MINDANAO, Philippines–The beheading of Canadian hostage Robert Hall by Abu Sayyaf militants on Monday has dealt another severe blow to the $93 million US military campaign to help the Philippines end acts of terror by the al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated group in this restive region.
The campaign Enduring Freedom, a global war launched against terrorism after the September 11 twin tower attack in New York, saw the arrival of some 1,300 US military troops in Philippines to a warm welcome.
One of the main aspects of the campaign was the annual military joint exercise ‘Balikatan’ (Tagalog word meaning ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’) providing equipment and exchange of information and expertise to end terrorism in Southern Philippines.
But 14 years later, the 400-strong Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has become more aggressive and violent in kidnapping and killing their victims, mostly foreign tourists.
In the latest incident, ASG was demanding a ransom of $6.5 million for the release of Hall. But Hall’s relatives stood by the Canadian government’s no ransom policy. That cost the life of the Canadian mining executive.
While condemning the act and promising to bring the killers to justice, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government’s no-ransom policy saying giving ransom will only encourage more kidnappings by the ASG.
On April 25, ASG had beheaded another Canadian captive John Ridsdel after his relatives failed to deliver the $6.5 million ransom before the deadline set by the group. The ASG is still holding two more captives – Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad and Filipina Maritess Flor, Hall’s partner.
The ASG dared to mock the incoming Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a statement made after Hall’s execution.
Its leader Abu Raami was quoted saying in a national broadsheet: “You promised Trudeau you will get them (hostages) alive and what happened to Ridsdel will not be repeated. So let’s see if you will not be embarrassed.”
“This is for (you) Duterte. This is for you to know what we will do to the Canadian,” Raami added.
On Wednesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino flew to Jolo, Sulu, to get first-hand information on the kidnapping situation. He is considering the imposition of martial law in Sulu.
There is no guarantee there will be positive results. There might even be negative results. The enemies might gain more sympathy, he said to media.
He announced that Norway and Canada have offered assistance to stop terrorism in south.
Aquino will step down as President on June 30.
Enhanced Defense Cooperation
After failures to curb terror in southern Philippines, the U.S. is considering the institutionalization of Enhanced Defense Cooperation.
On April 28, 2014, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled the legality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a collaborative deal to pre-position defense capabilities especially in the promotion of maritime security and maritime domain awareness in the Philippines.
Lobby groups believe EDCA can address terror and insurgency problems down south.
Analyst Briccio Cesar Domondon wrote in a national broadsheet that EDCA is the right tool in going after ASG as the group has now allied itself with the Islamic State.
The Philippine government has identified five sites for the US military installations — Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Palawan, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. But around 2,500 civil society protesters held a rally in Cagayan de Oro dramatizing their sentiments against putting up a U.S. military facility in their vicinity.
Protesters see the putting up of U.S. military facilities in Philippine areas as illegal and as a threat to security of civilians. Philippine laws prohibit the establishment of foreign military bases in the country.
The U.S. and Philippine governments say the proposed EDCA military detachments are mere facilities, not bases.
“EDCA would not pave way to the return of U.S. bases in the country,” Philippine defense officials said.
However, many people wonder if the EDCA can address terrorism in Southern Philippines since, according to them, the U.S. is more concerned about China’s growing aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
Lawmaker Rodolfo Biazon, a retired military general, was quoted in a national broadsheet saying that EDCA will address global terrorism as well as China’s growing aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
What can Duterte do?
Incoming members of the Duterte team say he is capable of tackling terrorism menace in the southern region.
Jesus Dureza, who will become the chief government negotiator, said ASG and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters will have to face the full force of the law for their terror and criminal acts.
Hermogenes Esperon, who will be the national security advisor, told Reuters that Duterte would take strategic action against lawlessness in south as “we cannot allow this situation to continue … this should end once and for all.”
Incoming National Police Chief Robert Dela Rosa hinted at imposition of martial law if that can end terrorism in south.
Ernie Abella, who will be the presidential spokesperson, said Duterte as a “strategic thinker” will be able to stop kidnappings and murders by ASG. He recalled how, as Davao City mayor, Duterte foiled several kidnappings.
Duterte’s lawyer Salvador Panelo said: “He has solved other problems of equal magnitude. I don’t see any problem for him in doing that.”
Noel Tarrazona is a former freelance Vancouver-based International journalist and a senior analyst of Wikistrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org