To raise them up. Part 1: The lesser and greater insurgencies of the Philippines

B.A. Patty was recently embedded with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In part one of his three-part series, Patty examines the roles of organizations such as Abu Sayyaf and MNLF in the insurgency and what Filipino and US troops are doing to squelch terrorist activities.

Map of the Philippines. Click to view.

Zamboanga, Philippines: The Philippines and the US have a history that formally begins with the Spanish American War of 1898. After the intense fighting that followed the secession of the Philippines from Spain to America, fierce Moro warriors fought US troops with tourniquets tied around their limbs, so they could fight a little longer before dying. In order to knock down the Moros, the US Army turned to John Moses Browning, who developed a more powerful military sidearm, the 1911 .45 Automatic Colt Pistol.

In a discussion about this turbulent past with Lieutenant Commander Fred Kuebler of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, he said that the history between the US and the Philippines should be thought of as “a good history. It’s the history of people who met in conflict, and became friends, allies. That’s the best you can hope for in this world.” All peoples in this world have a history of conflict. There is a history of war between all of us. A friendship grown on forgiveness is the best to be hoped for after the violence has died.

“I want to thank the American people for bringing us freedom and democracy,” Lieutenant Jeanne Robles, with the public information office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ General Headquarters, said earnestly. “I know what went before, but … if anyone else had come here, things would be very different. We are free now.”

The lesser counterinsurgency

In Mindanao and on the Sulu Archipelago, the land of the Moros, there is fierce fighting between the AFP and networks of foes and potential foes. Abu Sayyaf is an international terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda and part of the global insurgency being waged from New York to Iran, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Pakistan and Thailand to Indonesia and the Philippines. Two other networks – for they are that more than armies – are Moro separatists. The older Moro National Liberation Front fragmented into factions after the group and the Filipino government signed a peace treaty in 1996. One of those offshoots – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – took over the MNLF’s position as the largest separatist organization. MILF is involved in on-again, off-again negotiations with the government – as well as on-again, off-again fighting.

Listing the organizations only partially makes clear how complex and difficult the fight is. The fact is that many families in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago have members in more than one of these organizations. The father may be MNLF, and the son Abu Sayyaf. “We have to negotiate with the father while killing the son,” Robles noted with sarcasm. Sometimes, beyond family ties, even an individual may belong to both a separatist and a terrorist organization. The task of the AFP is to fight the terrorists, but without disrupting the peace processes that are trying to draw the separatists into the political process. It is a terribly difficult fight.

The headlines convey mostly the violent conflicts. In April, the faction of the MNLF led by Ustadz Habier Mailk came into violent confrontation with the AFP. The Filipino government requested that the MNLF withdraw from certain regions of Jolo in order to allow AFP elements to search for and engage Abu Sayyaf terrorists without risking a conflict with the MNLF. Some MNLF withdrew, but the Malik faction did not. The AFP and Malik have different explanations for what happened next, but the result is not in dispute: Malik began shelling AFP camps with artillery, and the AFP responded in force. The AFP captured his main headquarters in central Jolo and forced him to withdraw. Either because he brought the MNLF into unwanted confrontation with the government, or because he lost, Malik’s faction appears to have lost power within the MNLF.

The main effort of the AFP has been to isolate the Abu Sayyaf, not to engage the Moro separatists in conflict. Khadafy Janjalani, the alleged leader of the organization, died in a fierce gunbattle with AFP forces. General Raphael, commander of Task Force Comet, said that Janjalani had set up a secondary post away from his unit’s main encampment. A young AFP officer leading their special operations forces discovered the secondary camp during reconnaissance movement. That young officer received a stomach wound in the gunfight, Kuebler said. The officer had it field dressed and fought on. At the end of the engagement, the Abu Sayyaf survivors withdrew. Janjalani’s body was identified by DNA analysis, a joint effort of the Filipino government’s investigative service and the FBI. Also in recent gunfights, the AFP killed an Abu Sayyaf officer – Jainal Antel Sali, Jr., known as Abu Soliaman – and the AFP Marines and their Navy Special Operations Group killed a third high-value target known as “Black Killer.” The remnants of the target’s boat revealed that the AFP were thorough.

The most recent flare-up was an attack on the Marines on Basilan this summer, in which 14 were killed in an ambush and 10 beheaded. The Marines had been searching for a kidnapped priest, Father Bossi, who was later released. The AFP responded in force, and suffered some early losses fighting with Abu Sayyaf and MNLF elements. The MNLF on Jolo killed a number of AFP soldiers, but there was a twist. The MNLF’s 1996 peace treaty allowed a number of its fighters to become members of the AFP. Many of these “integrees” remain in the AFP today. Many of those killed in the battles following the beheadings were integrees. The MNLF fighters, realizing they were killing people whom they still consider to be their own, increasingly stood down and withdrew from the conflict.

