Philippines Adopts More Mobile Sea-Based Strategy against Abu Sayyaf

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2010

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are restructuring their campaign against Abu Sayyaf Islamist militants in Western Mindanao by adopting the fleet marine concept as a replacement for the Sulu Archipelago-based Joint Task Force Comet (Sun Star Network, September 15). The make-up of the Philippine Republic presents a special challenge to internal security forces, as it is composed of 7,000 islands and islets spanning 60,000 square miles of sea.

MindanaoThe commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), Lieutenant General Benjamin Muhammad Dolorfino, described the fleet marine concept as an opportunity to use the sea as a maneuvering space rather than an obstacle. The transfer of assault operations to amphibious units will help level the intelligence-gathering battle, which the AFP has been losing to the militants’ intelligence network. According to Dolorfino, “We are so easy to detect with our ground operations. The whole island instantly knows [we are coming] just by the sound of a six-by-six truck revving up” (Sun Star Network, September 15). Landings from the sea will help restore the element of surprise to AFP operations.

The seas and waterways of the southwestern Philippines were once plagued with Muslim pirates – now these are part of the operational zone of Abu Sayyaf, a notorious composite Islamist terrorist group/criminal gang with deep roots in Western Mindanao, specifically the Zamboanga Peninsula and the islands of the Sulu Archipelago (most notably the island province of Basilan). Abu Sayyaf is light on ideology but capable of striking with brutal effectiveness and a callous disregard for civilian lives, as seen in the February 2004 bombing of Superferry 14 in Manila harbor, killing 116 people.

Though Abu Sayyaf has been pressured by U.S.-supported Filipino troops for several years, they still have the ability to lash back, as was seen in a September 16 ambush in which militants under the command of Nur Hassan Jamiri and Long Malat Sulayman killed three soldiers of the 32nd Infantry Battalion. Later in the day, however, a government mortar team zeroed in on the militants, killing two, including Commander Sulayman (Manila Times, September 17; Philippine Star, September 18). Police and Air Force intelligence agents have also recently captured long-wanted militants Bidung Ismael (a.k.a. Ben Ismael) and Jul Ahmad Ahaadi (a.k.a. Jul Puti) (Philippine News Agency, October 15; Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 8). Three days earlier, the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police and the Directorate for Integrated Police Operations killed Sulu provincial leader Gafur Jumdail (a.k.a. Doc Abu) and two associates (Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 5).

Abu SayyafAbu Sayyaf Militants

October witnessed a pair of important training exercises conducted in the Philippines with U.S. military forces – the joint naval Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT – which included the first participation of U.S. and Philippine riverine forces) and PHIBLEX 11 (amPHIbious Landing EXercises), which rehearsed amphibious assaults (SunStar Network, October 13; Philippine Star, October 13; Manila Bulletin, October 10).

Created in 1950 for use against communist guerrillas, the 9,500 man Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) has already been active alongside the Philippines Army and police units in fighting against Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the southern province of Basilan, though they have been operating largely as infantry units (Manila Bulletin, March 21; ABS-CBN [Manila], December 19, 2008). The Marines are organized into three active-service brigades, a fourth reserve brigade, and a support and services brigade.

According to Rear Admiral Ernesto Marayag, current Marine amphibious assault operations are executed by small units carrying out “surgical strikes.” Marayag stated, “This is not the same as in the Saving Private Ryan film. We put in one or two teams or one company during the right time, under cover of darkness, because surprise is vital in any special operations” (ABS-CBN [Manila], December 19, 2008). Marine commander Brigadier Rustico Guerrero announced that 60 dogs of the military K-9 unit will also be deployed in hunting down ASG members (Pilipino Star Ngayon, September 8).

However, amphibious operations will be hampered by the absence of the surveillance and attack capabilities offered by helicopters – the Navy’s last helicopter crashed off Zamboanga nearly two months ago and the bidding for two new helicopters has been suspended due to suspected collusion between suppliers and defense officials (Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 5; Manila Standard, October 5). The Philippine Navy (Hukbong Dagat ng Pilipinas), to which the Marines belong, is in desperate need of modernization. Its 31 Second World War-era ships are generally conceded to be incapable of patrolling and securing the Philippines’ territorial waters (Manila Bulletin, July 27).

This article first appeared in the October 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Government Forces Clash with Rogue Islamist Commander in Mindanao

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

Filipino government forces engaged in a major battle last week with rebel forces under the command of a renegade commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The clashes, described as the fiercest this year, occurred on the island of Mindanao, ten kilometers from the provincial capital of Maguindanao, where Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was visiting at the time. The clashes began on March 26 near the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, one of six provinces forming the Muslim autonomous region.

MILF - KatoAmeril Umbra Kato

According to an army spokesman, units of the army’s 601st Brigade were checking on reports of a rebel presence in the area (Xinhua, March 28). The troops were attacked by an estimated 60 to 80 rebel fighters under the command of Ameril Umbra Kato, an MILF commander with a 3 million peso reward (U.S. $310,000) on his head. An MILF spokesman maintained the clashes were initiated by government forces, which allegedly attacked a village where many of the families of Umbra Kato’s fighters lived. Kato styles himself commander of the 105th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (the armed wing of the MILF).

