“Son of a b****, if your name is there, you have a problem; I will really kill you,” said the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte early this year. He has made public a list of what he claims are thousands of narco-politicians and has warned mayors involved in drug trade to either resign or die. Over 8000 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed in the war on drugs since Duterte took office in June 2016. Dutertes anti-drug campaign known as Operation Double Barrel has allegedly been a spree of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users in Manila and other cities.
Human Rights Watchs (HRW) investigations into various incidents have revealed police involvement in extrajudicial executions. Witnesses in HRW investigations have said that armed assailants in civilian clothes with their faces covered would bang on doors and barge into rooms, but would not identify themselves or show warrants. Family members have reported hearing beatings and their loved ones begging for their lives. The shooting could happen instantly, behind closed doors or on the street; or the gunmen might take the suspect away, where minutes later shots would be heard and local residents would find the body; or the body would be dumped elsewhere later, sometimes with hands tied or the head wrapped in plastic. No evidence so far, however, shows that Duterte has planned or ordered specific extrajudicial killings. But the Philippines Presidents repeated calls for killings as part of his anti-drug campaign could prompt law enforcement to commit murder.
Although the White House has consistently condemned the allegedly extrajudicial killings in the name of war on drugs, the U.S. appears somewhat reluctant to take stronger actions for fear of jeopardizing geo-strategic priorities in the region.
The alleged extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug dealers and users in the Philippines and Dutertes repeated death threats against drug dealers and users offer several legal grounds for which he and his top subordinates could be incriminated in the Philippines or by a court abroad. Dutertes statements instigating the general population against suspected drug users could also incite violence in the country. The killing spree is also likely to have adverse effects on public health. Punitive drug enforcement can lead to drug users going underground, choosing not to avail critical health services. This can trigger the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among people who have used drugs and may discourage people with drug dependence from seeking effective treatment.
So much for Duterte’s political correctness and what it means for the US-Philippines relationship
So much for political correctness when the Philippine’s president Rodrigo Duterte branded the former U.S. President Barrack Obama with profanity in September 2016. This has canceled his planned meeting with Obama in Laos where he expected to be challenged on human rights issues. What Duterte has finally gained though was not having to confront that topic.
Duterte’s congratulatory note to President Elect Donald Trump seems to indicate an attempt to re-improve the U.S.-Philippines relationship since his spree of anti-American rhetoric in the past few months. Following the U.S. election result, Duterte also said, “The United States presidential election is a testament to the enduring traditions of its democratic system and the American way of life. The two-party system gives American voters freedom of choice based on party platforms, not just on personalities.” Caution, however, prevails on the continuity of this new attitude toward the U.S. administration, particularly when his past statements toward the U.S. have been very confusing.
Duterte has very recently cancelled an order of some 26,000 police assault rifles from the U.S. after rumors that Washington stopped the sale. According to Reuters, a U.S. senator had planned to block the arms purchase over concerns about human rights violations. This may not be as surprising because Duterte did promise during his election campaign that he would kill the alleged drug dealers and drug users in the Philippines and there has been more than 3000 killings already since his presidency in June 2016.
Duterte’s earlier comment about separation from the U.S. has also been troubling Washington because the U.S. has been the Philippine’s strongest ally. Since Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October 2016 to sign a deal worth $13.5 billion and possibly to diminish the resentment over the Philippine’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, it becomes somewhat apparent that the Philippine’s president is looking to China to replace the U.S. as a major ally for the Philippines. Daniel Russel, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, however, suggested, “it would be a mistake to think that improved relationship between Manila and Beijing should come at the expense of the United States”.
It is critical to understand the relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. that has institutionalized over the years before an attempt to speculate on how this relationship could transform with Duterte’s ongoing anti-U.S. rampage.
- The U.S. is the largest investor in the Philippines with a direct investment over $4.7 billion and the country’s third largest trading partner;
- The U.S. has provided to date over $143 million in assistance to the Philippines in relief and recovery funds to battle natural disasters;
- The U.S. has granted the Philippines preferential duty free access to the U.S. market which also makes the Philippines among the largest beneficiaries of the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program;
- The U.S. has designated the Philippines as a major Non-NATO ally;
- The 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty offers a security partnership between the two countries;
- An estimated 4 million U.S. citizens of Philippine ancestry live in the U.S.;
- Over 220,000 U.S. citizens live in the Philippines;
- An estimated 650,000 U.S. citizens visit the Philippines each year;
Clearly, Duterte’s diplomatic and political demeanor worries and confuses U.S. officials. A U.S.-Philippines joint military exercise due in October 2016 have been postponed to late November 2016 after Duterte suggested earlier that the joint exercise with the U.S. would be the last of such partnership.
