The discovery Monday, April 25, of the beheading of a Canadian tourist held hostage by Islamist militants in the Philippines outraged foreign leaders and locals alike as the outside world again was touched by the country's seemingly endless cycle of violence in remote parts of Mindanao.
John Ridsdel, held hostage with three others since September, was killed after a deadline set by Abu Sayyaf militants passed. The others, a Norwegian and a Filipina, are sill under threat with a demand for $27 million in ransom still on the table. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the death "an act of cold-blooded murder" by terrorists.
The people behind the terror
It is an act of murder that goes back in a long line to thousands of senseless deaths on the strife-torn island. We try to make sense of the senseless through the reporting of Criselda Yabes, who recently spent a week in Mindanao reporting on the conflict. Here is her report:
Scrolling through her Facebook posts on her phone, Amina Aban saw the face of the soldier who killed her father, who was a known commander of a Muslim rebel army in Mindanao. The photograph was one of many that went viral after 18 soldiers were killed in a long-running gun battle in the southern Philippines.
The man who had gunned down Amina's father during the peak of an all-out military campaign that took place nearly two decades ago was also a Muslim. He had joined the armed forces as part of an earlier peace resolution with the dominant rebel group back in the 1990s, later becoming a sergeant.
Amina's story is a simple narrative buried in the complexities of the Mindanao south where both sides – the government and the rebel groups – have failed to build the conditions for peace in what was once a fertile promised land.
The Cycle Starts Again
The Mindanao problem does not end because of corruption, incompetence, tribal rivalries, clan feuds, lack of governance, an entire gamut born of historical misunderstandings.
For Amina, her grief has come full circle, quietly. For the country, Mindanao's violence has perpetuated itself for nearly half a century of strife and rebellion.
The bloody firefight that claimed the lives of the men of the 44th Infantry Battalion on the island of Basilan two weeks ago was but another example of the chain of setbacks in military strategy. It undergoes repetitions and revisions, strategies that are not consistent in finding an end to the Mindanao saga.
Casualties of this magnitude have occurred twice before in the past decade on Basilan island alone. Always it was a scene of carnage and some beheadings by the rebels, creating shock-waves in Manila when it reaches the news, as if what people read still carries the shades of the pre-colonial wars during the era of the sultanates.
Terrorism in the south has made different turns since the 1970s when independence was the war cry of Filipino Muslims. Years of fighting and losses have narrowed claims for autonomy in five provinces, themselves divided among varied ethnic groups from the mainland of Mindanao to the islands of the Sulu Archipelago, where radicals easily roam.
Abu Sayyaf and ISIS
Today rebels of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group – many say they are criminals hiding under the banner of Islamism – are seeking an alliance with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, with the younger generation splitting away from older rival leaders previously allied with Al-Qaeda. Some are just in their 20s, forming factions within the rim of the archipelago, according to an army source on the ground.
Military intelligence classifies them as “ISIS-inspired” looking for external support and attention for their so-called jihad in Mindanao. Following the near demise of their elders and leaders that was brought on by a “war against terror” aided by American forces in the south during the 2000s, the Abu Sayyaf used kidnappings in exchange for ransom to sustain their militancy.
Acting like pirates from the old days, the Abu Sayyaf kidnap their victims even from across the maritime border in Malaysia and Indonesia. Eighteen have been taken as of late, and millions of pesos have been demanded for their freedom. The Canadian was one such victim; a Malaysian captive was beheaded late last year upon failing to pay ransom, an new development in Abu Sayyaf’s horrific record.
“There is a probability that since they had nowhere else to go, the more radical ones among the Islamists could communicate with ISIS and that could easily be done through social media,” said a retired military analyst. The Abu Sayyaf has done just that by posting videos showing allegiance to ISIS – although intelligence has yet to verify links, if so, that ISIS has made it to the southern shores.
This has left the military virtually helpless in being unable to patrol the seas, poorly equipped as it is. It has downplayed the threat for some time, preferring to strike head on against lairs mixed with poor civilian populations, again resorting to old combat tactics. But at the same time, the value of intelligence has somewhat diminished, resulting in flaws and debacles such as what happened on Basilan in mid- April.
Nation-building Out the Window
It has also wavered from its overall “Bayanihan” campaign based on the concept of “nation-building” as the name suggests, with the help of local government units and civilian organizations. It has reverted to the harsh operations of the past rather than pursuing already -tested results of commanders finding creative ways to lessen the conflict on the ground. It chose the wrong commanders for the job.
The incident in Basilan two weeks ago allegedly stemmed from an army order that the Abu Sayyaf leader there must be arrested or taken down before the chief of staff’s retirement this month, to make it a “legacy” of his term. Such deadlines or quick fixes obviously do not work, as they have failed in the past.
There was no formal ceremony for the 18 soldiers who died, and circumstances of another operation that went wrong received a partial news blackout. So the spate of condolences rolled on Facebook – where Amina was among those who posted that time has a way of healing without the bitterness or the anger that feeds bloodshed.
Local Chieftains Rule
The autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao has underscored a system “characterized by datuism” – the rule of local chieftains – “where political clans have been used by national government officials to promote electoral interests and in return political clans were tolerated to rule and control their municipalities,” according to a confidential report assessing the “ills” in the south.
This description fits the picture in the Sulu archipelago, for example, where one dynastic political family has been ruling for years and which has given the military a dilemma in running after the Abu Sayyaf, whose families too are intertwined with those of local politicians. It gives the terrain a bigger space of grey in which interests complicate the war against the Islamic extremists.
Amina said she wants an entirely different outcome. She has turned her father’s jihad into good, by transforming his former camp into a village for community service – which for her is seeking to end the cycle of violence and aiming for peace. But in many parts of Muslim Mindanao, reports of violence has gone up from incidents in the past three years, according to International Alert monitoring the situation in the region.
Much of it has to do with political competition among warring clans for the coming elections in early May. The root of the problem then is not only about the Islamic rebels but also from those who are supposed to serve the nation.
Criselda Yabes, a prize-winning Manila-based journalist, is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel