao, which killed 48. Since March 2004, the Philippine government has announced that it
uncovered several Abu Sayyaf plots to conduct bombings in Manila, including the discovery of
explosives. One reported target was the U.S. Embassy. In April 2004, police officials reportedly
determined that a February 2004 bombing of a Manila-based ferry, in which 194 people died, was
the work of Abu Sayyaf and the Rajah Solaiman Movement, a group of radical Filipino Muslim
11 Fisk, Robert. The Double-Edged Sword of Gaddafi’s Links with the Philippines. London Independent (internet
version), August 22, 2000. Tan, Abby. Kidnappings a Blow to Philippine Image. Christian Science Monitor, June 6,
2001. P. 7.
12 Romero, Paolo. Abus Attempting a Robin Hood. Philippine Star (internet version), July 27, 2001. What Ransom?
Philippine Daily Inquirer (internet version), June 18, 2001. Quezon City GMA 7 television broadcast, December 7,
13 Abuza, Jachary. Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf. Carlisle, U.S. War College, 2005. p. 27. Mogato,
Manny. Fighting in the Philippine south rages, soldier killed. Reuters News, November 24, 2005. Cagoco, Josefa. Kay
Mindanao areas placed on high terror alert level. Business World (Manila, internet), September 9, 2006.
converts from the Manila area. In February 2005, Abu Sayyaf carried out three simultaneous
bombings in three cities, which indicated a higher level of technical and operational capabilities.
In 2006, Abu Sayyaf bombed and destroyed the market in Jolo town on the island of Jolo.
The Wall Street Journal of December 3, 2001, quoted Admiral Denis Blair, Commander-in-Chief
of the U.S. Pacific Command, that “we’re seeing increasing evidence that there are potential
current links” between Abu Sayyaf and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization. It is
accepted that Abu Sayyaf received funding and support from Al Qaeda in the early 1990s. Money
came from Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi and brother-in-law of bin Laden, who operated a
number of Islamic charities in the southern Philippines. Ramzi Yoesef, an Al Qaeda operative,
came to the Philippines in 1994. He and other Al Qaeda operatives reportedly trained Abu Sayyaf 14
fighters. Yoesef established an Al Qaeda cell in Manila. Yoesuf used the cell to plan an
assassination of Pope John Paul II, the planting of bombs aboard 12 U.S. airliners flying trans-
Pacific routes, and the crashing of an airplane into the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters
in Langley, Virginia. Filipino police uncovered the cell in 1995 and provided information on the
plot to the C.I.A. and F.B.I.. Yoesef later was arrested in Pakistan and extradited to the United 15
States for trial over his complicity in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Filipino officials close to President Arroyo contended that the relationship declined after 1995
when the Ramzi Yoesuf plot was uncovered and Khalifa left the Philippines, and other experts
concurred with this assessment. They cited the decline in foreign financial support as a key reason
for Abu Sayyaf’s expanded kidnapings for ransom. However, ties strengthened beginning in
2000-2001 apparently for several reasons. First, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist
attack on the United States, Al Qaeda apparently decided to reconsider Abu Sayyaf as an ally
against the United States. Second, in the late 1990s, Jeemah Islamiah and Al Qaeda cadre began
to use MILF bases on Mindanao for training and planning operations, which brought JI into direct 16
contact with Abu Sayyaf. Third, as stated previously, Khaddafy Janjalani reoriented Abu Sayyaf
towards operations that were more in line with Al Qaeda-JI operations and thus established a
stronger basis for cooperation.
A secret AFP intelligence report of early 2000 reportedly asserted that Abu Sayyaf received 17
training, arms, and other support from Al Qaeda and other Middle East terrorist groups. AFP
officers subsequently reported that “foreign Muslims” were training Abu Sayyaf on Mindanao to
conduct urban terrorism and that Osamu bin Laden had ordered stepped-up aid to Abu Sayyaf, 18
including possibly $3 million in 2000. Hostages who escaped Abu Sayyaf captivity and Abu
14 Police Hunt for Sudanese Terrorist in Mindanao. Manila Chronicle, December 15, 1995. p. 3. Pomonti, Jean-Claude.
Al Qaeda’s Invisible Presence in Southeast Asia. Le Monde, November 4-5, 2001, p. 12.
15 For a detailed account of the Ramzi Yousef bomb plot, see Brzezinski, Matthew. Bust and Boom. Washington Post
Magazine, December 31, 2001. pp. 15-17, 27-28.
16 Abuza, Zachary. Militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Boulder and London, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003. p. 96-99,
17 Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Terrorism War’s New Front. Washington Post, December 22, 2001. P. A1. Kurlantzick,
Joshua. Muslim Separatists in Global Network of Terrorist Groups. Washington Times, May 2, 2000. p. A13.
18 Arquiza, Ray. Interpol Alerts RP on Bin Laden’s Men. Philippine Star (internet version), July 10, 2001. Gomez, Jim.
Philippine Rebels, bin Laden Linked. Agence France Presse report, June 20, 2000.