The 601st Brigade engaged the rebels with artillery, mortars and heavy-machine-gun fire from armored personnel vehicles (APVs). The rebels targeted the military with mortar and small-arms fire for eight hours before splitting into small groups and melting into a marshy area where pursuit was difficult (AFP, March 28). Government forces claimed at least 20 rebels were killed while admitting the loss of eight soldiers. An MILF spokesman insisted the rebels had suffered the loss of only one fighter while killing 20 government troops (MindaNews [Mindanao], March 28). The rebels also claimed to have destroyed two APVs and to have seized a weapons cache that included an M-60 machine-gun (Mindanao Examiner, March 27). Eid Kabalu, the MILF’s civil-military affairs chief, declared government troops “encountered our regular forces, not those under Kato” (Philippine Daily Inquirer [Mindanao], March 28).

An agreement between the government and the MILF last year on “ancestral domain” (effectively creating a Muslim homeland) in the historically Muslim southern islands of the Philippines fell through when it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Despite a continuing (but lightly observed) ceasefire, a number of MILF commanders responded by attacking Christian communities in Mindanao last August, killing dozens of people and driving 160,000 others from their homes. Kato became one of the most wanted men in the Philippines when his fighters rampaged through Christian communities in the North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, and Saranggani provinces of Mindanao. The rebel commander faces scores of criminal charges, including a charge of terrorism under the Human Security Act (Philippine Star [Manila], September 4, 2008). Two other MILF commanders, Abdullah Macapaar (a.k.a. Commander Bravo) and Sulayman Pangalian, are also wanted for their attacks on Christian communities, apparently without the approval of the MILF command. MILF chairman Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim announced that Kato and Macapaar would be charged under the Shari’a in a military court martial for their role in the attacks, but the commanders have yet to be reined in (Sun Star [Davao, Mindanao], August 25, 2008).

In a YouTube video recorded last fall, Kato denied allegations his force was “a lost command,” while accusing the government of terrorism. He described the bounty on his head as a “pre-modern tactic” used by enemies of the Prophet Muhammad and insisted that the President sought to “sow chaos” in Mindanao by ordering military attacks on the MILF (

Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. once said of Kato; “We know the way he thinks and the way he thinks is quite dangerous” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 2, 2008). Kato’s progress through remote areas of Mindanao is partially tracked through text messages sent to security forces by civilians (GMANews [Manila], October 2, 2008).

Manila is demanding the surrender of Kato, Macapaar and Pangalian before peace talks can resume with the MILF (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 1). The government has tried to exploit a divide between the three commanders and the mainstream MILF command, characterizing the three as “renegades” who don’t “honor and respect” MILF members of the ceasefire committee. According to Interior Minister Ronaldo Puno; “The minute the MILF surrenders the three commanders, the Philippine National Police will stop its operation and development will begin in Mindanao. It seems it’s the tail wagging the dog, the criminal elements controlling the central committee” (Philippine Star, September 10, 2008). The struggle for a Muslim homeland in Mindanao is now in its fourth decade and is believed to have claimed the lives of 120,000 people.

 This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Terrorist Funding Network Restored for Muslim Convert Movement in the Philippines

Andrew McGregor

July 23, 2008

According to the anti-terrorism branch of the Philippine National Police, a new funding network has been created to support the terrorist activities of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the lesser-known Rajah Sulaiman Movement (RSM), a dangerous group of Filipino natives who abandoned Christianity for radical Islam after working in the Middle East. The new financing network, allegedly run by Saudi national Abdulrahman Qaussamulah, replaces an earlier network run by Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, which was disrupted by a raid on the Islamic Information Center in Manila in 2005 (Philippine Daily Inquirer [Makati City], July 14).  RSM 1Re-enactment of the 16th century Muslim-Spanish Confrontation

The movement is named for Rajah Sulaiman Mahmud, the last Muslim ruler of Manila, who fell battling Spanish invaders in 1571. The RSM is dedicated to the “re-Islamization” of the northern Philippines (AFP, December 21, 2005). The converts to Islam work closely with the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesian-based terrorist group with close ties to al-Qaeda. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), currently in negotiations with the government, denies accusations that it has provided refuge for RSM operatives (Mindanao Examiner, December 11, 2006). Abu Sayyaf has also made efforts to recruit Christians from their operational area in Basilan Island and Zamboanga City (AFP, September 21, 2005). A movement known as Balik Islam is dedicated to converting Filipino Christians to Islam.

Seven members of the RSM, including current leader Ruben Pestano Lavilla Jr., were placed on the U.S. list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” in June (U.S. Treasury Department, HP-1030, June 16). The document cited RSM involvement in the February 2004 Manila ferry bombing that killed 116 people and the February 2005 Valentine’s Day bombing in Makati City that killed four people and wounded over 100.

RSM 2Ruben Pestano Lavilla Jr. after his arrest in August 2008 (NYT)

Lavilla replaced previous RSM commander Feliciano de los Reyes (a.k.a. Ustadz Abubakr), who was arrested in December 2006. Ricardo Ayeras (a.k.a. Abdul Karim), an important founding member of the RSM, was captured in August 2007. Ayeras later claimed to be a Catholic who was tortured into a confession at Camp Crame, the Quezon City headquarters of the Philippine National Police. RSM founder Hilarion del Rosario (a.k.a. Ahmed Santos) was arrested in Zamboanga City in October 2005 while stockpiling 600 kilograms of explosives for an alleged plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Manila.

Many RSM members are believed to come from affluent families with connections abroad (AFP, January 23, 2007). Many speak Arabic and English as well as local languages and are able to mix freely in Manila and other major Filipino urban centers which are predominately Christian. An influential Filipino broadcaster and an audio consultant who worked with police were responsible for bailing out Dawud Santos (brother of RSM leader Ahmed Santos) in 2005 after he was arrested with 10 sacks of ammonium nitrate in his possession. The release reportedly left President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo infuriated (Remate [Manila], November 2, 2005).

This article first appeared in the July 23, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus.