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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 29, 2012

US drones circle over the Philippines
By Jacob Zenn

A United States-supported airstrike that destroyed with causalities an Abu Sayyaf hideout on the remote island of Jolo in the southern Philippines represented the first known use of the unmanned aerial assault craft in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) counter-insurgency operations against terrorism-linked rebel groups.

The drone attack early this month reportedly killed 15 Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah operatives, including three most-wanted terrorist leaders - Zulkifli bin Hir (alias Marwan), Gumbahali Jumdail (alias Doc Abu), and Mumanda Ali (alias Muawayah) - and raised the level of US-Philippine military cooperation.

Marwan was the most wanted foreign terrorist in the Philippines, with the US State Department offering a US$5 million reward for information leading to his capture. A Malaysian national, he was


formerly a member of the Indonesia-based JI's central command, known as the markaziyah, and a founder of the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, an organization comprised mostly of former Soviet-era Afghan mujahideen who advocated for the overthrow of then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed's government and the creation of an Islamic State.

In 2002, Marwan fled from Malaysia to Indonesia, where he reportedly conspired in the October 12, 2002, bombings on the resort island of Bali with the help of his older brother, Rahmat, who reportedly provided him with radios and cash used in carrying out the attack.

In August 2003, Marwan fled to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where he received the protection of Abu Sayyaf and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Since then, he was based in southern Mindanao training Abu Sayyaf members in explosives, according to news reports.

Muawayah was a Singaporean military officer of Indian descent who also allegedly participated in the 2002 Bali bombing and had a $50,000 reward for his arrest offered by the US. Like Umar Patek, the JI operative who was captured in Pakistan half a year before Osama Bin Laden's assassination, Marwan and Muawayah are known to have maintained contacts with Al Qaeda cells operating in Asia and the Middle East while they trained local fighters in the jungles of southern Mindanao.

Doc Abu, a member of Mindanao's Tausug ethnic group, was one of Abu Sayyaf's most senior figures and had outstanding warrants for his arrest for 21 counts of kidnapping, including in Sipadan, Malaysia in 2000 and at the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan, Philippines in 2001. His alias, Doc Abu, was derived from the time he spent as a medic for the rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) until it signed a 1996 peace pact with the government. After 1996, he joined Abu Sayyaf and emerged as one of its commanders.

The trio's precise location was uncovered when local villagers reported their presence to the Philippine military. The villagers may have been part of a known AFP program in Mindanao where locals are hired to work undercover to track down Abu Sayyaf and JI militants. Aware that Jumdail has previously portrayed himself as a doctor when hiding out in local villages, they traveled to the village where Doc Abu was staying and pretended to seek medical treatment. The villagers then left a sensor at his hideout that was used to pinpoint the coordinates for the aerial attack.

Tracking Doc Abu, Marwan, and Muawayah was also made possible by months of AFP intelligence gathering, which in a separate air strike on October 2011 killed Marwan's aide, Madarang Sali, and three other Abu Sayyaf fighters. Marwan and Muawayah managed to escape the earlier assault, which is believed to have been launched by a Filipino manned assault craft.
Help from above
The aerial strike was significant not only because it killed three top JI and Abu Sayyaf leaders but also because it underscored the effectiveness of the AFP's adoption of drones in its battle against Mindanao-based terror groups. The AFP has traditionally relied on ground operations against terror groups, exercises that retired Lt Gen Benjamin Dolorfino recently referred to as "counter-productive" because they "cause locals to have negative perceptions of the military".

As history has shown, ground operations carry the risk of ambush and massive displacement of civilian populations. Most recently, on October 18, 2011, 100 MILF fighters reinforced Abu Sayyaf operatives in a battle where 13 AFP special force troops were killed. In contrast to previous years, where the AFP's counter-insurgency operations have often alienated local villagers, advocates of the drone strike on Doc Abu, Marwan, and Muawayah note that it was facilitated through the assistance and cooperation of local villagers.

The airstrike, which was reported to have been US-led and launched by a drone that tracked the sensor planted at the Abu Sayyaf hideout, has however raised political hackles in Manila. One Philippine representative, Luz Ilagan, has called for the abrogation of the US Visiting Forces Agreement and an end to US military intervention in national affairs in the wake the attack. That agreement bans the US, the Philippines' former colonial ruler, from establishing permanent military bases in the country.

Ilagan has since called for a probe into what she referred to as the "extensive and intensive intrusion of the US military in AFP operations". She also said, "If these reports are true, then US troops are participating in and conducting operations beyond what is allowed in the Visiting Forces Agreement and directly transgressing our sovereignty. More importantly, their participation in these operations is a potential magnet for the Philippines' participation in a brewing US-instigated regional conflict."

Underscoring the still strong nationalist sentiment against US troops being stationed on Philippine soil, Ilagan's opposition to US involvement in the fight against Abu Sayyaf comes despite the fact that she is a former victim of the group's terror tactics. She was wounded in the November 2007 bombing of the National Assembly in Quezon City, which killed one of Ilagan's staff members, her driver and a fellow congressional representative.

The Philippines National Police claimed that Abu Sayyaf was responsible for the bombing, though that interpretation has since been contested.

Certain congressional representatives believe that the country's security forces exploit the Abu Sayyaf for their own purposes - in this case to boost military ties with the US in a wider bid to counterbalance China - at the expense of national sovereignty. Despite Ilagan's and other nationalist group protests, the US has already announced plans to increase its fleet of unmanned drones by 30% in the Philippines.

As in Somalia and other conflict zones, drones will reportedly be deployed to help the US and AFP locate kidnapping victims, such as Warren Rodwell, an Australian national who has been held by Abu Sayyaf since December 2011, thus extending the unmanned vehicle's use beyond targeted assassinations towards search and rescue-type missions.

Jacob Zenn is a lawyer and international security analyst based in Washington DC. He writes regularly on Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Nigeria and runs an open-source research, translation, and due diligence team through http://zopensource.net/. He can be reached at jacobzenn@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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