The Philippine military says its efforts against militant groups with ties to major terrorist networks are paying off, thanks to a decade of U.S. counterterrorism support. But these successes have also brought a new set of challenges.
In early February, the Philippine Air Force carried out a pre-dawn airstrike that killed 15 militants, including the head of the Sulu province branch of the Abu Sayyaf. The operation took place about a month after troops had been staking the group out on the island of Jolo in the restive south.
Armed Forced of the Philippines spokesman Colonel Arnulfo Burgos says, in addition to providing technical support, the United States had a major role in intelligence gathering against the group.
"We have diminished their lethality as a group," said Burgos. "We have sincerely degraded their capability. They are now disorganized. And, the most important thing is that we will not let our guard down and just press on [with] the situation, intensifying further our intelligence collection."
Rommel Banlaoi is executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. He says U.S. military stationed in the south, near the Abu Sayyaf stronghold, should continue their work.
"U.S. efforts in building capacity of the Philippines should be recognized because were it not for continuing capacity-building training provided by the United States, Philippine law enforcement authorities would not have enhanced their capacity also to address terrorist threats. So that's very, very important," said Banlaoi.
Since 2002, 600 American troops have been stationed in Zamboanga province in Western Mindanao Island, to give advice and training, but not to engage in combat. The program began under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush as part of the global "war on terror" following the September 11th attacks.
Many people say support from the United States has helped diminish the Abu Sayyaf's numbers from about 1,000 at its peak to less than 400.
However, Banlaoi cautions that the gains against the group, also called ASG, are temporary and the diminished numbers are deceptive.
"These 300-plus members have their own individual networks that they can harness in their operations. So the strength of the ASG is its ability to network," added Banlaoi.
The Abu Sayyaf gained notoriety in the 1990's, when it broke away from a larger Muslim separatist group in the Southern Philippines. It started out as a group driven by ideology to push for a separate Islamic state. Middle Eastern donors including al-Qaida gave them seed money. They have carried out kidnappings of foreign nationals, including the 2001 hostage-taking of 20 people at a Philippine resort in which they beheaded one American and lost another American to gunfire in a rescue operation.
Around 2005, the group then focused on bomb-making with training from high-ranking operatives of Jemaah Islamiyah, another al-Qaida-linked terror organization based in Indonesia. They detonated bombs in Manila and other major Philippine cities, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds of others. A few years later, their fundraising activities were hit by coordinated global actions aimed at curtailing foreign terror support. So the group turned back to kidnapping for ransom to raise funds.
Analyst Banlaoi says their ties to crime now run deep.
"They get their staying power from these vast networks in Mindanao," Banlaoi explained. "They have networks with pirates. They have networks with smugglers. They have networks with kidnappers. They have networks with extortionists. They have networks with private armed groups. They also have networks with warlords."
Maria Ressa is author-in-residence at Singapore's International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. She says, for the most part, the war on terror has been succeeding with the deaths of top international terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Ladin.
However, she says the Philippine Abu Sayyaf's shift from ideologically driven terrorism to criminal enterprises has put the U.S. operation in an awkward position. Ressa argues that the fundamental problem in the south is a governance issue.
"If the levels of corruption are so high that local government cannot govern, who do people go to? Who can they trust? To some degree what we're seeing is Filipinos know that the U.S. forces aren't corrupt and they give some level of assurance. But the Americans aren't supposed to be playing a role like this, so it becomes politically sensitive," said Ressa.
The U.S. State Department declined requests to be interviewed about their military presence in the south. Ressa says, nowadays, the U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Philippines have become more complicated.
"Is it getting enmeshed in Filipino domestic policies and tactics? Yes, of course. It's a difficult place for the United States to be in. Does the Philippines benefit from it? Yes. Do Americans benefit from it? That's the question. The advocates of keeping a U.S. presence here say yes, because it prevents future growth," Ressa noted.
Nationalistic political parties and patriotic advocates have decried the presence of American troops, calling it an encroachment on their national sovereignty. But Ressa and Banlaoi agree that, with or without the U.S. presence, Abu Sayyaf and similar groups can easily regenerate because of their deep networks.