MILF, engaged in its own negotiations with the government, willingly withdrew from the regions the AFP wished to search for Abu Sayyaf terrorists. Though the rhetoric between MILF and the government remains hot, the act isolates Abu Sayyaf in a practical way. The AFP is keeping up the pressure on the group through Operation Ultimatum II, with battalions of ground forces searching the islands, backed by naval sweeps searching for smuggled war materiel on hundreds of vessels.

The greater counterinsurgency

JSOTF-P supports efforts such as the operations AFP have used to combat groups like Abu Sayyaf. The Task Force is not engaged in direct combat action, and though its members retain the right of self-defense, they are always accompanied by AFP allies who have the primary duty for security. JSOTF-P offers training in a number of useful disciplines, from amphibious tactics to combat medicine. It assists the AFP by sharing US intelligence and analysis. “All our operations are intelligence-driven,” Raphael said, citing Filipino-US cooperation on intelligence as “excellent.” Small groups of advisors – called liaison coordinating elements – accompany some AFP battalions to offer both advice and coordination with American resources. These elements are led by US Special Forces or members of the US Navy Special Warfare. They work with the AFP battalion commander, who decides on whether or how to use their advice, as the AFP forces are always in the lead.

This deference to AFP leadership extends even to points of military courtesy. US Marine Sergeant Smith laughed over one point, which occurs during the daily video conference meeting between AFP and JSOTF-P leaders. “Marines don’t salute while uncovered,” he said. “And I have never before in my life saluted a video screen. But the AFP does, so while we’re here, we do too.”

The battles between the AFP and Abu Sayyaf and MNLF make the papers, but they miss the real story of the counterinsurgency in the Philippines. The real story is the movement of the populace away from support for conflict and toward a support for the peace processes. This has followed “a shift in strategy since April,” according to Raphael, to focus on what are called civil military operations, which focus on dealing with problems afflicting the people. “A lot of the villages have insufficient water,” the general said. “They have no schools. We are doing massive infrastructure projects.” Acting in cooperation with the JSOTF-P, the AFP have held numerous meetings at which medical treatment is provided to anyone who showed up, with any problem that could be handle in the field. The AFP has built schools and community centers.

There is a stick-and-carrot approach at work here. Funds are limited for these projects, and so villages get them where the AFP can travel most safely. Leaders in Mindanao are told honestly enough that while the Filipino government would like to help everyone, it has limits on both funding and manpower. The villagers see their neighbors getting the benefits of a peaceful society, and they begin to want those benefits also. These villagers are not fools, and they are not weak. Abu Sayyaf and even MNLF travel and operate only with local support, and neither group is strong enough to dominate the people of Mindanao, whose ancestors are those same Moro warriors who fought US troops after secession.

When the people are not strong enough in a given place, they inform the AFP. This happened recently with a ferry being rescued by Naval Forces, Western Mindanao Command (NF WesMinCom). Admiral Marayag, commander of NF WesMinCom, explained how US air assets helped the AFP Navy to locate and assist a ferry in distress. While the Navy was assisting the boat, AFP had received a tip that led them to an Abu Sayyaf terrorist aboard the distressed ferry. He was taken in custody.

The stick-and-carrot strategy is so successful that even the separatists are finding themselves pressed by it. Khaled Musa, a deputy chairman of MILF, said in April that the civilian military operations were “more lethal than brute force.” While he said that it could not end his insurgency – “Dedicated and rightly guided revolutionaries do not expect material rewards for sacrificing everything dear to them” – he also noted that the tactic reminded him of the collapse affecting the MNLF prior to its 1996 peace agreement, when “practically everybody surrendered to the government.”

The success of the civilian military operations is most obvious from the fact that MILF itself has begun to mimic them. They have been observed carrying out transportation and road-building projects in Mindanao, attempting to compete for the affection of the people. The spectacle of competition does not concern JSOTF-P. Instead, Special Forces advisors with one of the liaison coordinating elements helped the AFP arrange a cooperative road-building project with MILF. The recently completed road has the potential to be a turning point in the peace process: the moment at which MILF begins to change from a revolutionary organization to a political party and begins to compete with the government not in terms of fighting forces, but in its capacity to do good for the people.

The next installment will examine the role of the Philippines in the Long War and discuss the application of small war and long war theories to the counterinsurgency efforts.

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  • Jeffrey says:

    Excellent first article. Besides U.S. advisor/trainers, are other allies represented? I think I remember reading something about Australian SAS assisting, too.

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  • I was a part of JSOTF-P for over 8 months as a member of an LCE. This is the most informative and most accurate article I have read about the situation there.
    Jeffrey, This is a US-Philippine operation. In all my time there, I did not see any other government involved. Had they been, it would have been called a Combined, Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF).

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  • Cassandra says:

    Khaled Musa, a deputy chairman of MILF, said in April that the civilian military operations were “more lethal than brute force.”


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram