Philippiine troops on patrol in Basilan It's a war where the terrorists outgun the cops; where the money funding the bombs and the kidnapping flows in from Arab countries a world away. To many, the terrorist war is a sideshow, but to those fighting it in the Philippines, it is the main event. This is Part 2 of Islands in the War. [READ PART 1] by Richard Fernandez, PJM Sydney Editor on Special Assignment in the Philippines.
In conversations with cops in a recent visit to Zamboanga, I heard complaints that the fight against terrorism was what most Americans would call "too politically correct";. "We have been trying for years to get Manila to pass the anti-terrorism law. But they won’t, no matter how much we need it because the politicians are afraid the Left will call them lapdogs of President Bush."
The men who called themselves "field operators" felt overmatched by well-funded terrorists. They claimed that money from abroad, including money diverted from Australian aid to Indonesian tsunami victims, for example, found its way into Jemaah Islamiya pockets. I asked him if he thought the American military understood the problem. "Yes, and they are frustrated. But nobody cares. And one day we’ll pay the price for not caring."
"It’s a career," one ordinary cop told me, "the life of the bandit. No education or money. Nothing but knowledge of the gun. But the warlords are always on the lookout for men like these. And the interior of Basilan is full of them. Men on the run in Jolo hide in Basilan. Men wanted in Basilan hide in Jolo. They switch around all the time. And there’s always enough ready money to keep them going. Some of it comes from al-Qaeda. Some of it from JI."
I’d taken the morning ferry to Basilan, passing through a caricature of airline type security. A cluster of M-16 armed guards stood at the door of the predeparture "lounge", which resembled a barn, inside of which was a hotel. The hotel consisted of bunks built into the far wall, separated by mesh from the rest of the pre-departure lounge, where a weary traveler, too late for the last ferry and too early for the next morning’s, might spend a night in greater comfort than the sidewalk for one dollar and twenty cents American, a considerable sum in this part of the world. From there the passenger could make his way to a variety of exotic ports: Isabela City, Lamitan, Jolo — at one time even the Mollucas — by boarding the appropriate vessel.
The Basilan ferry was docked near an open air kitchen, with a sink of which only the faucet and the frame remained. It was odd to watch a stream of persons wash at this phantom sink, the water flowing straight through the empty frame to splash at their feet. If men with sidearms attracted no particular attenion, neither apparently did sunglasses. The men to the left and right off me donned Ray Ban and Oakley wrap-around sunglasses respectively. To blend in I produced a pair of Maui Jim Kapaluas and stuck them on. The featured video was a decades-old Jackie Chan slapstick, The Armor of God, cheaply dubbed with one deadpan voice playing all the roles. It was only halfway through screening when we docked at Isabela City, Basilan.
I met the cops for coffee at a store along one of the two principal streets of the town, one going up from the port and the other going down to the port.
Basilan cops are not as other cops. Most Americans or Europeans would regard a policeman as embodying the supreme authority of the state. Here a policeman is simply one armed man among many others, one source of authority among many — and very often with the least. They confirmed what other sources had told me. The price of pursuing a political settlement with the Islamic insurgency was that it allowed many of the former rebel commanders to assume positions of authority. Men who were once in the enemy order of battle now had exalted titles. And once the process of legitimization had begun, the fusion of the clan system with official authority accelerated the takeover of former religiously mixed territories.
One former governor, once a guerilla commander, was in the process of backing each of his four wives for the mayorship of four major towns. "When he gets done, he’ll own the whole island through his wives." Once in official power a clan would siphon off money from government coffers and buy up land along the highway with the intent of cutting off access to interior lots so they could force the non-Muslims out. Now I understood how the ethnic cleansing I had heard about worked. It was the process of slow strangulation. Extortion. Harassment. Grief. At some point the migrants who had come to live in Basilan would be driven out. The Moro nation would rise again.
"We can’t stop them," they explained. "They are untouchable. About the only hope we have is that they are so fond of fighting each other that they may kill each other off."
He told the story of two warlords turned public officials who clashed whenever they met. Once by accident they booked passage on the same ferry between Basilan and Zamboanga and finding each other at dockside their rival bodyguards let rip with automatic fire, forcing the regular passengers to scamper everywhere for their lives. Disaster was prevented only by the arrival of a detachment from an Armed Forces brigade whose commanding officer simply calmed the exalted personages down sufficiently to prevent more gunplay.
But where the Brigade was absent, in the dead of night and in distant places, the scores were settled with finality, a process the cops regarded with some satisfaction.
Now, with the elections approaching the market for guns and ammo had heated up. "Any quantity of M-60 machineguns available on the blackmarket will be bought." Armed with only 9 mm pistols and clapped-out M-16s, it was not good to be a cop in Basilan.
I had noticed an old army stretcher clipped to the roof of the ferry on the way over and asked what it was for. "The ferry’s an emergency ambulance. The fastest way to get seriously injured people to a Zamboanga hospital. But if you want the ferry to leave sooner than scheduled you need to buy up all the seats." It was an idea he accepted with fatalism.
Air support means Medevac
One of the things the cops liked about American combat support was the medical evacuation that came with it. "The Americans will come, day or night, with their night vision equipment and helicopters and get the wounded to a hospital out of there." The alternative was the stretcher on the ferry.
Basilan cops were so incredibly poor you felt sorry for them. "We have a saying that a Basilan cop’s body armor is made of wood. When in a firefight we find the nearest tree to duck behind."
Inevitably the conversation turned to the subject of the rewards offered by the FBI for Abu Sayyaf men wanted on Federal charges. The alleged corpse of Abu Solaiman was still being DNA tested to confirm the identification and prevent the repetition of the Radulan Sahiron fiasco in 2005. [His first name is Radulan]
Sahiron, another Abu Sayyaf commander, wanted for attacking and kidnapping foreign nationals, was originally believed captured until somebody noticed that the man in custody was missing the wrong arm in comparison to Sahiron’s dossier. This time authorities wanted to make sure that the man killed by Army special forces was Abu Solaiman.
When 5 million = 250 million
The eagerness to believe that Abu Solaiman of Burnham and Sobrero notoriety had finally been killed was palpable with the policemen. Solaiman was a walking lottery ticket. And everyone, including the police who were not entitled to the reward if they captured him, shared in the excitement of the game. If American hostages were "beyond price", Abu Solaiman was not. The huge rewards offered by the US government for information relating to the death and capture had forced many Islamic militants to flee even their own families. The reward on his head was two hundred and fifty million pesos. "That kind of money would make your own brother turn you in," one official said.
Initially, the US denominated its rewards in dollars until Filipino counterterrorism officials pointed out that many illiterate Muslims could not convert the rewards to local currency. One Abu Sayyaf commander apparently wondered why one million dollars was not exchanged for one million pesos. He was astounded to learn it could be exchanged for more. When word got around that the five million dollars actually meant two hundred fifty million pesos, Abu Solaiman’s days were numbered.
If there was any cause for optimism among the cops seemingly stuck in a seemingly endless war, it lay in the belief that the bandit culture was so irredeemably corrupt that it crippled the enemy as much as it did the government. "The al-Qaeda never get their money’s worth for an operation. They’d pay for a car bomb and get a bicycle bomb. They’d pay for a truck bomb and get a motorcycle and sidecar bomb. If Manila is still standing it may simply be due to the fact that local Islamists steal most of the terror money given them from abroad."
This compulsive dishonesty sometimes created comedic scenarios. One negotiator described how, while withdrawing ransom money from a bank to ransom European tourists kidnapped in Malaysia and transported to Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf men waiting for the money to be counted out were continuously peeling bills off the bundles of money in the sacks. When the rebel commander finally ordered his men to cough it back up, forty thousand dollars in loose bills appeared from his men’s pockets and waistband. "The money would simply leak away."
Old Ruins of Fort Pilar and Modern Mosque, Zamboanga
Iraq and Afghanistan get the lion’s share of media attention in the War on Terror because they deal with the Big Battalions. Lost to sight are small but desperate struggles in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Horn of Africa and Western Pakistan. But the story of underpaid cops struggling against the Islamic Insurgency in the Philippines may be more typical of the broader war on terror. It is an intelligence war; a political struggle and a slow but continuous clash of ideas where a quick brain is as important as the gun.
It’s the tale of some men trying to make a difference in a country run by a dysfunctional government; laboring under the weight of historical enmities.
It’s the story of people who must compensate with their wits for what they lack in ordnance; sometimes supported by Americans who live in the shadows and prefer it remain that way.
Who knows if a lady in blue actually awakened the sentries on that long ago night in Fort Pilar; on that dawn when the Basilan strait was choked with sail. The fort is certainly asleep now.