Philippines: JI's Favourite Training Ground


James Chin

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has a newly elected Governor, Zaldy Uy Ampatuan, who is known to be a supporter of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the embattled Philippine President. He is the fifth Governor of the region since the peace deal in 1987.

Unfortunately for Arroyo and her ally, nothing much has changed in the ARMM and the new Governor is unlikely to be able to deliver. Promises of money pouring in from the US and Middle Eastern countries have turned out to be wildly optimistic. Many guerrillas who suddenly became officials in the ARMM government quickly learnt the oldest Pinoy [Filipino] trick in government corruption. Little or no real development has taken place while some former guerrillas have grown fabulously rich.

No wonder Mindanao is still a dangerous place to visit. More so because one of the separatist groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has never signed up to the peace deal and has been maintaining its own camps and troops. Despite peace talks since 2002, there continue to be regular reports of armed clashes between the Philippine Military and the MILF.

The MILF says it wants independence and not autonomy. Manila says autonomy is as far as it will go. No wonder there have been no agreements no matter how regularly the talks have been held.

The 'other' and perhaps, a bigger, problem is not the MILF but small groups affiliated or friendly with the MILF. Many of these groups such as the Abu Sayyaf are either (a) bandit groups who kidnap foreigners for money, or (b) part of the wider Southeast Asian network of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), or both. For years, it was known that key JI operatives in Southeast Asia had perfected their bomb making skills in Mindanao training camps operated by MILF. The Police chief in Bali has been reported as saying that some of the Bali bombers can be found in Mindanao. At present, sources indicate that there are at least 35 non-Filipino JI operatives in Mindanao with one having a bounty of USD$10 million to be paid by the US Government.

The Americans have been worried enough to send supplies and 'advisors' to the region to help the Philippine army fight the MILF and the other groups - so far without success. An annual military exercise between the Philippines and the US has just started with the explicit aim of strengthening the Philippines' fight against terrorism.

Everyone knows the basic dilemma - you cannot fight the terrorists without bringing massive economic development and infrastructure to the region. The problem is you cannot have development until you have peace and a corrupt-free ARMM government. So Manila is constantly fighting and losing on both fronts. The situation appears intractable and hopeless.

WATCHPOINT: President Arroyo's political problems in Manila will ensure that Mindanao remains a lawless zone and a secure hiding place for JI operatives in the region, allowing the training of a new generation of bombers. As long as JI is active in Mindanao, the rest of the region can expect further attacks.


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