The return of the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the southern islands of the Philippines seems to coincide with the U.S. decision to disband a key anti-terrorism group there. The anti-terror unit, the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, or JSOTF-P, was established in 2001 to work alongside Philippine security forces. After fighting Abu Sayyaf for over 10 years, the U.S. military pulled most American personnel out of the task force in June of this year.
The Philippine government has banned American troops from live combat and from using sophisticated equipment such as drones, but allows the Americans to train and advise the Filipino military in fighting Islamic terror groups. The decision to reduce U.S. forces was based on the premise that outside assistance was no longer needed by the Filippino Army. The U.S. plans to pull out the remaining American task force members by early 2015.
The government in Manilla has been plagued by frequent attacks by Islamic insurgents. The U.S. Embassy in Manilla previously estimated that the Abu Sayyaf group, often identified by the initials ASG, had shrunk to about 300 fighters. This April, the U.S. and the Philippines inked a new 10-year deal, giving American forces the use of Filipino bases. The U.S. has moved fighter jets to Filipino bases as a counter to Chinese naval movements in the South China Sea.
Abu Sayyaf started in 1990, with seed money from al-Qaida, and operates in the jungles where Filippino troops are scarce. The group terrorizes local populations by kidnappings for ransom, bombings, drug trafficking and killing locals who oppose their activities. The ASG is known to have ties to al-Qaida, and the U.S. Pacific Command says that some ASG members fought in the Afghan war against the Soviets. The group claims to be fighting for an independent Islamic republic in the province of Basilan.
The return of Abu Sayyaf activity to the Philippines was felt this Monday, as a group of Filipino civilians was attacked while traveling to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Authorities say that 21 civilians were killed, including six children. Police describe the ASG attack as one of the worst in recent years. The attack took place in Talipao, a small town in the Muslim province of Sulu. The ASG claims that several of the travelers had participated in anti-terror raids against them.
The Philippine government recently signed a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, allowing for more local autonomy. Several smaller and more militant groups, like the Abu Sayyaf, remain opposed to the peace arrangement.
Most of the Philippines is considered to be Christian, the only such nation in Asia, where approximately 86 percent of the population identifies themselves as Roman Catholics. The Muslim population is estimated at around 4 percent, but rapidly growing in poorer provinces and islands. In 1565, Spain introduced Christianity to the Philippines, but pockets of Islam have been documented in the outer islands from around 1350. Even in majority Muslim areas, civilians fear the return of Abu Sayyaf activity to the Philippines.
By Jim Hanemaayer