Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa walks after an anti-terror simulation exercise at a bus terminal in Quezon city, north of Manila, Philippines, April 11, 2017.
Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa walks after an anti-terror simulation exercise at a bus terminal in Quezon city, north of Manila, Philippines, April 11, 2017.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is showing signs of gaining an upper hand in his 10-month fight against a violent, ISIS-sympathetic Muslim rebel group, which rattled the country this month with plans for an attack in a tourist zone far from their base.

Duterte has been able to throttle elements of the Abu Sayyaf, a group known for taking foreign tourists hostages and beheading some who cannot pay ransom, analysts say. His alliance with the head of another Muslim rebel group is expected to help contain Abu Sayyaf following failed efforts by past presidents.

Duterte showing military strength

Abu Sayyaf’s clash this month with troops on the Philippine island of Bohol shows the rebels are struggling to find kidnap victims in their normal strongholds along the Sulu Sea, said Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. 

“I think (Duterte) has really made up his mind he has to deal with Abu Sayyaf militarily,” Araral said. “My sense is that the foray of Abu Sayyaf in the island of Bohol is a reflection of the pressure that the military is doing now in their traditional lairs in the Sulu-Tawi Tawi area.

Abu Sayyaf rebels struggling

“I think they’re running out of hostages to catch,” he said. “There are no longer ships passing through the area. In other words, they’re running out of business. That’s why they’re thinking to go outside their lairs.”

Abu Sayyaf is widely regarded among Filipinos as a bandit group that kidnaps tourists for a living. The group, which has pledged sympathy to the Islamic State, normally operates in the southwestern Philippines where locals, including officials, help it in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. 

The group beheaded a Philippine soldier this month, a German tourist in February and two Canadian tourists last year.

Government making inroads against the rebels

But this month national police detained an officer with “links with the Abu Sayyaf Group,” the presidential website said Tuesday. 

The April 11 battle killed six terrorists, three soldiers, one police officer and a civilian. Abu Sayyaf was suspected of planning an attack on the island, which is popular with foreign divers. After that clash, troops killed seven more Abu Sayyaf affiliates in gun battles on the same island, Philippine media reported.

Duterte vowed in August to wipe out Abu Sayyaf. Although he later floated the idea of negotiating with the group, he has stepped up the armed conflict by targeting places where Abu Sayyaf's estimated 400 core members are most likely to be found, observers say.

“They’re very specific with the areas. It’s not like the whole island of Mindanao,” said Rhona Canoy, president of an international school and part of a political family in the southwestern city Cagayan de Oro. “They know where they are going.”

This undated photo provided by the Armed Forces of
This undated photo provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, shows boats the military said were used by Abu Sayyaf militants to enter the Ibananga River in the central Philippines, April 12, 2017.

Duterte praises his troops

Duterte’s spokesman praised the attack in Bohol and pronounced the island safe for an Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) summit this week among the leaders of 10 countries. 

“The Palace commends the timely action of our military and police that thwarted the evil plans of some armed lawless elements to sow fear and terror in the province of Bohol,” spokesman Ernesto Abella said on the presidential website.

Filipinos are weary of the rebel wars

Filipinos nationwide support an “armed solution” as soon as possible, “as in yesterday,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. But he said not everyone living in the far southwest, a region known as Moro and a hotbed for multiple Muslim rebel groups, take the same view.

“If you’re talking about the Moro in the south, there is a much more nuanced support,” he said. “As long as Abu Sayyaf is plundering the country, including the Moro countryside, then there is support for the government at this time, there is no doubt about it. But I don’t think they would want the civil population to be victims.”

Duterte also uses negotiation

A deal between Duterte and Nur Misuari, leader of the Muslim rebel group Moro National Liberation Front, may help stifle Abu Sayyaf, Araral said. 

Misuari, suspected of a deadly attack on the southern port city Zamboanga in 2013, may be able to avoid prosecution in exchange for not protecting Abu Sayyaf, he said.

Because Abu Sayyaf operates in the jungles of numerous islands with a fast-changing membership, past presidents have found it hard to squelch the group over its 26-year-history.

“Those people are like cockroaches,” Canoy said. “As far as exterminating is concerned, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but (Duterte's campaign) is going to make an impact.”