EDMUNDO SANTUARIO III
The Philippines is under watch by America’s “anti-terrorism” network. This is so not only because of the presence of active Moro and Marxist guerrillas but also because of its special concern on the Abu Sayyaf. In the ‘80s, just as it was waging its last surrogate wars against the Soviet Union, the U.S. was also engaged in new forms of covert operations -- the training of Islamic militants to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and elsewhere. A product of this war – the Abu Sayyaf – was once hailed by American presidents as a group of “freedom fighters.” It was an exaltation that would haunt them for years.
To those who have been following the Abu Sayyaf’s exploits, the offer of military assistance by the United States government in tracking down the extremists in Mindanao (southern Philippines) has sent a chilling effect particularly among the patriotic sectors.
Related to this, similar concerns have been raised as to why despite government’s “total war” policy on the small group of bandits – whose hostage-taking spree is a purely police matter - not one of its active ringleaders has been caught. Previous suspicions that the Abu Sayyaf enjoys the protection of some top Armed Forces officials have surfaced again.
In a surprise operation last May 27, Abu Sayyaf gunmen kidnapped three Americans and 17 Filipinos from the world-class Dos Palmas resort just off Arracellis in Palawan. It was not immediately known where the new hostages were taken but the gunmen reportedly operate from the southernmost islands of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.
Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya on Saturday said they also took 10 fishermen hostage on their way to Basilan. The kidnapping was pulled off just barely two months after their last hostage – American Jeffrey Schilling – was freed after nine months of captivity.
In declaring a “no ransom, no negotiations” policy to the Abu Sayyaf, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered military assaults on the group’s suspected lairs and offered a P100 million (US$2 million) reward on the ring leaders’ capture, dead or alive.
Meeting Arroyo in Malacañang on May 30, U.S. Rep. Robert Underwood offered military assistance to the Philippine government’s pursuit operations against the Abu Sayyaf. Underwood, who was accompanied in his visit by U.S. Charge D’Affaires Michael Malinowski, is a member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee and was in the country to explore how military relations between the two countries can be enhanced. Malinowski had earlier pledged continued American military support to the Arroyo administration.
On the same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Phil Reeker demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages, particularly Americans Guillermo Sobrero and missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham. Among the 17 Filipino hostages is construction magnate Reghis Romero, said to be the front man of former Estrada crony Mark Jimenez in the purchase of The Manila Times. The latter, who has just been elected Manila congressman, is himself wanted by U.S. authorities.
Since the Dos Palmas abduction, at least 12 American warplanes had been seen hovering over Puerto Princesa City in Palawan. Then on March 31, two U.S. destroyers – the USS Curts and the USS Wadsworth -- and the landing ship USS Rushmore arrived in the country with 1,200 American troops. Philippine armed forces officials squelched speculations of U.S. intervention in the hostage crisis, claiming that the American troops’ presence was in connection with ongoing war games in Palawan and Cavite.
Efforts to downplay reports that U.S. military assistance has indeed come into play in the latest hostage crisis were of no effect, however, when Press Secretary Rigoberto Tiglao himself revealed that military contacts between the two governments are ongoing. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – whose agents have been in and out of the country in connection with “terrorist” cases – was also placed on alert. Former Philippine Ambassador to Washington Ernesto Maceda also revealed that in last year’s Sipadan hostage crisis where 20 tourists were held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf, the Americans backed military and police operations through the use of high-powered satellite surveillance equipment.
U.S. military efforts to intervene in the Abu Sayyaf hostage crisis appears to be a turnaround from their reported links to the Mindanao extremists several years ago. In May last year, Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. described the Abu Sayyaf (“Bearer [or Father] of the Sword” in Arabic) as a “CIA monster.”
Abu Sayyaf members, Pimentel said, were initially recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency as mujahideens to fight the U.S. proxy war in Afghanistan in the ‘80s. Before their deployment, they were trained by AFP officers in Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and other remote areas in Mindanao. But the arms and funds came from U.S. covert operations connected with the CIA, Pimentel said.
The mujahideens returned to Mindanao after the Afghan war to constitute the core of the Abu Sayyaf, the Senate president added.
In his revelations, Pimentel cited the book, Blowback by Chalmers Johnson. But it was American writer John K. Cooley in his book, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, American and International Terrorism, who made “the most direct statement regarding the training and funding of the (Abu Sayyaf) by the CIA,” he said. Cooley was the Middle East correspondent for the reputable Christian Science Monitor and ABC News.
In his “Ghosts of the Past” report for ABC News in August last year, Cooley said the Abu Sayyaf, like many “international terrorists,” has its origins in the 1979-89 jihad or “holy war” to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. Wanting to tie down the Soviets to their own little Vietnam war, the CIA recruited and trained thousands of Islamic militants to support the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion forces. The American quarterly Foreign Affairs reported that some 35,000 Muslim militants from 40 countries -- including the Philippines -- took part in the Afghan jihad. Related historical accounts said among the recruits was Osama bin Laden, now the U.S.’s No. 1 “terrorist enemy.”
“The CIA orchestrated massive arms shipments via Pakistan, including state-of-the-art Stinger surface-to-air missiles,” Cooley said. Three American presidents – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush -- hailed the mujahideens as “freedom fighters,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf, Cooley said, was the last of the seven Afghan guerrilla groups to be organized late in the war – in 1986 or three years before the Soviets withdrew. It was founded by an Afghan professor named Abdul Rasul Abu Sayyaf. And like Osama bin Laden, the group was financed by Saudi Arabia’s wealthy elite and influenced by Wahabism, an ultra-conservative form of Islam that dates back to the mid-18th century and is espoused by the Saudi royal family.
“Some of the original veterans of the Afghan jihad, and their sons and grandsons and those trained by them, have been operating with destructive effect since the 1980s from Egypt and the Philippines to Algeria and New York,” Cooley wrote.
With the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the CIA’s powerful Pakistani partner, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), lost control of the Afghan fighting groups. The Abu Sayyaf had established a training camp north of Peshawar, Pakistan, “to train terrorists in the methods taught by the CIA and ISI,” Cooley reported. Some 20,000 volunteers were trained in the “Peshawar university” to “look for other wars to fight” including in the Middle East, North Africa, New York and the Philippines.
The Abu Sayyaf moved its operations to the Philippines ostensibly to support the war for a separate Islamic state. Emerging from these operations were two leaders – the brothers Abdurajak Janjalani, who was an Afghan war veteran, and Khaddafi Janjalani.
In a privilege speech in July last year, Pimentel named former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan and then Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Guillermo Ruiz as knowing about the group’s early operations in Mindanao. He also asked the Senate to summon former President Fidel V. Ramos and ex-Defense Secretary Renato de Villa to shed light on the matter.
Pimentel also cited revelations by a police asset, Edwin Angeles, who has since died mysteriously, that the military equipped the Abu Sayyaf with vehicles, mortars and assorted firearms for its raid of Ipil in April 1995. In the raid – the group’s first large-scale action – 70 people died while 50 teachers and schoolchildren were kidnapped.
Following its “split” with the MNLF in 1991, the Abu Sayyaf resorted to illegal logging, kidnapping, bombing, looting, burning, killing and other criminal activities for its logistics and operations. So far, they have kidnapped at least 32 foreigners, including five Americans, Europeans and Asians. This does not included hundreds of other Filipino hostages, a number of whom were Catholic and Protestant priests and nuns. Some of them, including priests, were killed.
The metamorphosis of the Abu Sayyaf from “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan to sheer bandits in the Philippines is a new dark spot in the U.S.’s covert dirty tricks operations throughout the world. The CIA has created not just one Frankenstein’s monster in the mold of the Abu Sayyaf but hundreds of others who are now wreaking havoc in other parts of the world – including right in the belly of the United States itself.
But in war and in modern “counter-terrorism warfare” – which the U.S. now is eager to wage in the Philippines – there is at least one advantage that can be drawn. The anti-Soviet Afghan “resistance movement” promoted the U.S. arms industry. The U.S. may as well be doing the same thing as it embarks on a new crusade to destroy one of the “monsters” it created.