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  February 16, 2002  

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Philippines: Dirty war, stupid targets

"We [the US] are unwittingly about to join a 'dirty war' in Basilan [southern Philippines island], siding with murderers and torturers in a way that dishonors our larger purposes," wrote Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times on February 12. To prove his point, Kristof cites the autopsy report on the body of a 25-year old Basilan peasant: seven broken ribs, three broken vertebrae, slice marks on both hands and cuts on the neck, tongue cut off, genitals severed. By their own account, Philippine marines had captured and interrogated the man on September 24. The marines claim he was an Abu Sayyaf (al Qaeda-linked Muslim rebel group) member who resisted arrest and was then shot, but the post-mortem showed no bullet wounds. For the record (or whatever), Kristof adds that the Abu Sayyaf group is even more brutal.

On Sunday - after weeks of haggling with the Philippine government over the terms of reference of their controversial combat zone deployment in the context of joint military exercises - a 32-member advance party of the US special forces will move to Basilan to launch the start of a new chapter in Washington's campaign against terrorism. Another 130 more will follow, accompanied by some 500 support troops. (Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and Central Intelligence Agency officers deployed through the US embassy in Manila are not counted in the tally.)

Kristof is right in his conclusion that these deployments don't make sense - but in significant part for the wrong reasons. He is right in saying that the US should not risk its "integrity and values by adding American firepower and troops to an operation that is brutally out of control". He is wrong and misses the larger point by focusing exclusively - as is the New York Times' and other parachute journalists' wont - on local human rights aspects of the Basilan campaign.

The point, if victory or at any rate substantial progress in the war on terrorism is to be achieved, is that the at most 200-300-strong Abu Sayyaf group is a stupid, at best symbolic target. Under its former leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, killed by police in December 1998, it had connections to Osama bin Laden's network. But at present it is a fragmented local kidnap for ransom gang. It terrorizes locals, has kidnapped foreign tourists and holds an American couple and a Filipina nurse. The victims must be freed and the gang broken up and its members arrested. But it's not a credible target for US special forces deployment in the war on terrorism.

By contrast, the 15,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which under its leader Hashim Salamat is fighting to establish an Islamic state in the southern Philippines, certainly is. But alas, according to the terms of reference of the joint US-Philippines military exercises, MILF-held territory is off limits.

After early December Singapore and Malaysia arrests of al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorists provided valuable leads, a January 15 joint operation by Philippines national police, the armed forces and immigration authorities nabbed a 30-year-old Indonesian national named Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi three hours before he was to board a plane from Manila to Bangkok. Authorities also rounded up four alleged Filipino accomplices of al-Ghozi and seized a ton of TNT, 17 M-16 rifles, 300 detonators and other bomb-making apparatus in a house rented by al-Ghozi in General Santos City in Mindanao.

It has since been confirmed that al-Ghozi is identical to "Mike" who in October slipped into Singapore to help JI members prepare for a thwarted truck bombing attack on the US embassy. He is also "Randy Ali" of the MILF special operations group and, according to one of his four accomplices, Mohamad Kiram, the mastermind of a December 30, 2000, bombing at a Manila light rail transit station that killed 22 people. In the late 1980s, al-Ghozi was a student at an Islamic boarding school in Solo, Central Java, run by JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir.

And not only the arrest of al-Ghozi and his accomplices points to strong al-Qaeda-MILF connections. Malaysian police say that at least nine of 23 JI members arrested in December trained in MILF Mindanao camps. There are also strong indications that the MILF has received al-Qaeda funding.

So, why go after the rag-tag Abu Sayyaf group but exempt the vastly stronger, more dangerous and more closely al-Qaeda-tied MILF? The government of Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wants to make peace with the MILF - as several earlier presidents have tried in vain. The Abu Sayyaf is a convenient substitute target of opportunity. But that's no way to fight a war.

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