Hearts and Minds
US War on Terror Shows Promise in the Philippines
JOLO ISLAND, Philippines -- In 2005, U.S. forces landed on this sweltering, poverty-stricken island to help the Philippine army root out an al Qaeda offshoot. Many locals feared that the return of American soldiers for the first time since World War II would only escalate the conflict.
Instead, the Abu Sayyaf group has been weakened and the threat of terrorism is receding in the Muslim-dominated south of the country, long a breeding ground for some of the world's most notorious terrorists.
Senior Abu Sayyaf leaders have been captured or killed by the Philippine army with U.S. help. The group's followers have been pushed into remote reaches of Jolo and the surrounding islands, drawing down its active members to about 300 guerrillas from more than 2,000 six years ago, Philippine military officers say. Bus bombings in Manila, explosions in the local markets and the random kidnapping of foreigners -- all hallmarks of the Islamist group -- have decreased since U.S. troops arrived.
The Abu Sayyaf hasn't been entirely wiped out. It recently executed seven Filipino construction workers and delivered their severed heads to local army bases. But the U.S.-backed antiterrorist campaign here has been among the most successful of those launched since Sept. 11, 2001, according to both U.S. military officials and counterterrorism experts.
A simple formula underpins the progress here: While the U.S. brought sophisticated intelligence technology and drilled Philippine troops in night-combat and other specialized training, it also provided financial and community support to help revive the local economy. The approach is changing citizens' attitudes and setting the stage for a new level of normalcy after years of conflict.
"The U.S. Special Forces are coming in, training, winning hearts and minds and professionalizing the local army and police so they are no longer seen as the enemy," says John Harrison, a manager at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Amid the increasing devastation in Iraq and a Taliban revival in Afghanistan, the Philippine campaign is a promising model for future antiterrorist engagements, military officials say, especially against smaller insurgencies that don't constitute all-out war.
Most Jolo (pronounced "holo") residents are Muslims. Many of them had been under the economic sway of the Abu Sayyaf, which handed out cash from ransom payments to buy locals' loyalty while also intimidating them with the threat of violence.
To shift public sentiment, U.S. and Philippine soldiers -- working together -- have repaired piers, built hundreds of miles of new roads, provided protection for cellphone towers and installed water-purification projects. The U.S. and Philippine governments, along with various private philanthropists, have all chipped in to finance the efforts. In April, U.S. soldiers helped rebuild a large market in Jolo that was destroyed by an Abu Sayyaf bomb last year.
With violence on the wane, small businesses are starting to spring up. Villagers are coming to look to the troops, not the terrorists, for help. They're even getting to know the soldiers by name.
One recent day, Ryan Meinecke, a captain in the U.S. Army's Special Forces, was pulled aside by the headmistress of a small elementary school.
"Ryan?" said Ayambibi Akim. "Can you do something about improving the water supply? We could really use it."
"Yes, ma'am. We'll look into it right away," Capt. Meinecke responded. The school already has a new concrete stage, flanked by palm trees and paid for by the U.S. Army. For the first time in years, its students will soon graduate with a proper ceremony.
The U.S. is trying a similar approach in other hot spots. In Yemen and the Horn of Africa -- a region made up of countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia -- the U.S. military has built hospitals and developed other projects while helping local military forces intercept Islamist radicals passing through the area.
But the U.S. experience in the Philippines "isn't a universal model for the war on terror," says Col. David Maxwell, commander of the joint U.S. forces in the Philippines. Rather, "it's a model of how to aid an ally which is dealing with terrorism."
In Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. and its allies are trying to rebuild countries from the bottom up. The Philippines, in contrast, has a working government, institutions and armed forces in place. That means there is less need for overwhelming military force on the ground. As a result, the U.S. role here is to shore up the local infrastructure and reinforce confidence in the existing government.
Few countries have struggled as much as the Philippines to get a grip on terrorism. This poor archipelago of 89 million people has played a pivotal role in transnational terrorism fomented by Islamic militants for more than a decade.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 9/11 attacks, lived in Manila in the 1990s. From there, he planned assassination plots against Pope John Paul II and U.S. President Bill Clinton and traced out the rudiments of the 2001 attacks, Philippine and U.S. intelligence officials say. (Mr. Mohammed has claimed responsibility for the plots in a confession made while in detention at Guantanamo Bay, where he remains.)
Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, helped found the Abu Sayyaf in the early 1990s with several Filipino Muslims who had returned from fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
By 2000, the Abu Sayyaf was kidnapping, ransoming and sometimes executing hostages abducted from schools in the southern Philippines and tourist resorts further north and to the west in Malaysia. Three Americans -- Guillermo Sobero and missionary couple Gracia and Martin Burnham -- were abducted from the Dos Palmas resort in 2001. Mr. Sobero was executed, and Mr. Burnham was later killed during a U.S.-backed rescue mission in which Mrs. Burnham was also injured.
The Philippine government in 2001 sought the U.S.'s help to stamp out the Abu Sayyaf. From the beginning, it was a sensitive arrangement. The U.S., after all, had colonized the country after wresting it from Spanish control during the 1898 Spanish-American War and set about forcibly remolding it in its own image.
In the process, the U.S. armed forces brutally put down a nationalist Filipino insurgency, gaining its first experience of guerrilla warfare and learning to fight in small units and to win over local farmers. In some parts of the country, U.S. commanders built schools and established local governments, while harshly punishing villagers suspected of offering sanctuary to guerrillas fighting for an independent Philippine republic.
Lt. Gen. John Goodman, who commands the U.S. Marine forces in Asia-Pacific, says American military strategists turned back the clock to study and learn from this earlier campaign. Then as now, some of the bloodiest encounters were in Jolo. In 1906, U.S. troops massacred hundreds of Jolo islanders who were making a final stand in the crater of a volcano called Bud Dajo.
"Probably one of the most important things we can do, which may not have been done back then, is to look out a significant number of years from where you are today, and figure out how what you are doing today fits into a long-term movement," Gen. Goodman says.
So, in addition to military planning, the U.S. Agency for International Development is working on longer-term economic projects such as creating business associations and establishing local judicial councils to supplement the existing court system.
The Philippine constitution specifically prohibits foreign troops from engaging in combat on its soil. So rather than lead the effort against the Abu Sayyaf, the U.S. targeted its troops and resources where they would have the most influence. Trainers were inserted relatively low down the chain of command where they could school up-and-coming Filipino officers whom the U.S. can work with in future crises, U.S. officials say.
U.S. military officers took careful steps to ensure that all American soldiers understood that they were officially playing second fiddle to the Philippine military. Maj. Gen. David Fridovich, a U.S. Special Forces commander who oversaw the initial stages of the Philippine operation, made all soldiers read the country's constitution. That drilled home the fact that they would be working within a sovereign nation with its own rules and laws -- and made the Philippine government comfortable with their presence. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in an interview that the U.S. forces "are welcome to stay as long as they like." There is no deadline for their departure.
The U.S. encampments on Jolo and in the nearby city of Zamboanga are heavily fortified compounds within Philippine army camps, reflecting the Americans' desire to be seen as one with the local troops. Wherever they go, flak-jacketed U.S. troops are protected by Filipino soldiers, some of whom wear bandanas and rosaries. If they are fired on -- so far they have not been -- U.S. soldiers are allowed to fire back with automatic rifles, pistols and other light weapons. They drive around the island in armed Humvees and armored SUVs.
Philippine officials say U.S. spy planes regularly photograph islands in the southern Philippines in great detail to help pinpoint the location of various guerrilla groups.
At the same time, a lot of effort is focused on community development. U.S. Army Major Frank Melgarejo, who has long studied civil-military operations, says U.S. forces are continually looking for infrastructure projects where they can make a big splash in a short period of time.
"Now we're looking for partners to improve water distribution," Maj. Melgarejo said over lunch in the mess hall of the Philippine army's Camp Bautista. "There's 10,000 square meters pumped each day, but 7,000 square meters of that is lost to leakages and theft. There's no chlorine either."
Encouraged by their American tutors, the Philippine military is also now working on setting up a rescue and emergency operation to deal with fires and medical crises on Jolo, which has a population of 600,000.
Local engineering students help U.S. and Philippine soldiers survey the state of the island's roads and determine how many bridges and culverts are needed. Villagers take jobs chiseling boulders down into gravel to help build the roads.
Parts of Jolo have already been transformed. In the town of Patikul, where residents used to lock themselves up in their homes at dusk, small business have emerged to take advantage of the more peaceful atmosphere. Small stalls have set up in the town plaza offering coffee, soft drinks and snacks.
Nida Sale, 46 years old, is among those reaping the benefits. She says she earns nearly $100 in snack sales on Saturday nights, when the Patikul town plaza remains lit until nearly midnight.
On the nearby island of Basilan -- the birthplace of the Abu Sayyaf -- the U.S. military helped build 50 miles of new roads, four bridges, two piers and five water projects.
Beauty pageants are being held in the main town for the first time in years, and Basilan is now prosperous enough to boast a Jollibee hamburger outlet -- the Philippines' home-grown rival to McDonald's.
Some local residents and officials fear that the Philippine government can't provide enough support to alleviate the chronic poverty that has made this region fertile ground for Islamic radicals.
In Jolo town itself, a warrenlike mishmash of rickshaws, shacks and basketball courts with a population of 14,000 people, there are plenty of pawn shops. Young men stand around, looking at the schedules of the ferries departing for the mainland. "There's no work here, and in other places, nobody wants to hire Muslims," says Abdullah Hasan, 23.
Jinnar Abdurahmad, the district attorney on Jolo, says, "There is still only one public prosecutor and one public defender. It feels like we are being left behind by the national government."
Jolo's courts face a large backlog of cases, and many islanders, ensnared in a culture of clan feuds, frequently take the law into their own hands, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
'Arms to Farms'
Jesus Dureza, an adviser to President Arroyo, says the government is trying to build up infrastructure and encouraging rebels to return to their villages. "We're encouraging an 'arms to farms' approach," Mr. Dureza says. He concedes that progress occasionally stalls when new bouts of fighting force the local government to focus instead on relief efforts. There are currently 60,000 displaced people living on government aid in Jolo, he says.
Still, U.S. and Philippine officials say the change in outlook among civilians on the island -- along with U.S.-funded rewards for information -- has helped create a network of informers and advances in the crackdown. Millions of dollars have already been paid out. One of the biggest successes so far: the January killing of one of Abu Sayyaf's most feared leaders, Abu Sulaiman.
Born Jainal Antel Sali, Mr. Sulaiman, 40, specialized in planning kidnappings and bombings which led Washington to place a $5 million bounty on his head. On March 27, 2006, his team planted a bomb at a cooperative market in the center of Jolo town that killed five people and left many injured.
Col. Maxwell says the market bombing eventually troubled the conscience of one member of the guerrilla group. "He started questioning why he is a member of the Abu Sayyaf group, and he realized there were rewards being offered for information," Col. Maxwell says. "But the one who really influenced him was his wife. She asked him 'Why are you a member of the Abu Sayyaf? What has the Abu Sayyaf ever done for us?' She said she couldn't even put milk on the table for their children, and pointed out there was a $5 million reward for Abu Sulaiman."
The Abu Sayyaf-member-turned informer provided information to the Philippine army that led a team of special-forces troops to Mr. Sulaiman's camp. U.S. Embassy officials earlier this month gave the informer a cash reward of $5 million, handed over in a black plastic suitcase.