Will Durterte’s promised ‘shock and awe’ campaign against the Abu Sayyaf Group yield results? Joseph Franco explains.
Newly-elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ascent to Malacañang heightened expectations that the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) will be defeated. The nascent administration has yet to unveil a strategy for doing this, aside from promises of a day of reckoning and a shock and awe campaign. Nonetheless, the President’s decades-long stint as mayor provides glimpses of what could be called the ‘Duterte displacement strategy’ that was used to keep Davao City relatively safe from militants.
A recent spate of beheadings and kidnappings by the ASG has raised concerns over the Philippines’ ability to keep western Mindanao safe. Attacks targeting shipments of coal from Indonesia to Filipino coal-fired power plants had upped the stakes. Jakarta subsequently placed a moratorium on exports to the Philippines unless there is a “guarantee of security” from Manila.
For the various ASG factions, kidnap-for-ransom activities provide invaluable financial resources. Using the discourse of militant jihad, the ASG had been able to wrangle millions of dollars in ransom payments over the years. Ideology is exploited as the justification for violence rather than acting as the inherent driver of conflict. Even with the explicit policy of not paying ransom money for the release of hostages, Manila has not deterred a kidnapping industry becoming entrenched in the southern Philippines. With low levels of human development and grinding poverty in the area, many fighting-age males see membership with the ASG as the most expedient way to earn a living.
In light of Duterte’s hard-line stance against crime, including allegations of involvement in vigilante killings by what has been called the “Davao Death Squad”; his way of dealing with organised insurgent groups is somewhat curious. In the late 1980s, Davao City was considered the communist New People’s Army’s (NPA) proving ground for its urban operations. Military and police personnel lived under the threat of assassination by armed partisans, colloquially known as ‘sparrows’. To deal with the rising death toll, Duterte entered into alliances with local NPA commanders. For instance, notorious NPA commander Leoncio Pitao was considered a friend by Duterte. Notwithstanding Pitao’s numerous indictments for murder and extortion, following his death Duterte even gave Pitao a hero’s burial and promised to extend assistance to the latter’s next of kin.
More broadly, NPA cadres and fighters were allowed to seek respite from Philippine military offensives within Davao as long as they did not commit violence within the city centre. Duterte further entrenched this uneasy peace by paying what the NPA calls “revolutionary tax” and in 2013 encouraged local businesses to do likewise. Davao’s role as refuge and resource base for the NPA coincided with the diminished activity of NPA sparrows. Instead, assassinations of military and police officers in the city occurred in the adjacent provinces of Eastern Mindanao.
It is therefore no surprise that even with the violence waged by the ASG, members of the Duterte cabinet were keen to extend an olive branch. Presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza claimed that he was approached by an ASG member, Muammar Askali based in Sulu Province, known to be keeping a Norwegian hostage captive.
Keeping the lines of communication open between the government and the ASG appears as a parallel track to complement the intensified campaign promised by the Philippine military. By giving certain ASG factions a way out, the Duterte administration seems to display its grasp of the complex human terrain and kinship networks that support the ASG in western Mindanao.
Removing the rhetoric of peace can displace the more hardcore ASG factions away from the communities where they draw support. At the same time, talking to the more entrepreneurial Sulu ASG factions could weaken the Basilan Province-based ASG—the latter party comprised of militants who pledge allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS). With enough enticements, popular support for the Basilan ASG may dwindle.
In effect, what we are witnessing is how Duterte’s intent all along may have been to pre-empt the declaration of an IS wilayah in the Philippines. But should displacement of the ASG from their communities occur, it remains unclear where they will go. The Davao-based NPA were drawn out by Duterte’s enticements. It remains to be seen how Duterte’s displacement strategy will work on a national scale.
Morover, Duterte should be mindful that he does not inadvertently unleash the dangerous factions of the Abu Sayyaf out through the porous maritime borders of Southeast Asia. Manila must therefore ensure that its counterterrorism initiatives are in sync with its neighbouring countries.