Beyond the Abu Sayyaf

Courtesy Reuters

On October 18, 2003, President George W. Bush stood before the Philippine Congress and declared that the Philippines and the United States are "bound by the strongest ties that two nations can share." The statement was not just the sort of rhetorical flourish that often dominates a U.S. leader's address to a former colony. The long-simmering Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines has been identified as a critical battle in the war on terror, and the Philippine government has become a key U.S. ally as a result.

In January 2002, 600 U.S. soldiers were sent to support Philippine forces fighting the Abu Sayyaf, a loosely organized gang of Islamist bandits entrenched on the southern Philippine islands of Basilan and Jolo. The operation was a failure: a year after the deployment, U.S. forces had withdrawn with their enemy still in place and the Philippine government suffering from a damaging scandal. Since then, the focus of U.S. assistance has changed: military and development aid to the Philippines has soared to well more than $100 million a year, and President Bush has urged the Philippine Congress to increase its own military appropriations to meet the separatist Muslim threat.

The need for action is real. The chaos and criminality sown by the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have created an environment ripe for exploitation by international terrorists, and Philippine government attempts to address the situation have been ineffective. But Washington's flawed understanding of the problem has hamstrung the mission and lowered its chances of success. Policymakers treat the conflict as a case of a violent Muslim population terrorizing its Christian neighbors under the influence of radical Islamist agitators. They emphasize reports of al Qaeda support and the presence of operatives from the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah network. They have failed to recognize, however, that terrorists did not create the conflict in the southern Philippines and do not control any of the combatants. The troubles are rooted in specific local issues

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