This article is the fifth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed ultimately argues that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus,
This article is the fifth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed ultimately argues that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice.
Washington, DC – Early last month, Tausug villagers on the Southern Philippine island of Jolo heard a buzzing sound not heard before. It is a sound familiar to the people of Waziristan who live along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where the United States fights the Taliban. It was the dreaded drone, which arrives from distant and unknown destinations to cause death and destruction. Within minutes, 15 people lay dead and a community plunged into despair, fear and mourning.
The US drone strike, targeting accused leaders in the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah organisations, marked the first time the weapon has been used in Southeast Asia. The drone has so far been used against Muslim groups and the Tausug are the latest on the list.
Just as in Pakistan and other theatres of the “war on terror”, the strike has provoked controversy, with a Filipino lawmaker condemning the attack as a violation of national sovereignty. This controversy could increase with the recent American announcement that it plans to boost its drone fleet in the Philippines by 30 per cent. The US already has hundreds of troops stationed on Jolo Island, but until now, the Americans have maintained a non-combat “advisory” role.
The expansion of US’ drone war has the potential to further enflame a volatile conflict involving the southern Muslim areas and Manila, which has killed around 120,000 people over the past four decades. To understand what is happening in the Philippines and the US’ role in the conflict, we need to look at the Tausug, among the most populous and dominant of the 13 groups of Muslims in the South Philippines known as “Moro”, a pejorative name given by Spanish colonisers centuries ago.
For hundreds of years, the Tausug had their own independent kingdom, the Sulu Sultanate, which was established in 1457 and centered in Jolo. The Sultanate became the largest and most influential political power in the Philippines with highly developed trade links across the region. From this base among the Tausug, Islam took root in neighbouring Mindanao Island among the Maguindanao and other groups.
The antagonistic relationship between the Moro periphery and the centre in Manila developed during the Spanish colonial era. The Spanish had arrived not long after expelling the Muslims from Spain and, intoxicated by that historical victory, were determined to exterminate Islam in the region and unite the Philippines under Christian rule.
In the instructions given by the Spanish governor on the eve of the first campaign against the southern Muslims in 1578, he ordered that “there be not among them anymore preachers of the doctrines of Mahoma since it is evil and false” and called for all mosques to be destroyed. The governor’s instructions set the tone for centuries of continuous warfare. The idea of a predatory central authority is deeply embedded in Tausug mythology and psychology.
Of all the Moro groups, the Tausug has been considered the most independent and difficult to conquer, with not a single generation of Tausug experiencing life without war over the past 450 years.
As any anthropologist will testify, the Tausug have survived half a millennium of persecution and attempts at conversion because of their highly developed code and clan structure. It is the classic tribe: egalitarian and feuding clans that unite in the face of the outside enemy and a code which emphasizes honor, revenge, loyalty and hospitality.
It was only in the late 19th century that Spain succeeded in incorporating the Sulu Sultanate as a protectorate and established a military presence on Jolo. The Spanish were followed by American colonisers who could be as brutal as their predecessors. In a 1906 battle, US troops killed as many as 1,000 Tausug men, women and children, and between 500 and 2,000 in a 1913 engagement.
Despite the Moro resistance to US colonial rule, they advocated for either continued American administration or their own country, rather than be incorporated into an independent Philippines, which they believed would continue the policies of the Spanish against their religion and culture. The request, however, was rejected.
Following independence in 1946, the Muslim regions were ruled as “special provinces” with most of the important government posts reserved for Christian Filipinos. Despite being granted electoral representation in the 1950s, the majority of Moro had little interest in dealing with the central government. Manila, for its part, largely neglected the region.
The Tausug areas remained impoverished and, in the absence of jobs, young men turned to looting and piracy. In response, Manila opted for heavy-handed military tactics and based its largest command of security forces in the nation among the Tausug.
Central government actions to subdue the Tausug areas in the 1950s resulted in the deaths of almost all fighting age men in certain regions. The society was torn apart, with the young generation growing up without traditional leadership.
The current conflict began in 1968 with what became known as the Jabidah Massacre, when around 60 mainly Tausug recruits in the Philippine Army were summarily executed after they refused a mission to attack the Malaysian region of Sabah, where a population of Tausug also resides.
In 1971, the Moro, incensed by Jabidah and accusing the central government of conducting “genocide”, began an open war against the state. A Tausug-dominated independence movement soon developed called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In 1976, the government reached an agreement with the MNLF to grant the Moro areas autonomy, which was further developed in a 1996 treaty that is still being negotiated.
For many Moro living on Mindanao, however, the deal was unsatisfactory because of the presence of so many Christian settlers, who they complained were taking more and more of their land under what seemed like government policy.
Indeed, the population had dramatically changed from 76 per cent Muslim in 1903 to 72.5 per cent Christian by 2000. The government was arming Christian settlers to attack Muslims. In 1971, the most notorious Christian militia, the Ilaga, killed 70 Moro in a mosque. Muslim militias lashed back, leading to a cycle of violence.
