Philippine military successfully depleting ranks of terrorist group

Philippine military successfully depleting ranks of terrorist group

A successful combination of new military deployments, collaboration among security forces and public outreach to diminish the effects of terrorist recruitment have seriously diminished the Abu Sayyaf Group’s (ASG’s) effectiveness in the Philippines.

The violent extremist organization has menaced the Philippines since the early 1990s with a deadly combination of bombings, kidnappings and piracy. A spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reports that military efforts to degrade ASG have yielded positive results.

The military campaign has resulted in the release of hostages, the capture and surrender of terrorists and in a population disinclined to sympathize with the Islamic State-affiliated group.

“Following the death of the Abu Sayyaf Group’s former leader, Isnilon Hapilon, in Marawi in 2017, the threat level of the ASG significantly decreased,” AFP Army spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told FORUM. “Their group was further crippled after the death of the ASG leader Abu Dar in March this year. Currently, we are dealing with ASG remnants as well as the reported presence of foreign terrorists who are still capable of inflicting harm.”

Abu Dar, whose birth name was Benito Marohombsar, was killed in March 2019 by AFP forces after a monthslong operation that stifled his Maute Group, a subordinate faction to ASG during the leadership of Hapilon, according to the Philippine News Agency (PNA), Manila’s official government newswire. Hapilon was killed in the final days of the siege of Marawi, a five-month battle between terrorists and military forces in which Hapilon and Dar led their extremist combatants in capturing and holding the southern Philippine city until its liberation in October 2017, PNA reported.

The Philippines is now conducting what the government has termed a national action plan for preventing and countering violent extremism, Philippines National Security Advisor Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told FORUM. The plan combines military and police actions with outreach campaigns to inoculate vulnerable populations against recruitment by extremists.

Military action has included the deployment of the Philippine Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (1BCT), members of which are pictured, to Sulu province, which has a majority Muslim population, Zagala said.

“The deployment was meant to beef up its forces to address terrorism,” he explained. “The 1BCT is the Army’s contingency force that is capable to address conventional, unconventional and asymmetric threats.” Its units include an intelligence unit, combat engineer company, aviation unit, explosives disposal team and the 1st Air Defense Artillery Battery.

The Army has also employed “peace ambassadors” in Sulu, he said, including noted Filipino actors Robin Padilla and Matteo Guidicelli, as part of its “intensified operations on preventing and countering violent extremism” by promoting peace in the community.

While the nation has witnessed horrific ASG attacks in Sulu such as the January 27, 2019, Jolo cathedral bombing, which killed 23 people, and the June 28, 2019, suicide bombing at the tactical command post of the 1BCT, which killed seven, success stories have also been multiplying, Zagala said. They include the release of ASG hostages to the AFP without payment of ransom and the surrender of 40 or more ASG combatants, all since the start of the year, he added.

“We are neutralizing the fighting elements of violent extremism. And we have now the action plan for preventing and countering violent extremism,” Esperon said. “It is taking care of the future terrorist, so he will not become a terrorist.”

The AFP works closely with national police, which arrested several suspected ASG militants in raids in June and July 2019. “The Philippine Army is conducting counterterrorism exercises with its foreign counterparts,” Esperon said, “such as the Israel Defense Forces, Singaporean Army, Australian Army and the U.S. Army to further strengthen and develop its capabilities that addresses the ASG threat.”

Tom Abke is a FORUMcontributor reporting from Singapore.