When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he would eradicate the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) — the region’s most feared terror group — without US military support, many wondered how. The ASG has unabashedly terrorized the Philippines for 24 years.
To many people’s surprise, Duterte’s anti-ASG strategy includes grooming Nur Misuari, the founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Despite facing rebellion charges, Misuari was invited by Manila to meet Duterte and discuss how to end the ongoing ASG atrocities. The Philippine court suspended his warrant of arrest for six months, allowing Misuari to wander free without any threat from the arrest.
But does Misuari bring the right credentials to battling the Isis-linked ASG?
The MNLF is the largest revolutionary organization fighting for a separate Islamic state in the Southern Philippines. Misuari founded it in 1972 but decided to sign a peace agreement with the government in September, 1996. Some of the original ASG founders in 1991 were sons of MNLF fighters, who were at that point followers of Misuari.
In September 2013, some 17 years since the Peace Agreement’s signing, Misuari became a fugitive again. He was suspected of leading a group of 400 armed militants in an attack on Zamboanga. The Zamboanga siege led to a 21-day war in which 4,000 Philippine soldiers engaged a firefight with the Misuari’s followers. Scores of MNLF fighters were arrested in its aftermath, but Misuari was nowhere to be found.
Duterte, however, believes Misuari’s influence can help eradicate the ASG’s terrorist ideology. While in the Presidential palace, Duterte sent Misuari to chat with Philippine journalists. Misuari stood before a podium and claimed credit for the ASG’s September decision to release hostages (including Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad). He had deployed one,700 armed militants to cordon the ASG, he said, hinting that he still has the capability to lead a group of armed militants to neutralize terror-inclined militants. The media reported that his followers number only around 2,000.
In Duterte’s view the four-decade war a “futile exercise” in which Filipinos killed Filipinos. The Mindanao war had claimed more than 140,000 lives from both the government and rebels’ side. The Philippines should not spend the next forty years fighting Islamic revolutionary organizations, he said.
The 77-year-old Misuari agreed, telling the media that “Should need our cooperation in his campaign for peace, you can count on us.”
But while Duterte has wooed Misuari to help address militancy in the restive Mindanao areas, he has also ordered the deployment of 10,000 highly trained soldiers and scout rangers in the Basilan and Sulu, the ASG’s cradle.
Duterte’s military offensives in Basilan have already killed 70 ASG members and almost three dozens have already been arrested while scores. The ASG’s death toll has the highest record in two month’s time than under Duterte’s predecessor.
The band of 400 heavily armed members remains elusive, however, and are still fighting back using sophisticated firearms. It has also have acquired at least US$7.3 million through kidnapping ransoms this year. According to AFP reports, the ASG is using the fresh funds for massive recruitment and bribing villagers to mislead the Philippine military.
Since Duterte has already halted Philippine-US war games, the Philippine government could be in search of a new maritime security ASEAN allies. With his recent announcements, Duterte is also eyeing Malaysia and Indonesia as possible maritime security allies to neutralize the ASG.
Both countries have citizens who have fallen victims to ASG kidnapping in the past, garnering millions of dollars of ransom money; The ASG reportedly took in at least US$12 million since they began their massive kidnapping campaign in 2011.
Duterte discussed strategies to counter such activities with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in his recent trip, and is expected to meet with Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak on the matter soon.
“There is a need for us three countries Malaysia, Philppines and Indonesia, to talk about this seriously and to put a stop because it has somehow paralyzed the trade and commerce in that area,” the Philippine Star quoted Duterte as saying.
While Duterte’s gestures indicated he might tap a revolutionary leader and his ASEAN allies to defeat the Isis-linked ASG, Duterte also announced that it would send a military team to China and Russia to buy modern weapons to eradicate the ASG once and for all.