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War on Terror:  Progress Reported in Campaign Against Abu Sayyaf - 2002-09-04

Following the September attacks in the United States, the U.S. government announced war on terrorism and launched military strikes against the Taleban and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan. Weeks later, Washington announced it was launching a second front in the war on terrorism, this one in Southeast Asia. By February, U.S. special forces had arrived in the southern Philippines as part of controversial joint exercises against one of the region's more brutal Islamist groups, the Abu Sayyaf.

Within months after the September terrorist attacks, U.S. special forces were deploying to Basilan Island, 1,000 kilometers south of Manila, where Abu Sayyaf rebels had been holding two American missionaries and a Philippine nurse hostage for nearly a year.

The U.S. forces were prohibited from engaging in direct combat but were there to train their Philippine counterparts in counterinsurgency tactics and to provide sophisticated new equipment.

In June, Philippine troops located the hostages on nearby Mindanao Island. They rescued one of the Americans, Gracie Burnham, but her husband Martin and nurse Ediborah Yap were killed in the firefight.

Following the rescue, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, underscored her resolve to continue the struggle. "We will have to finish this war because terrorism is a scourge upon the earth," said President Arroyo, "and we must obliterate it so that we can move [on] and win the battle against poverty, which is the most important battle in our country.'

Philippine officials say the exercises helped them decimate the bases and numbers of Abu Sayyaf rebels, who Washington says may have links to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

In August, however, just weeks after the American and Philippine exercises had ended, a group of gunmen on nearby Jolo Island abducted six Christians and beheaded two of them.

Despite the setback, many experts say progress against terrorism has been made. An analyst with Honolulu's East West Center, Richard Baker, says the joint exercises on Basilan proved that a U.S. military mission would not necessarily escalate as had been feared. "The experience in the Philippines shows that the United States is able to provide targeted assistance that is sensitive to the concerns and the sovereignty of the countries involved and then to pull its people out after the mission is accomplished," said Mr. Baker.

Nevertheless, the six-month exercise was controversial. Philippine nationalist groups that a decade before had successfully campaigned to close the large American bases in the Philippines, protested saying the exercise was the beginning of a U.S. re-occupation.

A professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, Jukpili Wadi, questions the overall benefits of the exercise, called Balikatan.

"The Balikatan [was] tactically useful in the short term as far as the U.S. interests and the Philippines interests is concerned," said Professor Wadi. "But it is not strategically beneficial in the long term because it will not solve anything."

Professor Wadi says the roots of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia lie mostly in long-standing local disputes. He says that, unlike the Middle East, the region does not have a history of Islamic militancy, although he acknowledges this could be changing because of local youth who may have been radicalized after studying in the Middle East and South Asia.

Nevertheless, according to Professor Benjamin Goldsmith of the National University of Singapore, the attacks in the United States last September have altered American policies toward Southeast Asia. "U.S. foreign policy has re-focused its priorities in the region," he explained. "And they [American officials] are beginning a new effort to combat what they see as terrorist influences and potential sources of terrorist threat in the region."

Professor Goldsmith says as a result, there is now less emphasis on other U.S. priorities, like economic and political reforms.

Mr. Baker of the East West Center says reported plots by Islamist groups linked to international terrorist networks like al-Qaida have increased cooperation among governments within the region.

"Given the differences in the problems that each government faces in their own relationships with each other and the United States, there's actually been a remarkable move towards cooperation, not only with the United States but among the countries in the region," he said.

The 12 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July adopted a joint strategy to combat terrorism. They also signed an anti-terrorism accord with the United States during a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Observers also note that governments in the region have adopted definitions of terrorism that suit their own political interests. And several governments are using the terrorist label to justify crackdowns on internal resistance movements or political dissidents. This has led to fears that the offensive against terrorism is forcing a retreat in efforts to promote civil liberties.

Most observers acknowledge that for the near future at least, the campaign against terrorism is going to play a predominant role in international affairs and U.S. foreign policy in particular and that other priorities are likely to take a back seat during this time.

Part of VOA's coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks..