MANILA, Philippines—In Rodrigo Duterte’s mystifying quest to bite the hand that feeds the Philippines, he plans to bar the United States from the battle against the long-running insurrection in the country’s mostly Muslim south that has killed an estimated 120,000 people.
“These special forces, they have to go,” said the tough-talking Philippine president, who has bragged about killing criminals himself in years past, even claiming he once threw a man out of a helicopter.
Not least to avoid the moral and political censure of Washington, he has been pushing to loosen diplomatic, military, and economic ties with the United States, even as he cozies up to the less punctilious government of China.
So, Duterte says he wants to oust American special operations forces and advisers who have operated for about 15 years in Mindanao, the island group at the center of insurgent activity by several jihadist factions, some of them pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State that is centered in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. military presence on this secretive battlefield—a total of almost 1,500 personnel over the years—already has diminished since Duterte took office in June, and he says he will review permitting the Americans to stay in the fight at all.
The man who has called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” says the Americans could inflame the situation—and also claims that he doesn’t want them to be killed or kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf, the most well-known insurgent group, which is infamous for abductions.
That’s right: The Philippine leader says he wants U.S. military personnel to leave for their own safety. Not to put too fine a point on the idea they’re a foreign presence in Mindanao, Duterte noted, “There are many white men there.”
For decades dating back to the 1970s, Muslim extremists in majority-Muslim Mindanao have waged a low-grade insurgency to achieve either greater autonomy and a larger share of national resources, or outright independence. The bodies have piled up through an onslaught of bombings, kidnapping attempts, assassinations, and executions.
The Moro National Liberation Front, founded in 1971, launched the pro-independence drive. But radical cadres, angered by the MNLF’s 1996 peace deal with the government—which vouchsafed an autonomous but not independent region in Mindanao—broke away to establish smaller, more hardcore groups. They include the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf, the most feared faction. With a hard core of 400 soldiers, the group has become infamous for staging spectacular, brutal attacks and for kidnapping people for ransom.
“They’re less ideological and more violent and they’re more interested in their own survival, in making money,” says Marielle Harris, a research analyst with the Counter Extremism Project. “The average Abu Sayyaf fighter would fail a basic test on Islam.”
Abu Sayyaf raked in almost $7.5 million from ransom kidnappings in the first six months of 2016, according to a confidential report from the Philippine government. The group, which operates mostly in the Sulu Archipelago and Zamboanga Peninsula, has been turning to kidnapping the crews of foreign tugboats, according to the military/police threat assessment report.
Harris calls Abu Sayyaf “a decentralized organization of bandits” that raises money from kidnapping for ransom, extortion, weapons smuggling, and drug trafficking—primarily marijuana.
“Despite its small size, Abu Sayyaf has many, many more sympathizers who grow and harvest [drugs] for them, primarily in the Sulu Archipelago,” she says.
Like the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Abu Sayyaf combines profiteering with lethal attacks, but its record is longer. Abu Sayyaf militants killed more than 50 people in the southern town of Ipil in 1995—after robbing banks and stores and burning down the town center. In 2000 it launched an attack in Malaysia, kidnapping 21 tourists, some of them Europeans. The hostages eventually were freed after Libya reportedly paid millions of dollars. Just a year later, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped another 21 tourists, three of them American, from a resort in Palawan province. Several captives were killed, including two of the Americans.
In subsequent years, the group carried out fatal bombings, the most devastating of which targeted a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 and left 116 people dead. The following year, bombings in three different cities killed more than 100.
In November of 2015 Abu Sayyaf fighters brazenly beheaded a Malaysian man in Sulu while Obama was attending an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila. Last April, the fighters beheaded Canadian John Ridsdel, also in Sulu, which is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
And in a huge insult to Duterte, just this past September the group bombed a night market in Davao City, the president’s hometown that he served as mayor for more than two decades—and which he was visiting at the time.
Duterte, who just a month before had ordered troops to “seek them out in their lairs and destroy them,” responded to the Davao blast, which killed 14 people and injured more than 70, by declaring a “state of lawlessness” in the country and vowing to “confront the ugly head of terrorism.”
(One good bit of news: Malaysian security forces recently killed reputed Abu Sayyaf kidnapping czar Abraham Hamid and two of his henchmen in a shootout near the town of Semporma in Sabah province, Malaysia. Hamid reportedly had led a squad that seized tourists, sailors, and fishermen in Sabah as well as Sulu.)
If Abu Sayyaf’s attacks seem as pointless as the intermittent Baghdad bombings by ISIS that kill dozens but accomplish little—apart from unnerving residents—analysts note that the group does retain a political goal.
“They do want to fight for their caliphate,” says Harris.
Duterte agrees. He told soldiers in a speech in September that Abu Sayyaf radicals are not interested in negotiating for such things as better local services or more resources.
“They are hungry for a fight to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia,” he said. “The problem is that they do not talk on the basis of what school you can give them. It's either the caliphate or nothing.”
The country’s new armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año, promised earlier this month to keep military pressure on Abu Sayyaf and other groups “with the guidance of our commander in chief.”
And one would think the Philippine military could use all the help it can get in this long-running counter-insurgency: just the kind of thing U.S. Special Operations Forces are highly trained to do. But if Año’s boss has his way, the general will have to make do with no U.S. help—which certainly has been extensive.
Beginning in 2002, U.S. Special Operations Command worked in tandem with the Philippine military, battling Abu Sayyaf and other extremist groups from a base in the south. At any given time some 500 U.S. military personnel—Army, Marines, and Navy SEALs—participated in the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. The mission ended last year, having cost 17 American lives.
According to a Rand Corporation study, during that time from 2002 through 2013 Washington gave Manila $441 million for security assistance, with the bulk of the money used for counterterrorism.
Few see many concrete benefits from the cash injection. Analyst Zachary Abuza, of the U.S. National War College, calls the effort “a waste of money.” It has been “a terrible investment [of] $50 million a year since 2002 with very little to show for it,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
The return on America’s investment will dwindle even further with Duterte maneuvering to marginalize the U.S. military.
Duterte now says he is considering talks with the Maute group, an insurgent force that has links with the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, and even Abu Sayyaf—although he insists the military will keep working to prevent more attacks by the Mindanao extremists.
Abu Sayyaf, led by “emir” Isnilon Hapilon, operates independently, but one of its faction also has pledged allegiance to ISIS—which signaled a year ago that it was looking at the Philippines as a new breeding ground for jihadists.
ISIS released a propaganda video that shows a training camp in the Philippines and commanders exhorting Filipinos to go join up in Syria. The overseers also claim in the video that ISIS already has a terror camp in the Philippines. Footage shows militants completing assault drills while a few recruits practice with weapons and go through basic training.
This month Japal Guiani Jr., the mayor of Cotabato City in the south, warned that yet another ISIS-linked group, Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines, is recruiting youths. He claimed Ansar already has recruited 1,000 people from across central Mindanao, targeting minors, school dropouts, and youths interested in the Quran.
Harris estimates that about 100 Filipinos have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS, but that no ISIS members travel to the Philippines to recruit or fight, and that most recruiting occurs online.
She adds that Abu Sayyaf also recruits hundreds of “mostly young boys” for home-grown terrorism. “It’s very clan-based… these are orphans of war, as young as 14,” she tells The Daily Beast.
Indeed, a 12-year-old boy was among 11 Abu Sayyaf members who surrendered to the government in Basilan province in October, telling authorities they were tired of combat.
The youngsters “are given crystal meth before they go battle the Philippine military,” Harris says. “There’s just rudimentary training and then they are asked to do roadside killings and bombings.”
For now, there typically are between 50 and 100 U.S. military advisers in Mindanao—the people Duterte says he wants gone.
Displaying an inconsistency shared by his soulmate Donald Trump, the president has mandated a crackdown, said he will talk to rebels, and suggested suspending habeas corpus in Mindanao, meaning warrant-free arrests. Small wonder some Filipinos are bracing for a declaration of martial law.
With Duterte vacillating and the rebels in no hurry to abandon their lucrative brand of terrorism, Mindanao may be saddled with what feels like never-ending violence—whether the Americans stay or get tossed out. “The status quo will continue,” says Harris.