After several years of heavy pressure by the military and fellow Moslems the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf is showing clear signs of disintegrating. The senior leader of Abu Sayyaf, Radulan Sahiron, is using clan elders on Sulu Island to help negotiate his surrender. Sahiron has one condition, that he not be extradited to the United States, which is offering a one million reward for his capture (because of kidnap and murder of Americans). Sahiron said he is tired of running. What has shattered Abu Sayyaf morale was the spectacular collapse of a major effort to kidnap Western tourists on Bohol and Cebu islands in the central Philippines. This plan involved three Abu Sayyaf factions coordinating their efforts but the plan came apart on the 11
when police were alerted (by concerned locals) about the presence of armed strangers. The subsequent gun battles killed the experienced Abu Sayyaf leader in charge of the operation and his key assistants. With that most of the remaining Abu Sayyaf members realized they were in bad shape and there was no way out. The increased naval patrols, it turned out, had cut Abu Sayyaf off from nearby Malaysia and easy access to ships they could grab for hostages. Increased ground patrols and aerial surveillance had limited Abu Sayyaf mobility on land. Several major battles recently was evidence of that. Worse Abu Sayyaf was running out of money because the government had been enforcing the “no ransom” laws more effectively and reduced the number of kidnappings. Combat, desertion and surrenders had cost Abu Sayyaf over half its strength in the past year. Because of this the Bohol-Cebu operation was vital and when it failed, after months of planning, Abu Sayyaf leaders and most of their followers realized things would only get worse for them now and it was best to either make a deal (if you were well known) or try and walk away (an often successful tactic in the Moslem south). This won’t be the end of Abu Sayyaf but it will mark the passing of the ISIL affiliated group as a serious threat to security in the south and especially to the MILF peace deal that gives the Moslem areas of the southwest a measure of autonomy.
Police Corruption Exposed
Since 2016 the war on drugs was accompanied by a less visible effort to deal with police corruption. The anti-corruption angle became more visible because of recent prosecutions of police who were too greedy and too quick to shoot. This war caused more Filipinos to see police misbehavior up close and in bloody detail. Thus after about six months of the war on drugs opinion surveys showed 85 percent of Filipinos approved of the violent crackdown but at the same time 78 percent were fearful they, or someone they knew, might become a victim of the increased violence. After the drug war was resumed in early March under new rules (and lots of corruption prosecutions) the fear began to subside and a poll at the end of March showed the number of fearful Filipinos has declined to 73 percent and the government wants to keep the trend moving in that direction. This unease was based on the growing instances of corrupt cops using their new “license to kill” for personal gain. The fear became headline news when a group of corrupt cops were arrested in January for kidnapping and murdering a wealthy South Korean. Months of looking into police corruption had uncovered much evidence that has resulted in a growing number of police being dismissed or indicted. For the new government it became popular to come down hard on corrupt cops and a lot of these had become a little too bold and obvious during the war on drugs.
Since the March 6th resumption of the crackdown on illegal drugs there has been a lot less violence. The revived operations limits the number of police involved to those who have already been screened and known to be uncorrupt. So far the revised anti-drug tactics have led to about 75 percent fewer arrests per week and 84 percent fewer deaths. Part of that is due to the fact that so many known drug gang members were arrested or killed during the first seven months of the operation. It will take another month or so to determine if the new approach is continuing to reduce the distribution and use of illegal drugs. The initial campaign certainly reduced crime.
The war on drugs was suspended on January 30th because of an expanding investigation of police corruption, especially of police involved in anti-drug operations. Since the anti-drug campaign began in July 2016 to the end of January 2,512 suspects were killed. During that time there were 51,882 arrests during 42,798 police investigations. Most of the dead were suspects who violently resisted arrest or searches but nearly 40 percent were the result of local vigilantes or drug gangs killing suspected informers or rivals. The extent and intensity of these efforts caused over 1.1 million people to turn themselves in. Since 93 percent of those surrendering were users nearly all were released, especially if they provided information about their suppliers. So far the police and military have suffered fewer than 120 casualties, mostly wounded but including 38 dead.
April 18, 2017: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province) police arrested two MILF members in connection with two bombs that went off and wounded fifteen people. The arrests were reported to MILF which, under terms of the peace deal, must assist in the investigation. This one looks like the MILF men were involved in an extortion effort. The peace treaty is still awaiting approval by the national legislature and MILF has been very cooperative as a result, especially when it involves MILF members who have gone rogue.
April 14, 2017: In the south (Tawi-Tawi province) eleven Abu Sayyaf members surrendered. These included two who were wanted in Malaysia for kidnapping. This surrender was a result of an operation in the central Philippines (Bohol province) where the leader of a major kidnapping effort in Tawi-Tawi was killed along with some of his key associates.
April 13, 2017: In the south (Sulu) Abu Sayyaf beheaded a Filipino hostage in an effort to force the government to allow ransoms to be paid (or at least quietly stop interfering). The victim was a fishing boat captain taken at the end of 2016. The military responded by announcing that it was reinforcing the search for the remaining Abu Sayyaf men in the south and the 24 hostages (sailors from nearby nations) they still held. The army is under pressure to shut down most of the remaining Abu Sayyaf groups by June.
The government cancelled plans to celebrate Independence Day (June 12) by planting flags or erecting structures on ten uninhabited islands in the Spratly Islands. China also claims these and the government admitted it backed off because China had protested and warned that going forward with this would jeopardize billions of dollars in economic aid from China.
April 12, 2017: In central Philippines (Bohol province) security forces found that one the Abu Sayyaf men they had killed yesterday was Abu Rami, a wanted Abu Sayyaf leader who specialized in kidnapping operations.
April 11, 2017: In central Philippines (Bohol province) security forces clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen while following up reports that ten armed men had recently arrived in the island province. The initial clash left six Islamic terrorists, three soldiers and a policeman dead. The search is on for the other gunmen. Police received tips from local civilians. Abu Sayyaf does not have much support in this part of the country but there are apparently some locals (probably gangsters) who expressed support because Abu Sayyaf would not move in without some local help. Abu Sayyaf hoped to kidnap some foreign tourists in Bohol or nearby Cebu Island and extract large ransoms.
April 10, 2017: In the north (Ifugao province) NPA members surrendered and accepted amnesty. Such surrenders have become more common, but many of the NPA members are doing so without bringing any weapons with them.
April 3, 2017: The government warned NPA (the illegal armed wing of the local Communist Party) negotiators that the peace negotiations (resumed today in Holland) will be abandoned is some progress is not made this time. Until February 4th the government kept the peace negotiations with the NPA going despite persistent NPA demands that hundreds of jailed NPA members be freed first. For most of February the army and police were ordered to exert maximum pressure on the NPA and that apparently worked because the operations concentrated on the NPA groups known to be hostile to a peace deal. The third round of peace talks took place in early January and were not a success mainly because too many NPA factions refuse to make peace and by the end of January the ceasefire was over because of many attacks by these factions. Until the NPA can regain control over (or disown) disobedient factions the government will resume its efforts to destroy the leftist rebel group. Peace talks got started in Norway during August 2016 and some progress was made. But it became obvious that many NPA leaders opposed peace talks and could not accept the fact that many, if not most, veteran NPA members were fed up with their career of banditry. Thus it is no surprise that NPA violence declined since the ceasefire began but for a minority of NPA members peace is not seen as a solution.
March 27, 2017: Japan delivered the first two of five TC-90 reconnaissance aircraft. This comes a year after Japan offered to provide the aircraft at low cost. The other three will arrive in early 2018. These are military versions of the popular King Air twin engine civilian transport. Many are used for military purposes (training, transport, electronic warfare, surveillance) and Japan has been using them since the 1970s. Japan changed its laws in 2014 to allow for the export of military equipment (under certain conditions) and is expected to supply the Philippines with a lot more help like this. The TC-90 doubles the range of Filipino coastal surveillance from 300 to 600 kilometers. The cost of the lease was not revealed but it should not be a lot as these TC-90s are used and not equipped with any expensive electronics. King Air 90s sell for less than a million dollars used and cost less than a thousand dollars an hour (maintenance, fuel, spares) to operate.
In the south (Basilan province) Abu Sayyaf released one of the two tugboat crewmen they had kidnapped four days earlier. The other captive, the captain of the tugboat, had been rescued by solders the next day and troops were closing in on the group holding the man released today. In situations like this some Abu Sayyaf groups will just release their captive alive and run for it. The security forces will not pursue as diligently as they would if the group murdered their captive and tried to get away. At this point Abu Sayyaf holds 26 hostages, twenty of them foreigners. Al Shabaab is taking fewer captives and losing more due to the aggressive searching by the military and police.
March 19, 2017: In the south (Maguindanao province) the military continued their air and ground operations in remote areas where BIFF (a renegade MILF faction) members are based. This weekend operations left 21 Moslem rebels dead and 26 wounded. The air force bombed and then soldiers occupied a BIFF base where bombs were built and new bomb builders were trained. Other troops ambushed many of the BIFF members seeking to escape the base. One soldier was wounded during this operation. The main reason for over a week of operations in this remote area was intel that that Zulkifli bin Hir, an Indonesian Islamic terrorist bomb expert was present with a small group of BIFF men he was training in a series of temporary camps. BIFF has been on the run since it was formed in 2011 after splitting from MILF. There is a $500,000 reward for information that leads to the death or capture of Hir and that has been attracting a growing number of tips from the remote areas around here. The army believes, based on captured documents and prisoner interrogations, they found and destroyed all of the camps.