SPECIAL: Beheadings in Basilan: Untangling the Allegations

July 15, 2007 at 10:30 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On 10 July, a group of 80 Philippine Marines were patrolling Guinanta village in the Tipo Tipo area of Basilan, Island, just south of Zamboanga, when they were ambushed by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and quite possibly members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Fourteen marines were killed, ten of those were decapitated, and nine more were wounded. That the MILF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) clashed is not in doubt and both have acknowledged the conflict. But those are about the only facts the two sides agree.

The AFP asserts that they had some intelligence that an Italian priest, Giancarlo Bossi, who was kidnapped from his parish on the Zamboanga Peninsula on 10 June was being held in the Tipo Tipo region. Most analysts and government attributed his kidnapping to the Abu Sayyaf Group, not the MILF. It fits the profile of both groups.

From 1991-1995, the ASG engaged in exclusively anti-Christian violence, bombing churches and attacking Christian clergy. Though the ASG degraded into a criminal element in the mid-1990s, by 2000, they had re-entered a more ideological fray, and again stepped up attacks on Christians and missionaries. The MILF by contrast has never engaged in sectarian conflict and, indeed, has worked closely with members of the Catholic clergy in peace efforts.

There is a possibility that the MILF were involved. The Philippine police labeled Akiddin Abdusallam as the lead kidnapper. The MILF acknowledge that he was once an MILF member but that he had previously been kicked out of the MILF and had since joined the ASG.

This is unverifiable, and a standard response of MILF when a member/former member is implicated in an act of terrorism. I would note that MILF units on the Zamboanga Peninsula, ostensibly part of the 108th Base Command, have always been a less disciplined force, without the standard kit, discipline and numbers found in MILF forces in central Mindanao.
They have also been closely tied to ASG in that area. If one recalls, there were frequent skirmishes between the MILF and the AFP during the latter’s campaign against the ASG in 2001-02 that led to the death of Abu Sabaya.

These incidents were reported to the Malaysian-led International Monitoring team. The AFP always asserted that the two groups in that region were indistinguishable and often worked together.

Even if the MILF did not assist in the abduction, it is not unreasonable to think that local members are giving the ASG sanctuary. It is not historically unprecedented. On 11 July, a military official Col. Ramiro Alivio told one of the country’s two major TV networks, “We have persistent reports that Bossi is being held in Al-Barka town [in Tipo Tipo] and the MILF is preventing us from searching the priest,” he said.

Further complicating the matter is the possibility that some renegade members of the MNLF, who on 19 April launched attacks on Philippine army posts on the Zamboanga peninsula, assisted in the kidnapping (This group is believed to have followed an MNLF leader on Jolo, Habier Malik, who took up arms against Philippine and US forces on 13 April and since disappeared into the bush allegedly with the ASG).

The Tipo Tipo portion of Basilan is home to the Yakan tribe, who are very loyal MILF members. It is the one part of the Sulu Archipelago, which is predominantly dominated by Tausugs, where the MILF have a strong presence. In 2002, when US and Philippine forces were engaged in operations against the ASG on Basilan, they negotiated an informal agreement with the MILF that they would not enter the Tipo Tipo region. This was allowed for the sake of the nascent peace process between the MILF and Philippine Government, despite the fact that there was significant intelligence that the MILF gave the ASG sanctuary. The area remains firmly in MILF hands.

The MILF has asserted through the media and their website that they were acting in self -defense. The MILF’s chief negotiator and Central Committee member, Mohagher Iqbal, told Reuters that “The incident could have been avoided if the government had coordinated with our forces in Basilan before they actually moved in… Our forces were attacked, we only defended ourselves.”

But the MILF there have a history of giving a degree of sanctuary to the ASG. Would the permission really have been given? Could Philippine troops have had freedom of operation? The AFP asserts that they were leaving the area when they were ambushed? If they were voluntarily leaving, why the ambush?

The AFP asserts that they were ambushed not just by MILF but also by the ASG. The MILF deny that there were any ASG in the area, and publicly assert that they have nothing to do with them. There have, however, been periods of cooperation in the past.

But not only were the troops fired upon and 14 killed, but ten of those were then beheaded. Now this does not fit a pattern of MILF behavior. To my knowledge they have not beheaded any enemy before. The ASG is another matter. Many recall the 2000 beheading of an American national. On 19 April this year, the ASG beheaded six people in nearby Jolo. Beheadings are something the ASG likes to do.

The MILF readily admit killing the marines, but they deny beheading them. On 11 July, the MILF website said that the 10 were “beheaded by unknown groups after the fighting.” On 13 July, the MILF announced on their website that they were investigating the incident which they acknowledge was “an act both strictly prohibited by Islam and the Geneva Conventions that provide rules of engagement especially on non-combatants.”

The MILF says that “unknown groups” were responsible for the beheadings, but not the ASG; for to admit that it was the ASG would be to admit that they were protecting them and operating in concert with them. So who did the gratuitous and grisly act?

The MILF website on 13 July stated that Matarul Hakim Alkanul, a partially blind imam, was found dead in his in the morning of July 10 in Guinanta. Though they don’t explicitly blame security forces, the intention is clear. Supporters of the MILF are now circulating a more detailed report that the beheading were in retaliation for the killing of an ustadz by security forces. The report asserts that enraged local civilians spontaneously desecrated the corpses in revenge.

The only press report about the imam’s death was a GMA report that simply cited the MILF website. The imam’s death, while it could very well be true, has not been independently confirmed. Even if true, it is not too convincing of an explanation. I am the first to admit that the AFP has committed some pretty egregious human rights violations in the past. But even still, they never caused civilians to spontaneously desecrate the corpses of 10 AFP in a pique of rage.

The GRP-MILF peace process is clearly not going as smoothly as the Philippine Government would like us to believe. The issues are enormously complex, there are a lot of competing interests, and there are spoilers on both sides.

The longer the talks are dragged out, the more the MILF hardliners who are already skeptical of the peace process, will feel vindicated in their analysis that the government is not negotiating in good faith or doesn’t have the political will to negotiate a durable political settlement.

The reality is, the longer talks go on, the more the MILF’s military capabilities diminish. So they may respond robustly to government violations of the ceasefire if for not other reason than to remind the government of the costs of returning to war. They may also maintain some ties to the ASG and continue training members of Jemaah Islamiyah, as force multipliers, as they have always done.

There is another calculated justification on the MILF’s part. Despite the fact that in 2002 there was an informal agreement that the AFP would not enter the MILF’s zone on Basilan, the ceasefire committee currently does not cover Basilan.

It was on the table at the 13th round of exploratory talks, but those fell apart. On 11 May, the army spokesman even denied that the MILF had territory in Basilan: “As far as we are concerned, there is only one authority and one government in Basilan and that is the Republic of the Philippines, not the MILF.” Starting in 1999, the MILF really began to push for formal demarcation of its camps; a process begun but then scrapped by hardliners in the AFP and Philippine Government, as they felt they were acknowledging de jure sovereignty of the MILF.

A few things must be done immediately: The two sides must renew their commitment to the ceasefire.

While the IMT is not legally mandated to cover Basilan, an ad hoc team should be sent there immediately.

The government must resume its commitment to the peace process with the MILF. Elections are over and there is no reason to forestall talks any longer.

The MILF must stop trying to have it both ways. This is unlikely to happen, but the double speak is just absurd. The MILF cannot blame rogue commanders all the time. If it does, there is no incentive for the government to negotiate with the central leadership.

The AFP, US military advisors and the Embassy in Manila must acknowledge that despite considerable successes against the ASG, it can still be a thorn in their side. They must also admit something they have been loathe to do, and something that they have criticized in my recent article in Jane’s, that the ASG are doggedly trying to make a comeback on Basilan, Jollibee notwithstanding. (Zachary Abuza,Counterterrorism Blog)

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