Philippines: Anti terrorism tactics could worsen conflict, says think-tank

Manila, 14 May (AKI) - Counter terrorism efforts could backfire in the Philippines and lead to fresh conflict between Manila and Islamic rebels on the southern island of Mindanao, an international think-tank warned on Wednesday.

In its latest report, the International Crisis Group claimed that US-backed security operations risked pushing members of the Abu Sayyaf Group to join broader insurgencies led by two other groups - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front.

John Virgoe, the group’s South-east Asia director, said that this miscalculation could lead to renewed conflict between Manila and the two Islamist groups.

“The number of terrorists in the Philippines is small, relative to the mass-based insurgencies in which they take cover. But the ASG and its allies remain dangerous because of their potential to drag the latter back into war,” Virgoe said.  

Abu Sayyaf is an offshoot of the radical wing of the MNLF. The MILF, the Philippines’ largest rebel Islamic group, was also established by a dissident wing of the MNLF.

While Abu Sayyaf is considered a terror organisation, the MNLF, which signed a peace agreement in 1996, was recognised as a rebel organisation that fought for the independence of the Moro people.

The Moro people are known as the Muslim and indigenous tribal inhabitants of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.

The MILF has carried on its struggle and tainted it with more religious tones. It is currently holding peace talks with Manila - a fragile process that started over ten years ago.  

ICG argues that the crux of counter-terrorism in the Philippines is to separate terrorists from insurgents and strengthen the political dialogue with the militant groups – MNLF and MILF. 

Kit Collier, a consultant for ICG based in the Philippines, said that the so-called Mindanao Model employed by the security forces against Abu Sayyaf is complicating the situation further.  

The Mindanao model combines military operations with civic action against the Abu Sayyaf Group and has been widely heralded as a success.  

“The model involves using counterinsurgency techniques for counter-terrorism goals, but the only way the Philippines will effectively manage domestic terrorism is to secure the cooperation of the MILF and MNLF," Collier said.

"That requires concrete progress toward formal peace agreements, the gains of the Mindanao Model’ could be short-lived."  

In the report, the Brussels-based organisation urged the Filipino government to revive the ad hoc joint action group.  

Designed to facilitate information-sharing between the Filipino government and the MILF, it was critical to the prevention of conflict escalation in 2005-2007 when the search for terrorists intensified.

After a six-month hiatus, its mandate was formally extended in November 2007 but is not yet fully restored.  

The think-tank also called for a similar arrangement to be developed with the MNLF.

“But the leadership of both insurgencies will only be willing to provide information on terrorists in their midst as part of a political endgame and the Philippines government is stalling while the US appears more focused on economic aid than political agreements,” ICG stated.


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