Sayyaf defectors gave similar accounts of Middle Easterners and Afghans conducting training in 19
Abu Sayyaf camps in 2000 and 2001. In 2001, Khadaffy Janjalani reportedly approached
Zulkifli, a key JI operative and requested that JI train Abu Sayyaf members. Zulkifli agreed and 20
dispatched JI cadre to Abu Sayyaf camps. By mid-2005, Jeemah Islamiah personnel reportedly 21
had trained about 60 Abu Sayyaf cadre in bomb assembling and detonation. On October 2,
2002, Abu Sayyaf operatives and two Indonesian members of JI conducted a bombing in
Zamboanga on Mindanao that killed three people, including a U.S. Special Forces soldier. Several
joint bombing operations followed. Abu Sayyaf-JI collaboration also resulted in another
important development in Abu Sayyaf’s emergence after 2000 as a bona fide member of the Al
Qaeda-backed Southeast Asian terrorist network: Abu Sayyaf gained access to MILF camps
where JI-MILF training was ongoing, and MILF commands began to support Abu Sayyaf-JI 22
bombings. More evidence of JI-Abu Sayyaf collaboration came with the reports that two
Indonesian JI cadre (Umar Patek and Dulmatin), accused of the 2002 Bali bombing, were with 23
Abu Sayyaf forces on Jolo island, as well as at least three other JI members.
Leaders of the MILF and MNLF have denied any supportive links with Abu Sayyaf. They have
criticized Abu Sayyaf’s terrorist attacks against civilians. The MILF rejected the Afghan Taliban’s 24
call for a jihad against the United States and condemned the September 11 attack. They have
disavowed cooperation with JI and Abu Sayyaf. However, there have been many reports of links
between elements of the MILF and Al Qaeda and JI. One example is the findings of the Singapore
government following the uncovering of a JI plot in December 2001 to stage multiple bombings
in Singapore. Singapore officials reported in January 2002 that an MILF trainer and bomb
specialist assisted the group of 13 members of Jeemah Islamiah arrested in Singapore in 25
December 2001 for plotting to bomb U.S. and other foreign targets in Singapore. Subsequent
reports in 2002, particularly of Singapore’s investigation of Jeemah Islamiah, substantiated that
the MILF provided key training and other assistance in recent years to members of Jeemah 26
Islamiah. Jeemah Islamiah also was believed responsible for the bombing in Bali, Indonesia, in
One of the first pieces of hard evidence of MILF cooperation with Abu Sayyaf was the bombings 27
in Davao on Mindanao in March and April 2003, which killed 48. Zachary Abuza, U.S. expert
19 Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia, p. 113.
20 Abuza, Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf, p. 22.
21 Mogato, Manny. Philippine rebels linking up with foreign jihadists. Reuters News, August 21, 2005. Del Puerto,
Luige A. PNP [Philippine National Police]: alliance of JI, RP terrorists strong. Philippine Daily Inquirer (internet
version), November 20, 2005.
22 Ibid., p. 22-24.
23 Bali bomb suspect eludes capture in Philippines, Agence France Presse, May 11, 2007.
24 Mendez, Christina. MILF Rejects ‘Holy War’ vs US. Philippine Star (internet version), September 17, 2001.
25 Mydans, Seth. Suspects in Singapore Are Linked to Al Qaeda and Plans for Anti-U.S. Attacks. New York Times,
January 12, 2002. p. A8. Marinay, Manny B. Philippine Military Bares MILF’s Foreign Sources of Funds. Manila
Times (internet version), March 27, 2002.
26 Wain, Barry and McBeth, John. A Perilous Choice for the Presidents. Far Eastern Economic Review, October 3,
2002. p. 17-20.
27 Abuza, Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf, p. 10, 15.
on Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia, has identified four of eight MILF base commands as sites
of active MILF cooperation with Abu Sayyaf and JI. He also has identified the MILF’s Special
Operations Group as facilitating joint training and joint operations with Abu Sayyaf. Khadaffy
Janjalani and other Abu Sayyaf leaders reportedly have received sanctuary in at least one MILF 28
base camp. The July 2007 ambush of the Philippine Marines on Basilan may be another case of
cooperation between a local MILF command and Abu Sayyaf, given the longstanding ties
between the two groups on Basilan and the reported Abu Sayyaf attempt to re-establish a
significant presence on Basilan after the setbacks suffered in 2002 as a result of the Philippine
military operations supported by the United States.
Another element in Abu Sayyaf-MILF collaboration reportedly is their relationship with the
Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM). Unlike Muslims of the southern Philippines, the RSM
appears to be composed primarily of Filipinos from the northern Philippines, including the
Manila area. It has emerged from the estimated 200,000 Filipinos who have converted to Islam
since the 1970s; many of these are Filipinos who worked in the Middle East where they
converted. The RSM’s manpower strength is unknown, but Philippine intelligence reports 29
indicate that it has cells throughout the main island of Luzon, including metropolitan Manila.
Abu Sayyaf apparently moved to collaborate with the RSM in order to extend its reach to Manila
and other parts of the northern Philippines. A Manila bombing plot uncovered in March 2005
involved the RSM and Abu Sayyaf, according to Philippine intelligence officials. The RSM has
cooperated with Abu Sayyaf in several bomb plots including the February 2004 Manila ferry
bombing. The RSM also has received financial support and training from elements within the
MILF. The RSM leader, Ahmed Islam Santos, underwent training in bombing in the MILF’s 30
Camp Bushra on Mindanao in December 2001.
This collaboration also suggests that key MILF commanders may not support any agreement
between the MILF and the Philippine government, coming out of the post-cease-fire negotiations,
that would not include outright independence for the Muslim areas of the southern Philippines. In
that scenario, the MILF could split with hardline elements joining even more closely with JI and
Abu Sayyaf, which would maintain a high level of terrorist operations despite a settlement
The basic Philippine government policy since August 2000 has been constant military pressure on
Abu Sayyaf. In September 2000, President Estrada ordered the AFP to commit over 1,500 troops
into Jolo (pronounced “Holo”) to conduct operations against Abu Sayyaf units that had taken the
foreign hostages in Malaysia. President Arroyo in 2001 ordered 4,500 AFP troops into Basilan
island after Abu Sayyaf’s hostage-taking on Palawan. In mid-2002, after the completion of the
U.S.-supported AFP operation on Basilan, President Arroyo ordered more troops to Jolo Island
28 Ibid., p. 14-19-22-24.
29 Top terrorism suspect falls. Philippine Daily Inquirer (internet version), October 27, 2005. Montlake, Simon. In
Philippines, watchful eye on converts. Christian Science Monitor, November 28, 2005. p. 7.
30 Ibid. Abuza, Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf, pp. 35-37.
with the aim of wiping out Abu Sayyaf in its stronghold. AFP strength on Jolo reached 7,000 in
AFP operations have been limited by several factors. One is the mountainous, jungle terrain of the
two islands pockmarked by underground caves. A second is the support civilians on Jolo and
Basilan reportedly give Abu Sayyaf, although surveys of Muslims on Basilan suggested that
many are disillusioned by Abu Sayyaf’s violence. A third has been the limited military equipment
of the AFP, including an absence of night vision and other surveillance equipment and shortages
of helicopters, mortars, naval patrol craft, surveillance aircraft, and even basic necessities like 31
military boots. U.S. military aid has made up for some of these shortfalls of equipment. In
January 2007, a major success came when the AFP killed Abu Sayyaf leader, Abu Solaiman, and
identified the body of Khadafi Janjalani, the top Abu Sayyaf leader, whom the AFP apparently 32
killed in a battle on Jolo in September 2006.
A fourth limitation appears to have been the unevenness in the quality of the AFP. The apparent
attrition of Abu Sayyaf strength in 2002 and afterwards reflected AFP successes. However, the
fighting on Jolo from 2002 through 2005 appears to have been a stalemate. There also have been
reports of corruption within the AFP which have produced failed operations. The most
controversial was the failed encirclement of the Abu Sayyaf unit holding the Burnhams and
Filipino hostages in a church in the town of Lamitan in June 2001. Several AFP units pulled out
of their positions without explanation, allowing the Abu Sayyaf unit to break out of the
encirclement. A Catholic priest and other witnesses charged that Abu Sayyaf had bribed AFP
commanders to pull units from their positions, and Filipino Catholic bishops called for an 33
inquiry. A Philippine Senate Committee prepared a report in August 2002 citing “strong
circumstantial evidence” that AFP commanders at Lamitan had colluded with Abu Sayyaf. In her
book about her captivity, Gracia Burnham described Abu Sayaf bribery of Filipino military 34
officials and Abu Sayyaf payoffs to AFP personnel in return for military supplies.
A fifth limitation was the hostage situations. In 2000, European governments reportedly pressured
the Philippine government to refrain from “excessive” military operations while Abu Sayyaf held
the European hostages. In 2002, there reportedly was similar U.S. pressure regarding the
Burnhams. Arroyo Administration officials and AFP commanders said they were restrained from
air bombing and using artillery and mortars out of concern for the safety of the hostages. A sixth
limitation was the AFP deployment of most of its forces in the southern Philippines in the broader
areas of Mindanao dominated by the MILF and MNLF. Only a small percentage of Filipino
troops was committed against Abu Sayyaf. A final constraint was the danger of AFP operations
producing a large numbers of civilian casualties or displaced civilians. The Estrada
Administration came under criticism in 2000 over reports that the AFP offensive on Jolo caused
civilian casualties and displacement among the island’s 600,000 residents.
The collaboration of Abu Sayyaf with the MILF and JI also appears to be placing limitations on
Philippine operations against Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf undoubtedly has taken advantage of the
31 Mogato, Manny. Philippine military ill-equipped to fight—report. Reuters News, October 31, 2003. Mogato, Manny.
Fuel costs, lack of bullets hurt Manila terror war. Reuters News, November 14, 2005.
32 Hookway, James. Terrorist cells band together in Philippines. Wall Street Journal Asia, January 22, 2007. p. 11.
DNA test confirms death of Philippine separatist leader. New York Times, January 21, 2007. p. 3.
33 Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Rebels’ Escape Draws Scrutiny. Washington Post, September 1, 2001, p. A 18.
34 Mogato, Manny. Former U.S. hostage testifies in Philippines. Reuters News, July 29, 2004.
truce between the MILF and the Philippine government to establish links with the MILF and JI
and gain access to MILF base camps for training and sanctuary. This probably was a factor in the
ambush of Philippine Marines on Basilan in July 2007 by an apparent combined MILF-Abu
Sayyaf force. The cease-fire has resulted in a substantial reduction in violence and armed clashes.
However, the truce apparently has not reduced the movement of JI terrorist personnel and
materials between Mindanao and the Indonesian island of Sulawesi under the direction of JI, nor
has it prevented JI’s growing collaboration with Abu Sayyaf.
Negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF have been protracted and
inconclusive. Government predictions of an agreement in 2006 were not realized. Substantial
issues and disagreements between the two sides remain to be resolved. One is the issue of
“ancestral domain,” the size and geographical configuration of an autonomous Muslim entity. The
MILF has proposed a unified area geographically. It is traditionally Muslim but includes locales
where Christians are the majority. The government has proposed a smaller, “leopard spot”
configuration with no geographical unity that is more supportive of Christian populations and
powerful Christian political families. The MILF has rejected a government proposal for a census
and plebiscite in locales to determine whether they would be included in the Muslim autonomous
entity. Another issue is the constitutional-political system in an autonomous Muslim entity:
whether an electoral democracy or a traditional system led by Muslim religious and tribal leaders.
The issue of elections is particularly important, given the history of extensive vote fraud in the
Muslim areas of Mindanao, often with the connivance of national Filipino political parties and
leaders. The nature of security forces remain to be resolved, including the jurisdiction of the AFP
and the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the Muslim entity. The MILF also seeks agreement
on a referendum to be held at some point to determine the final political status of the Muslim
entity; such a plebiscite could include an option for full independence. The future role of the 35
MNLF and other non-MILF groups also is a point in dispute between the MILF and the MNLF.
The MNLF still has political influence in parts of Muslim Mindanao and the Sulu islands. An
Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, negotiated between the Philippine government and
the MNLF in 1976, remains in existence, although the government of the Autonomous Region is
considered weak and ineffective. Powerful Muslim political families remain independent of the
MILF and MNLF and have connections with the Manila government and Filipino political 36
Beginning in October 2001, the United States sent groups of military observers to Mindanao to
assess AFP operations against Abu Sayyaf, render advice, and examine AFP equipment needs.
President Bush extended $93 million in military aid to the Philippines when President Arroyo
visited Washington in November 2001, and he offered a direct U.S. military role in combating
Abu Sayyaf. President Arroyo insisted that the U.S. military role should be advisory and that the
AFP would retain full operational responsibility. By late December 2001, the AFP on Mindanao
35 Abuza, Zachary. Status of the GRP-MILF talks. January 14, 2007. 5 p. Arguillas, Carolyn O. Will new proposal
break the impasse? MindaNews (internet), November 15, 2006.
36 Nathan Gilbert Quimpo, The US and the Southern Philippines’ Quagmire. Working Paper No. 144. Perth, Australia,
Murdoch University, pp. 7-9.
began to receive quantities of U.S. military equipment. Moreover, AFP commanders suggested 37
that they would support President Arroyo if she sought a more direct U.S. military role.
The early proposals of the Bush Administration envisaged a large, direct, and assertive role for
U.S. forces: a direct combat role for U.S. military personnel, the commitment of the elite Delta 38
Force to lead operations to rescue the Burnhams, and assistance to the AFP against Abu 39
Sayyaf. However, negotiations with the Philippines over the rules of engagement for the
Balikatan exercise resulted in a more limited U.S. role, as Filipino officials insisted on a non-
combat role for the Americans, operations against only Abu Sayyaf, and a geographical limitation
of U.S. operations to only Basilan island and the Zamboanga peninsula.
In February 2002, the United States dispatched 1,300 U.S. troops to provide training, advice, and
other non-combat assistance to 1,200 Filipino troops against Abu Sayyaf on Basilan island in an
operation dubbed “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder). The U.S. troops included 160 Special
Operations personnel and over 300 troops, primarily Navy engineers, to undertake “civic action”
projects such as road-building on Basilan.
Philippine-U.S. rules of engagement provided that two-man U.S. Special Forces teams could
accompany AFP companies in the field on Basilan island. U.S. military officials in the Philippines
reportedly favored an early implementation of this plan; but some Bush Administration officials
in Washington, including Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, developed second thoughts about this 40
U.S. role. Rumsfeld did not detail these misgivings, but several have been reported and/or seem
apparent. Command arrangements were a difficult issue in Philippine-U.S. negotiations over rules
of engagement. The Americans refused to place U.S. personnel under Filipino command but
agreed that U.S. personnel would take “operational instructions from Filipino commanders” in the
field. Rumsfeld and other officials, however, may have had continued doubts about this kind of
arrangement. Relatedly, the uneven and sometimes poor quality of AFP units may have added to
In mid-June 2002, the Filipinos and Americans finalized arrangements for U.S. Special Forces in
the field. U.S. Special Forces personnel would accompany only selected AFP companies that had
reached certain specified combat skills and on only closely defined missions. Moreover, this
arrangement would end on July 31, 2002, the official termination date of the Balikatan operation. 41
Any extension would have to be re-negotiated. In reality, the arrangements were not
implemented before the July 31 deadline.
U.S. policy toward the Burnhams, the American missionary couple held hostage, contained
several shifts. After the U.S. offer of the Delta Force was ruled out, American officials reportedly
advised their Filipino counterparts to exercise military restraint in order to limit the danger to the 42
Burnhams. The Bush Administration made a decision, probably in March 2002, to support the
37 More US ‘Advisors’ to Help Fight Sayyaf. Manila Times, January 4, 2002. p. 1. Ng-Gadil, Mirasol. AFP Admitted
that Operation Against Abu Sayyuf Bandits is Difficult. Manila Kabayan (internet version), December 30, 2001.
38 Bonner, Raymond. Philippines Terror Group Seeks Money for Couple. New York Times, March 9, 2002. p. A10.
39 Struck, Doug. Some Filipinos Cite Threats Beyond Abu Sayyaf. Washington Post, March 4, 2002. p. A13.
40 Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. U.S. Troops Have yet to Join Patrols in Philippines. Washington Post, May 1, 2002. p. A16.
41 Schmitt, Eric. American Troops Will Begin Tighter Operations with Filipinos. New York Times, June 20 , 2002. p.
42 Ricks, Thomas E. and Sipress, Alan. Spy Planes Seek out Philippine guerrillas. Washington Post, February 21, 2002.
payment of ransom to Abu Sayyaf. The payment of $300,000 reportedly was made by private
parties, probably through intermediaries that had contacts with Abu Sayyaf. U.S. FBI officials
reportedly helped to deliver the money in April 2002. Abu Sayyaf did not release the Burnhams.
The money reportedly did not go to the Abu Sayyaf group under Abu Sabaya which held the
hostages. Instead, it went to the Jolo-based Abu Sayyaf faction under Khaddafy Janjalani, who 43
reportedly refused to turn it over to Abu Sabaya. The Bush Administration has not disclosed
what went wrong with the ransom attempt.
Following the failed ransom attempt, U.S. officials reportedly shifted from their pro-restraint
position and advised the AFP to adopt more aggressive tactics to rescue the Burnhams. The U.S.
military provided the AFP with intelligence information that Abu Sayyaf moved the Burnhams
from Basilan to the Zamboanga peninsula in April 2002 and with key intelligence in the AFP’s
assault on the Abu Sayyaf team holding the hostages on June 7, 2002. Martin Burnham and
Filipino hostage, Deborah Yap, were killed during the fighting; Gracia Burnham was rescued.
Despite these changes in the U.S. military role and in U.S. policies and the less than successful
attempt to rescue the Burnhams, the Balikatan exercise appears to have accomplished several
U.S. goals. Philippine-U.S. security cooperation was advanced. AFP commanders viewed the
U.S. role in Balikatan positively, and President Arroyo continued to advocate this kind of
cooperation. Most reports indicate that U.S. support enhanced the capabilities of AFP units on
Basilan. The period after February 2002 saw more assertive AFP patrolling on Basilan, more
encounters with Abu Sayyaf, and an erosion of Abu Sayyaf strength, which apparently led to the
Abu Sayyaf decision to leave Basilan with the Burnhams. In March 2003, Philippine officials
estimated Abu Sayyaf strength at about 470 with about 380 on Jolo Island. As stated previously,
later estimates placed Abu Sayyaf strength between 200 and 400 fighters. Filipino officials voiced
praise for the modern equipment U.S. forces provided the AFP, U.S. intelligence information
provided by U.S. aircraft and sophisticated communications and tracking equipment, and 44
American assistance in planning operations. U.S. equipment and surveillance were important in
the AFP’s successful operation later in June 2002 in intercepting Abu Sabaya and other Abu 45
Sayyaf leaders at sea in which Abu Sabaya was killed.
The Bush Administration’s initiative in offering 350 U.S. personnel to conduct civic action
projects on Basilan reportedly proved popular with the people on the island and probably helped 46
to neutralize public support for Abu Sayyaf on the island. The civic action projects (road
building, medical care, and well-digging) may have influenced a less negative reaction of Filipino
Muslims elsewhere to the U.S. military role, and the favorable Filipino media coverage appears to
have helped President Arroyo contain the critics of the United States within the Manila political
43 Lerner, Mark. Hostage’s Father Says Abu Sayyaf Broke Deal. Washington Times, April 26, 2002. p. A15. Bonner,
Raymond and Schmitt, Eric. Philippine Officials Detail the Trap, Set With U.S. Help, that Snared a Rebel Leader. New
York Times, September 22, 2002, p. 16.
44 Gloria, Glenda M. Training Days. Manila Newsbreak (internet version), July 8, 2002.
45 Bonner and Schmitt, Philippine Officials Detail the Trap, Set With U.S. Help, that Snared a Rebel Leader, New York
Times, September 22, 2002, p. 16.
46 Schmitt, Eric. By Aiding Needy Filipinos, G.I.’s Could Help Rout the Rebels. New York Times, June 15, 2002. p. A6.
A key decision for post-July 31 cooperation was whether to extend the U.S. support and
assistance role southward from Basilan to Jolo (pronounced “Holo”) and other islands in the Sulu
group where Abu Sayyaf continued to operate. There was evidence of tough Philippine-U.S.
negotiations on this issue and possible division within the American side. President Arroyo and 47
Secretary of Defense Angelo Reyes voiced support for a U.S. assistance role in the Sulus.
The continued Abu Sayyaf bombings in autumn 2002 led the U.S. Defense Department to give
increased attention to Jolo, an island in the Sulu chain south of Basilan with a population of
620,000 and 648 square miles of rugged mountains and jungle. U.S. officials also cited stronger
evidence of connections between Abu Sayyaf and international terrorist groups. Planning and
discussions with the Philippine government were underway by December 2002. In February
2003, Pentagon officials described a plan under which the United States would commit 350
Special Operations Forces (SOF) to Jolo to operate with AFP Army and Marine units down to the
platoon level of 20-30 troops. Another 400 U.S. support troops would be at Zamboanga on the
Mindanao mainland. Positioned offshore of Jolo would be a navy task force of 1,000 U.S. 48
Marines and 1,300 Navy personnel equipped with Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier jets.
According to the Pentagon description of the plan, U.S. troops would be in a combat role. This
and subsequent statements indicated that the SOF on Jolo would participate in AFP offensive
operations against Abu Sayyaf and that the SOF would not be limited to using their weapons for
self-defense. The U.S. Marines were described as a “quick reaction” force, undoubtedly meaning
that they could be sent on to Jolo to reinforce AFP units. The Cobra helicopters and Harrier jets
would give AFP commanders the option of requesting U.S. air strikes in support of AFP
These rules of engagement went beyond the U.S. role on Basilan in 2002. President Arroyo and 49
AFP commanders reportedly had agreed to the plan in a meeting of February 4, 2003. The
announcement of the plan caused immediate controversy in the Philippines. Filipino politicians
and media organs criticized the plan as violating the constitutional prohibition of foreign troops 50
engaging in combat on Philippine soil. Filipino Muslim leaders warned of a Muslim backlash on
Mindanao. Filipino experts and civic leaders on Jolo warned that the people of Jolo would not
support a U.S. combat role, partly because of the history of U.S. military involvement on the
island. During the Philippine wars following the U.S. annexation of the Philippines in 1898, U.S.
forces commanded by Generals Leonard Wood and John J. Pershing conducted extensive combat
operations against Muslim forces on Jolo, inflicting thousands of civilian casualties. President
Arroyo reacted to these criticisms and warnings by asserting that the U.S. role on Jolo would be
to train and advise under AFP jurisdiction but would not involve combat. The Bush and Arroyo
administrations decided to put the plan on hold and re-negotiate the rules of engagement of U.S.
47 Vuillanueva, Mirichu and Pareno, Roel. Arroyo Scolds US General. Philippine Star (internet version), July 11, 2002.
New US-Philippine Exercises Against Rebels Planned. Reuters News, July 20, 2002.
48 Graham, Bradley. U.S. Bolsters Philippine Force. Washington Post, February 21, 2003. p. A1.
49 Nakashima, Ellen and Graham, Bradley. Missed Signals Forced Suspension of U.S.-Philippine Mission. Washington
Post, March 3, 2003. p. A12.
50 Nakashima, Ellen. Philippines Debates U.S. Combat Role Against Rebels. Washington Post, February 23, 2003. p.
However, after 2002, the United States and the Philippines implemented another phase of U.S.
training and support of the AFP, the training of AFP light infantry companies for use against both
Muslim insurgents and the communist New People’s Army. In 2004, the two sides began to
negotiate alternative schemes for military cooperation against Abu Sayyaf. The result was two
operations that began in 2005 and continue to the present. One has focused on Abu Sayyaf on
western Mindanao, undoubtedly in response to Khadafi Janjalani’s shift of Abu Sayyaf operations
to the Mindanao mainland. The second focused on Jolo but with a reduced U.S. military role as
compared to the plan of 2003. The total U.S. military component in the southern Philippines
involved in the operations is normally about 450.
The operations apparently have had three objectives: (1) neutralize Abu Sayyaf-Jeemah Islamiah
training; (2) kill or capture Khadafi Janjalani and other Abu Sayyaf leaders; and (3) root out the
Abu Sayyaf forces and organization on Jolo in a similar fashion to the success on Basilan in 2002.
The U.S. military role in western Mindanao reportedly has involved intelligence and
communications support of the AFP, including the employment of U.S. P-3 surveillance aircraft;
deployment of Navy Seal and Special Operations personnel with AFP ground units; and rules of
engagement restricting U.S. personnel to a non-combat role (although such rules normally would 51
allow U.S. personnel to defend themselves if attacked). U.S. and Filipino military personnel
also have conducted several military and training exercises in MILF-dominated areas of
Mindanao since 2005.
U.S. troops landed on Jolo in 2005. The number of U.S. troops on the island has ranged between
180 and 250. Their mission has been to support 7,000 Filipino troops (ten battalions) on the island
against Abu Sayyaf. Their role is non-combat similar to the U.S. role on Basilan in 2002. U.S.
military personnel live within Philippine military camps and always operate with AFP units. They 52
can use their weapons only when fired upon.
U.S. military support on Jolo has the following main components:
• Training of AFP battalions in conducting operations. This has emphasized
training for night combat. As of mid-2007, two Filipino Special Forces battalions
and one Scout Ranger battalion were considered fully trained, and the remaining
Philippine Army and Marine battalions were undergoing training.
• Providing equipment to the Philippine battalions, including communications
equipment and night vision goggles.
• Providing intelligence technology to the AFP.
• Assistance to the AFP in planning operations.
• Providing aerial intelligence reconnaissance to locate Abu Sayyaf units and
personnel in Jolo’s jungles.
51 Bonner, Raymond and Conde, Carlos H. U.S. and Philippines join forces to pursue terrorist leader. New York Times,
July 23, 2005. p. A4.
52 James Hookway, Terror fight scores in Philippines, The Wall Street Journal Asia, June 20, 2007, p. 1.
• Conducting civic action programs with the AFP to improve the lives of the local
populace and turn it against Abu Sayyaf. U.S. troops have repaired and built piers
for fishermen and have constructed roads, water purification installations, and
farm markets. They have renovated schools and provided medical care.
• Support U.S. AID projects on Jolo on neighboring Tawi Tawi island, including a
new market for Jolo town and a major pier on Tawi Tawi.
Reports indicate major successes for the AFP operation on Jolo backed by the United States since
2005, but Abu Sayyaf has not been eliminated. Abu Sayyaf strength on Jolo is down to an
estimated 200-300. It has been pushed back to remote areas on the island. Senior leaders have
been killed, including Khadafi Janjalani and Abu Solaiman. However, JI leaders Umar Patek and
Dulmatin remain at large. Security has improved in many parts of the island as the AFP has
established a permanent presence in many of the areas cleared of Abu Sayyaf. New businesses
have emerged in the main towns, and people venture out at night. The incidence of bombings and
ambushes has declined. The attitude of the people of Jolo toward the U.S. military generally has
been positive. As on Basilan in 2002, U.S. conducted and supported civic action projects have 53
been well received by the people.
Philippine-U.S. military cooperation against Abu Sayyaf has rebuilt a Philippine-U.S. alliance
that had weakened considerably after the Philippines ended U.S. rights to military bases in the
Philippines in 1993. During President Arroyo’s state visit to Washington in May 2003, the Bush
Administration designated the Philippines as a Major Non-NATO ally, a status that could make
the Philippines eligible to receive more sophisticated U.S. arms and military training. U.S.
support appears to have increased the effectiveness of the AFP in counter-insurgency operations.
It also appears to have increased the awareness and commitment of AFP commanders in the 54
southern Philippines to the non-combat components of counter-insurgency strategy. The joint
operations and exercises appear to have strong support from the Filipino populace. They served to
limit the potential rift between Manila and Washington in 2004 when President Arroyo withdrew
the small AFP contingent from Iraq in response to the taking of a Filipino contract worker hostage
by insurgents in Iraq. However, the enlarged U.S. military role also carries the risk of political
backlashes. Influential Filipino “nationalist” and leftist groups criticized the U.S. military role in
Basilan, even though polls indicated overwhelming Filipino public support for it and the
influential Catholic Bishops Conference endorsed it. They charged that the U.S. military role
violated the Philippine constitution and that the United States was plotting to secure permanent
military bases again. This kind of controversy likely will emerge again if the new U.S. military
role in the southern Philippines expands into a combat role or if the United States becomes
involved in a new Philippine-MILF war.
Moreover, incidents involving U.S. military personnel and Filipino civilians have the potential to
turn Filipino opinion negative toward the United States. At the end of 2005, four U.S. Marines,
stationed on Okinawa, were charged formally with raping a Filipino woman while they were in
53 Ibid. Paul Alexander, U.S. efforts bear fruit in Philippines, May 12, 2007. Simon Montlake, US troops in Philippines
defy old stereotype, Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2007, p. 7.
54 Marites Danguilan Vitug, Lessons in counterinsurgency, Asia Sentinel (internet), May 16, 2007.
the Philippines for a military exercises. One Marine was convicted in a Philippine court. The case
drew much publicity in the Philippines, particularly over the application of the 1998 Philippine-
U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement to the case and especially to the issue of who would hold custody
of the Marines until their trial was held and where the convicted Marine would be imprisoned.
The U.S. military undoubtedly will be influenced by the increasingly complex Muslim terrorist
and insurgency situation that has developed since 2002. As stated previously, Abu Sayyaf’s armed
strength has dwindled to a few hundred. The cease-fire between the MILF and the Philippine
government has held. However, there are other developments of a negative nature that could
worsen the overall situation in the southern Philippines and even the Philippines as a whole.
Philippine government-MILF negotiations for a political settlement have stalemated; a continued
stalemate could weaken the commitments on both sides to maintain the cease-fire and embolden
“hard liners” who favor renewing armed struggle. Another negative is the cooperation among Abu
Sayyaf, several major MILF commands, and elements of Jeemah Islamiah on Mindanao. JI
appears to use Mindanao as a primary base for building up its cadre of terrorists. This cooperation
among the three groups appears to be transforming Mindanao into a significant base of operations
rather than just a site for training; and these operations appear to target the Philippines for
terrorist attacks rather than just neighboring countries. The result was the increase in terrorist
bombings since 2002 both in number and destructiveness and an increase in the number of
bombings and bomb plots in the northern Philippines, including Manila.
The Bush Administration has expressed growing concern over MILF links with JI and Abu
Sayyaf and JI’s use of the Mindanao-Sulawesi corridor to move terrorists and bombing materials
between the Philippines and Indonesia. In April 2005, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Manila,
Joseph Mussomeli, caused an uproar among Filipino officials when he stated that parts of Muslim
Mindanao, with its poverty, lawlessness, porous borders, and links to JI could development into
an “Afghanistan-style” situation. In May 2005, U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone announced
the cancellation of a U.S.-aided road project in Cotabato province in southern Mindanao, 55
describing Cotabato as a “doormat” for Muslim terrorists. These statements indicated U.S.
dissatisfaction with the situation on Mindanao and doubts about the Philippine government’s
ability to end Muslim terrorism.
The Bush Administration has considered placing the MILF on the U.S. list of terrorist
organizations. However, the Arroyo Administration has opposed such a move as potentially 56
jeopardizing the peace negotiations. As of the beginning of 2006, the Bush Administration has
voiced support for the Philippine-MILF peace negotiations as the best means of de-linking the 57
MILF from JI and Abu Sayyaf. This support boosts the Arroyo Administration against the AFP’s
advocacy of a militarily-aggressive strategy toward the MILF. Nevertheless, the new U.S.
military role in western Mindanao increases the risk of a clash involving U.S. military personnel
with the MILF. Since January 2006, U.S. military personnel have conducted several training
missions for AFP personnel in the heart of MILF territory. The U.S. contingents have carried out
civic action projects (medical, dental, and veterinary services) in nearby Muslim villages. The
U.S. initial U.S.-AFP training exercise drew a protest march by Muslim civilian groups allied
55 Conde, Carlos H. Corruption troubles Philippine military. International Herald Tribune, May 26, 2005.
56 Abuza, Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf, p. 42. Gloria’s powers of persuasion. Far Eastern Economic
Review, December 12, 2002. p. 10.
57 Asia Security Monitor No. 147, November 2005. U.S. says peace deal in Manila may pressure JI. Reuters News,
October 22, 2005.
with the MILF and a warning from an MILF central committee official over the increasing 58
presence of U.S. military forces in the Muslim areas of Mindanao. However, MILF leaders have
said they will accept such a U.S. role as long as it is peaceful.
Moreover, a breakdown of the negotiations and the cease-fire likely would confront the Bush
Administration with policy decisions regarding a U.S. role in a wider war. This is the danger
posed by incidents like the July 2007 MILF ambush of the Philippine Marines on Basilan. The
AFP could be expected to propose increased supplies of U.S. arms and military equipment; and it
likely would argue for a more direct U.S. military role. The Philippine government might change
its previous policy of opposition to a U.S. military role against the MILF and encourage U.S.
actions against the MILF at least in a role similar to that in the joint operations against Abu
If significant elements of the MILF opposed a peace agreement and moved closer to JI and Abu
Sayyaf, and if they were able to continue or expand terrorist operations, the Bush Administration
would be faced with a different kind of challenge but one that could include similar pressures for
greater U.S. military involvement. That, too, would be the case if a peace agreement were not
followed by effective measures against JI on Mindanao. There also would be the challenge of
proceeding with implementing projects financed by $260 million in U.S. aid to Mindanao since
2001 (including $25 million in FY2006). This commitment, too, could confront the
Administration with a policy decision of whether or not to employ U.S. pressure on the Philippine
government to implement faithfully its obligations under a peace agreement. This scenario is
plausible, given the reputed poor performance of Philippine governments in implementing the
Larry A. Niksch
Specialist in Asian Affairs
58 Mogato, Manny. Philippine army on alert as US forces begin drills. Reuters News, January 16, 2006. Mogato,
Manny. Interview—Philippine rebels see peace talks as done deal. Reuters News, January 16, 2006. Mogato, Manny.
Protest greets U.S. troops training in Philippines. Reuters News, January 17, 2006.