A new group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), based in Mindanao’s Maguindanao ethnic group, soon split from the MNLF and vowed to push for secession.
‘Abu Sayyaf’ label
Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States became involved in the region in pursuit of the elusive Abu Sayyaf, which it accused of having links with al-Qaeda. The group was formed by a charismatic Tausug preacher in the late 1980s, whose speeches attracted angry young men from a community rife with orphans due to the previous decades of war.
Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for kidnappings, bombings and beheadings, gripping the Philippines with sensational media reports. Manila has been accused of applying the “Abu Sayyaf” label to any conflict in the region, including those involving small armed Tausug groups, many of them kinship based, which have existed for centuries.
Aid workers kidnapped in 2009, for example, reported that their “Abu Sayyaf” captor told them “I can be ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group), I can be MILF, I can be [MILF or MNLF breakaway group] Lost Command”.
Manila was discovering, like many other nations after 9/11, that by associating its restless communities on the periphery with al-Qaeda, it could garner easy American support.
To resolve the conflict between the Moro and Manila, President Benigno Aquino must demonstrate that the centuries of conflict and forced assimilation into a monolithic Filipino culture are over. The government needs to promote pluralism and build trust with the periphery.
With the recent declarations by President Aquino’s government that the state is fully invested in implementing the 1996 autonomy agreement with the MNLF and hopes to have a peace treaty in place with the MILF by 2013, the various parties have a unique opportunity to work for a longstanding solution.
Development projects to help the suffering Tausug must be conducted urgently as the situation for ordinary people is dire. Amidst the frequent barrages of artillery and bombs and the displacement of hundreds of thousands over the past decade, a 2005 study found that 92 per cent of water sources in Sulu Province, where the majority of Tausug live, were contaminated, while the malnutrition rate for children under five is 50 per cent. Education and employment are constant challenges.
The sad state of affairs does not only result from a lack of funds, as the Philippines government, the United States and others have poured millions into the region, but rather how funds are spent. The association of development with the military among the population has been an impediment to implementing necessary projects.
Between inefficient aid funding and the ongoing military campaigns, Manila has been drained of desperately needed resources and diverted from fulfilling its ambitions to become an economic powerhouse.
Development solutions can only work if they have the full support of the clans that decide local politics, which is no easy task, considering the tenacity with which clans can fight over resources. Yet with a holistic plan of engagement in the context of true autonomy, it is possible to bring them together.
Mediation, involving local religious leaders and international bodies like the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which has taken the lead in peace talks between the Moro factions and the government, can play a key role in this regard.
Major General Reuben Rafael, the Philippine commander formerly in charge of military operations in Sulu Province, gave us an example of how to proceed. In 2007, he staged a public apology for transgressions against the population. The assembled people began to cry, including the Tausug mayor of the town, who stated that never in the history of Sulu had a military general apologized to them in such a manner. This is the way to the heart of the Tausug, and we salute the general for showing us the path to peace.
By unleashing the drones, the US has pushed the conflict between centre and periphery in the Philippines in a dangerous direction. If there is one lesson we can learn from half a millennium of history it is this: weapons destroy flesh and blood, but cannot break the spirit of a people motivated by ideas of honour and justice.
Instead, the US and Manila should work with the Muslims of the Philippines to ensure full rights of identity, development, dignity, human rights and self-determination. Only then will the security situation improve and the Moro permitted to live the prosperous and secure lives they have been denied for so long; and only then will the Philippines be able to become the Asian Tiger it aspires to be.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.
US smart bombs used in Sulu attack
[EXCLUSIVE] The US has delivered at least 22 smart bombs to the Philippine military for use vs Abu Sayyaf and JI terrorists
MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines’ first smart bomb attack on February 2 on Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists was the result of 15 months of training and technology transfer from the United States to Filipino forces.
The information below was gathered over more than a year from military officers and civilian intelligence sources in at least 3 different countries.
In the early morning hours of February 2, a Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) showed a joint team of US and Filipino soldiers a live feed of what was happening on the ground inside the camp of a senior Abu Sayyaf leader in Parang, Sulu.
They watched the thermal image of their “military asset” – a double agent – and compared what he was texting them with the images they were watching. The asset texted the location and pattern of movements of the people around him – information the soldiers verified through the thermal images they saw. When he texted that he was leaving the camp, the soldiers watched his thermal image walk away.
Scan eagles, also known as drones, have been operating in the Philippines for many years now.
Although originally flown from US navy ships and operated by civilian contractors, there are smaller drones operated by US special forces. Don’t mistake these for the Predator drones and Global Hawks carrying hell fire missiles that killed Al-Qaeda and other terrorist targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the Philippines, drones are used only for surveillance.
