Duterte’s challenges: Terror, crime and the Abu Sayyaf

The incoming Duterte administration needs to craft of a new and comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that addresses the criminal and terrorist aspects of the ASG

Rommel C. Banlaoi

2:45:0am May 13, 2016

1:4:32pm May 13, 2016

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is poised to become the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines.

Born in Southern Leyte of the Visayan Islands on March 28, 1945, just more than a year before the granting of Philippine independence from the United States on June 12, 1946, Duterte spent almost his entire political life in Davao City of the Mindanao Island where he served as city mayor for more than two decades.  

Thus, Duterte is one of the very few longest-serving mayors in the country ruled predominantly by caciques, landlords and local political oligarchs. Duterte himself traces his family origins to the political scions of the Duranos and Almendras of Mindanao and from the Roa clan of the Visayas. His father served as a provincial governor of Davao and a mayor of Danao in Cebu.  

Politics flows strong in the Duterte blood.

The incoming Philippine president spent his ordinary college life in Manila where he obtained his law degree in 1972, the same year when then President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law.  During the restoration of Philippine democracy in 1986, then President Corazon Aquino appointed him as officer-in-charge of Davao City upon the strong recommendation of former Cagayan de Oro City mayor and then local government secretary Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., one of the key founders of PDP-Laban, the political party that recently catapulted Duterte to presidential stardom.

As incoming Philippine president, Duterte can claim to have spent quality time in three major islands of the country: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.  

Duterte is, however, being dubbed as the first Philippine president-elect from Mindanao, a restive area known for its long-standing Muslim insurgencies and home of the terrorist group, the Abu Sayyaf.  

Hence, one of the major challenges that the incoming Philippine President needs to confront is the growing threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).  

Terrorists or bandits?

Since the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks, the United States has consistently tagged the ASG as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).  

But the outgoing Philippine administration continues to downplay the status of the ASG as a mere bandit or criminal group. 

Viewing the ASG as a mere bandit group or just a terrorist organization is like looking erroneously at the proverbial glass that is either half full or half empty. The ASG has, in fact, effectively mutated into a hybrid violent group that arguably falls under the complex nexus of crime and terrorism. 

Through the years, the ASG has acquired a schizophrenic violent personality that steadfastly navigates the murky spectrum of crime and terrorism. The ASG has ingeniously developed a dubious multiple character that exhibits both the nasty attitude of a criminal organization and the virulent behavior of a terrorist group.  

Having been linked to Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ASG has undoubtedly acquired the label of an international terrorist group. But the ASG as a terrorist group has strongly established links with criminal groups and lawless elements in its areas of operation in the Southern Philippines.   

The ASG itself has also resorted to a lot of criminal and unlawful activities, particularly kidnap-for-ransom and extortion, to survive and thrive. 

In 2015 alone, the ASG collected ransom payment of around P151 million or US$3.3 million from its victims. On November 4, 2014, the ASG uploaded a video on Facebook with a tantamount display of what it claimed was the P250-million ransom it collected for the release of two German victims, Viktor Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen, abducted by the ASG on April 25, 2014 while they were on a boat trip in Palawan.

From 2011 to 2015, the ASG got involved in 105 cases of kidnapping operations involving 183 victims both Filipinos and foreign nationals combined, not to mention the odious kidnapping of four Malaysian nationals off the waters of Sabah on April 1, 2016 and its landmark abduction of ten Indonesian nationals on March 26, 2016.    

Use of social media

So far, the most internationalized kidnapping operation of the ASG after 9/11 was the abduction on 21 September 2015 of Robert Hall (Canadian), John Ridsdel (Canadian),  Kjartan Sekkingstad (Norwegian) and Marites Flor  (Filipina) at the Holiday Oceanview Resort in the Island Garden City of Samal, Davao del Norte.  It was in this kidnapping incident when the ASG intensified its use of social media to demand for ransom payments of its victims.  

While engaged enormously in KFR operations, the ASG was also involved in many terrorist activities in recent years. 

The ASG masterminded the bombing of MV Superferry 14 on February 27, 2004.  This incident (described at that time as the worst maritime terrorist attack in Southeast Asia) killed 116 people and wounded at least 300 others.  

On February 14, 2005, the ASG conducted a high profile bombing operation when it masterminded the simultaneous bombings of three cities (Makati, Davao and General Santos) on Valentines Day.  The trio bombings resulted in the death of 11 persons and the injury of 83 others.  

In August 2007, around 30 ASG militants ambushed a military convoy in Jolo, Sulu killing 26 soldiers with others gruesomely beheaded and decapitated.  This occurred despite the signing into law of Philippine Anti-Terrorism Law (called Human Security Act) in March 2007.   In January 2008, ASG operatives raided a convent in Tawi-Tawi and killed a Catholic priest in a kidnapping attempt to scare Christian missionaries in the province.  

'Welcoming' Aquino

On February 14, 2008, the ASG planned to assassinate then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who ordered to crush the ASG by 2010, but to no avail.  On June 11, 2010, just two days after the Philippine Congress proclaimed Benigno Aquino III as the new President, the ASG beheaded three Christian loggers in Basilan as a resentful retaliation against military offensives there.  The ASG also participated in the bloody military encounter between the Philippine Army and the MILF on 17 October 2011 in Al Barka, Basilan where 19 soldiers died.  

Last April 2016, President Aquino himself disclosed that the ASG had plans to assassinate him and his celebrity sister, Kris Aquino

But the most barbaric act of the ASG that attracted the attention of the international community was the beheading of Canadian victim, John Ridsdel on April 25, 2016.

The aforementioned violent incidents indicate that the ASG was still actively engaged in various acts of terrorism. 

Nuanced approach

To deal with the myriad of threats currently posed by the ASG, one needs a comprehensive and nuanced approach that addresses both the ASG’s criminal nature and terrorist character considering that its manpower grew from 400 at the yearend of 2014 to 500 at the yearend of 2015.

The formidable challenge to the Duterte administration is the crafting of a new comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that addresses both the criminal and terrorist aspects of the ASG, and for that matter other armed groups in the nexus of crime and terrorism.

Duterte has a very good track record in restoring peace and order in Davao City, now regarded as one of the safest cities in the Philippines.  

Duterte has six years to prove that he can also restore peace and order, initially in Mindanao and eventually in the entire country, by countering armed groups deeply engaged in both crime and terrorism. – Rappler.com