On the human rights matters, Washington could decide to cut military aid to the Philippines or make it subject to careful judicial procedures. Consequences could also manifest into discontinuation of GSP privilege. Manila, however, has suggested that the Philippines could sustain without U.S. assistance, particularly when the Philippine’s latest approach toward China indicates that the country may seek assistance elsewhere.
It’s too early to say that Trump’s victory will mean a continuity of the current U.S. foreign policy toward the Philippines, however, potential U.S. repercussions will not be a surprise should Duterte’s actions toward the U.S.-Philippines partnership escalate for the worse.
Philippine officials have reported that two Islamic militants linked to the abductions of 26 Malaysia and Indonesian sailors this year were killed on 27 September in a military raid off a remote Philippine island.
The military operation on Tuesday occurred off Tambulian Island in the Sulu island group, which is a mainly-Muslim archipelago that is also an Abu Sayyaf stronghold. It is located about 1,000 km south of Manila. A statement released by the Philippine military disclosed that Nixon Muktadil and his brother Brown Muktadil, both of whom are members of the Abu Sayyaf group, died in “strike operations” by an anti-terror task force at dawn. The statement further disclosed that “the death of the Muktadil brothers is a major blow to the group…because they serve(d) as th sea guides and navigators during (the ) conduct of kidnapping at the high seas,” adding that the brothers helped kidnap the crewmembers of five tugboats that were carrying coal and other commodities in waters bordering Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. According to the military, the kidnappings occurred over a six month period earlier this year. The spike in abductions resulted in officials warning that the region could become the “next Somalia.” The warning pushed the three neighbour states to pledge coordinated patrols.
Most of the twenty-six sailors are thought to have been released, however the Philippine government has disclosed that Abu Sayyaf is still holding five Indonesian hostages, however it remains unclear if they include any of the sailors. Earlier this month, the militant group freed four Indonesians and a Norwegian hostage. Earlier this year, it beheaded two Canadian hostages and released Indonesian and Malaysian sailors in batches.
Also on Tuesday, police announced that they arrested in Manila a Sulu politician who has been accused of having sold government-issue guns to the Abu Sayyaf group. According to officials, the raid on Saturday (24 September) on the house of Unding Kenneth Isa, turned up grenades, assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition, most of them were government-issue weapons. Police have disclosed that Isa, who ran for vice governor of Sulu in May elections but lost, has been accused of sending weapons by ferry to the Abu Sayyaf group as well as other armed groups in the south.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the country’s military to go “full force” to wipe out the Islamic State (IS)-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.
While President Duterte, who swept into office in May on a pledge to eliminate criminals, had initially called on the Abu Sayyaf Group to lay down their arms, he quickly adopted a tough stance when his overtures were rejected. Sources have reported that an additional 2500-strong force is being deployed to back up thousands of soldiers who are already stationed on the islands of Jolo and Sulu.
Abu Sayyaf was founded in the early 1990’s to fight for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, which is a Catholic-majority nation. For years, the militant group has eluded Philippines security forces, which had the support of US military logistics, as its militants carried out some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including a ferry bombing in 2014 that killed at least 100 people. The militants, who are believed to number around 500, have also kidnapped dozens of foreigners and Filipinos for ransom, in a business that has netted them millions of dollars, which they then use to carry out their operations. The militants are believed to be currently holding at least 23 hostages, including a Dutch birdwatcher who was kidnapped in 2012 and a Norwegian man who was abducted from a beach resort last year. Abu Sayyaf militants also beheaded two Canadian hostages this year who had been held for several months. Australian adventurer Warren Rodwell was held by the group for fifteen months after he was kidnapped from his home in a coastal town on 2011. A ransom of about US $100,000 was secured for his release.
While last year, Abu Sayyaf claimed allegiance to IS, analysts believe that the group has been mainly focused on kidnappings. Southeast Asian leaders however have expressed their concerns that regional militants, who have been fighting alongside IS fighters in Syria and Iraq, may return and seek sanctuary amongst Abu Sayyaf – further bolstering its strength with hardened fighters.
Abu Sayyaf is one of the smallest and most violent jihadist groups in the southern Philippines. Its name means “bearer of the sword” and it is notorious for kidnapping for ransom, and for attacks on civilians and the army. The Abu Sayyaf Group operates mainly in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi Provinces in the Sulu Archipelago and has a presence on Mindanao. Members also occasionally travel to Manila. The Abu Sayyaf Group was listed on the UN list of organizations sanctioned for association with Al Qaeda in October 6, 2001.
Foundation and objectives
Abu Sayyaf has its roots in the separatist insurgency in the southern Philippines, an impoverished region where Muslims make up a majority of the population in contrast to the rest of the country, which is mainly Roman Catholic. Abdurajak Janjalani founded the Abu Sayyaf group in 1991 as a separatist militant Islamist movement from the National liberation front Moro. Its founding objective is to create an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines areas of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Since its creation, the group became more and more organized, using terrorist methods and tactics.