This was confirmed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday largely because a drone strike handled by the Americans may violate the Philippine Constitution. US troops, Mr Aquino said, “are here as advisers. They are here as trainers. They cannot participate in combat operations.”
Which is exactly what they have been doing.
The US military arrived in the Philippines in February 2002, dubbed the second front in its “war against terrorism.” At its peak, US troops reached 1,200, including 660 US special forces.
The military alliance also includes technology transfer.
In mid-2010, Washington pledged $18.4 million of precision-guided missiles funded under a US Congressional Act, which allowed its defense department to train and equip foreign military allies.
A classified document from the Philippines is explicit: “Fiscal year 2010 assistance for the Philippines provides a precision-guided missile capability to assist Philippine Armed Forces’ counter-terrorism efforts in southern regions to combat the activities of the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf Group.”
The first smart bombs, PGMs or Precision-Guided Munitions kits, arrived in the Philippines on November 1, 2010.
According to a technical timeline obtained by Rappler, Philippine Air Force pilots sat down with subject matter experts to lay out a training plan in December.
Weapons training began the following year, on Jan 24, 2011.
Two months later, aircraft installation & training started, leading to test drops which were scheduled to begin in May of the same year.
On June 20, 2011, the US delivered at least 22 more PGM kits to the Philippine military.
During this period, US defense contractor Raytheon, the company which makes the PGMs, visited the Philippines 3 times, according to the documents.
Finally, on Feb 2, 2012, after nearly 8 months of training, the Philippines deployed its first smart bombs.
Target: JI in Sulu
The targets had long been under surveillance: the 2 most senior Jemaah Islamiyah or JI leaders in the Philippines sheltered by Abu Sayyaf leader Umbra Jumdail, better known as Doc Abu.
They are Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, better known as Marwan, who carried a $5-M reward on his head from the US government, and Singaporean Mohammed Abdullah Ali, known as Muawiyah, who had a $500,000 reward for his capture or death.
“There was a target that was of high enough value with actionable intelligence and the right conditions that would warrant its use,” said a military source privy to the operations. “These are expensive devices so they are used for the right targets at the right time.”
There was a long, involved process to get to this point, governed by protocols set by both nations, according to documents obtained by Rappler.
The Philippines and the US followed 2 levels of clearance and parallel approval processes.
First, ground commanders from both nations identify a target. For the Americans, its Joint-Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) then coordinates with the US Embassy before getting approval from SOCPAC, the Special Operations Command, Pacific in Hawaii.
After SOCPAC approves, it alerts the US Pacific Command (PACOM). Then it goes back to JSOTF-P which then notifies its Philippine counterpart of concurrence for the target.
On the Philippine side, the commander of the Joint Task Force Comet (Sulu’s military unit) coordinates with the Western Mindanao Command (WESTMINCOM) and when US concurrence happens, WESTMINCOM approves the target and authorizes execution by Filipino troops.
Between 2 and 3 am on February 2, Philippine Air Force OV-10 Broncos dropped the 227 kg (500 lb) bombs in the strike zone in a remote village in Parang, Sulu, demolishing much of the area.
In the dark
The first signal that new technology was used was the choice of when to drop the bombs.
In the past, planes could only drop their payload during daylight because pilots used visual cues.
Now the smart bombs can strike in the dark because they are guided by GPS or a homing device.
About 45 minutes after the bombing, the military asset texted his handlers that he would check “the targets.”
Sources said they watched a thermal image move back to the area. His text said that Doc Abu had been “obliterated.” Marwan was allegedly “cut in half from the waist,” while Muawiyah was barely breathing with blood gushing out of a deep neck wound.
Based on that, the Philippine military announced the deaths of these key leaders.
But it now appears that the asset was wrong about Marwan and Muawiyah.
Civilian and military intelligence reports from at least 3 countries show both JI leaders are still alive.
Last week, Malaysia’s chief counterterrorism official Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said Marwan was still alive.
Philippine military spokesman Col Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos maintained his position the JI leaders are dead and said Malaysia should provide “conclusive proof of life.”
On the use of smart bombs, there are conflicting responses from the Philippines.
Col. Burgos, based in Manila, said the military “neither confirms nor denies the existence of such munitions citing operational security reasons. However, its pilots have been training vigorously to further improve their proficiency particularly in the precise delivery of munitions to its identified target.”
Col Jose Cenabre, the head of Sulu’s Task Force Comet, categorically denied the use of smart bombs: “I strongly deny that. That’s just talk. We did not use them.”
However, Lt Col Miguel Ernesto Okol, spokesman of the Philippine Air Force, told Rappler: “Our pilots’ accuracy in the past was not good. They were not adept, but now with considerable time training and through the advice of our allies, particularly the US military, we are able to increase the accuracy of our pilots to 80 to 90%.” – with reports from David Santos/Rappler.com
Maria Ressa is the author of Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia (Free Press, 2003). The information in this piece is part of the research for her upcoming book From Bin Laden to Facebook.