Following the deaths over the last decade of a number of its key senior leaders, including its founder in 1998, and his brother in 2006 both killed by police forces, Abu Sayyaf has continued to fragment. It remains unclear whether a single figure now leads the group. However, a number of key figures appear to be possible leader such as have Radullan Sahiron, Isnilon Hapilon, Yasir Igasan and Khair Mundos. All have extensive operational experience and are capable of conducting their own independent operations.
Since its inception, Abu Sayyaf has been composed of sub-groups, mostly organised along traditional clan and familial lines. Abu Sayyaf membership consists primarily of young Filipino Muslims from the Sulu archipelago, though the group also attracts poverty‑stricken Muslims from across the southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf membership at times has included foreign jihadists. Abu Sayyaf recruitment efforts have ensured membership numbers remain at approximately 400 fighters, spread predominantly across the Sulu Archipelago. However, membership numbers fluctuate in response to successful terrorist operations and pressure from the Philippine military, which dictate the available resources and relative incentives of membership.
Abu Sayyaf views kidnap-for-ransom and extortion ventures as profitable operational tactics. Kidnappings, in particular, have been a trademark of Abu Sayaaf since its creation and represent the main funding mechanism for the group. These activities help support members’ livelihood and provide resources for the group. Abu Sayyaf has also received funds from other Islamist terrorist organisations and enjoys support from elements of the local population of Jolo and Basilan. It seems that they also received support from Al Qaeda as they have connections to other terrorist groups.
Deadly attacks and kidnapping
Abu Sayyaf violence has claimed more than 100,000 lives since the 1970s. Since 2000, Abu Sayyaf group is known for several bombings including a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 (116 casualties), a simultaneous attack in Manila and Davao in 2005 (8 casualties), an attack on the Filipino Congress in 2007 (3 casualties).
The Abu Sayyaf is also known for numerous kidnapping and ransoming, as it is their main funding resources. Abu Sayyaf’s hostages tend to be released if the ransom demanded for them is paid. This has been the outcome for most of their hostages. The group is known to kill captives if its demands are not met. In 2000, an Abu Sayyaf faction kidnapped 21 persons, including 10 Westerners, from a Malaysian resort, and, in May 2001, the group kidnapped three US citizens and 17 Filipinos from a resort in Palawan, Philippines, later murdering several of the hostages, including one US citizen. In June 2002, one of the two remaining hostages was killed in crossfire between Philippine soldiers and Abu Sayyaf. In 2013, an Australian hostage was released, even though no government officially recognised that they paid the ransom. In 2016, the group murdered two Canadian hostages: Robert Hall and John Ridsdel were murdered after the Canadian government refused to pay the ransom. Its recent kidnap of 18 Indonesians and Malaysians has also prompted fears for the maritime region. The latest is the kidnapping of seven Indonesian sailors in the Sulu Sea at the end of June 2016.
It is supposed that Abou Sayyaf is connected to Al Qaeda or Jemah Islamiyah. Many leaders had connections to Al Qaeda’s leaders such as Yasser Igasan who worked for the international terrorist group for 4 years. In 2006, Janjalani’s faction relocated to Sulu, where it joined forces with local Abu Sayyaf supporters who are providing shelter to fugitive Jemah Islamiyah members from Indonesia.
There are also fears that the group could be supporting terrorist activities by other IS-linked groups in the region. While there is no evidence that Abu Sayyaf was involved in this, the group has long had ties to prominent Indonesian militant groups like Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiyah. Several members of this group involved in the Bali bombings found shelter with the group after fleeing Indonesia.
A spread of the threat
The Philippine army and police have been hunting the group in an attempt to defeat it and rescue its hostages for several months. A clash in early April between the army and the group resulted in 18 soldiers dead and 56 wounded, the army’s worst casualties in a year. It is not clear what approach incoming President Rodrigo Duterte will adopt once he takes office. On one hand he has threatened to invade Jolo if the kidnappers do not surrender. On the other he has indicated he is willing to negotiate with them, saying “we don’t go to war with our own people”.
The kidnapping remains also a great threat to the region. Kidnap-for-ransom operations have long been a lucrative business in the region but have escalated in recent years. The abductions have also become more brazen and spread beyond the Abu Sayyaf heartland of Sulu province to Palawan and Davao provinces. The Malaysian government has closed its border between Sabah state and the Philippines because of the recent spate of kidnappings of Malaysian citizens.
Finally, the activities of Abu Sayyaf threaten the maritime area. The Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre has warned ships to stay clear of small suspicious vessels in the area. The region fears that the maritime area becomes a “new Somalia”, which could disrupt regional trade. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take possible coordinated actions, including sea and air patrols, to stop an alarming wave of cross-border kidnappings and boat attacks by Abu Sayyaf extremists and other outlaws.