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US govt lists NPA, Abu Sayyaf, JI among foreign terrorist organizations in PHL


The Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah and Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army are among the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) operating in the Philippines, the US State Department said.

In its Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, the State Department said these groups may threaten the security of US nationals or the national security – national defense, foreign relations or economic interests – of the US.

Also, the State Department listed parts of southern Philippines as possible havens for such terrorist groups.

Abu Sayyaf

In its report, the US said the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – designated as an FTO as early as October 8, 1997 – is the "most violent of the terrorist groups operating in the Philippines" as it claims to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago.

The US noted ASG group split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the early 1990s.

ASG "engages in kidnapping for ransom, bombings, ambushes of security personnel, public beheading, assassinations, and extortion," it said.

Also, the report said the ASG remained active in 2014, conducting numerous attacks on civilian and government targets in the southern Philippines.

Last July 28, 40 to 50 ASG militants with assault rifles fired at civilians traveling to celebrate the end of Ramadan, killing at least 21, including six children.

"In a July video, senior ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon, also an FBI most-wanted terrorist, swore allegiance to ISIL and ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," it added.

According to the report, the ASG is estimated to have 400 members and operates mainly in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi; and on the Zamboanga Peninsula and even in Malaysia.

It said the ASG is funded through kidnapping for ransom operations and extortion, "and may receive funding from external sources including remittances from supportive overseas Philippine workers and Middle East-based violent extremists."

Jemaah Islamiyah

JI, designated as an FTO on October 23, 2002, seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, and the southern Philippines.

In late 2012, the Philippine military said it had killed two JI members in separate incidents in the southern Philippines, including "one of the group’s senior-most representatives to the Philippines."

The US said JI's strength may "vary from 500 to several thousand."

It said that while JI is based in Indonesia, it is "believed to have elements in Malaysia and the Philippines" and gets funds via membership donations and criminal and business activities.

CPP-NPA

The Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army (CPP-NPA), designated an FTO on August 9, 2002, seeks to overthrow the government through protracted guerrilla warfare, the US said.

According to the State Department, the CPP-NPA primarily targeted "Philippine security forces, government officials, local infrastructure, and businesses that refused to pay extortion, or 'revolutionary taxes.'”

Also, it said the CPP-NPA charged some politicians in its influenced areas for “campaign permits.”

"Over the past few years, the communist group has continued to carry out killings, raids, kidnappings, acts of extortion, and other forms of violence which are directed mainly against domestic and security force targets," it said.

On July 10 last year, NPA fighters attacked a municipal police station in Surigao del Norte, and held four police officers captive. Two police officers were wounded.

On July 17 last year, at least two soldiers were killed and another wounded following an encounter with suspected NPA rebels in Negros Occidental.

Even during a holiday ceasefire in December 2014, NPA guerrillas staged multiple attacks, "including setting fire to construction equipment and a civilian’s vehicle, abducting a jail warden, and shooting and killing three military-affiliated individuals – all unarmed and in civilian clothes," the US said.

"The NPA continued to use explosive and improvised explosive devices to target police and security forces," it added.

But also last year, CPP-NPA leaders Benito Tiamzon and his wife Wilma were arrested in Aloguinsan, Cebu. Another suspected leader, Abraham Delejero Villanueva, was arrested July 20. Last August 5, Eduardo Almores Esteban was arrested in Iloilo.

The US cited Philippine government estimates that there are 4,000 CPP-NPA members. The NPA operates in rural Luzon, Visayas, and parts of northern and eastern Mindanao and is said to have cells in Manila and other metropolitan centers.

Moreover, it said the CPP/NPA gets funds "through extortion and theft."

Haven?

The US State Department report noted some violent extremists "have been known to operate and hide in isolated littoral areas of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines."

In 2014, it said militants allegedly from the Philippines and linked to the ASG conducted four cross-border kidnapping for ransom operations in Malaysia-controlled eastern Sabah.

A Chinese tourist and a Philippine hotel employee were kidnapped by armed men from a diving resort off the coast of Semporna in April 2014.

The following month, armed men abducted a Chinese manager of a fish farm from an island near Lahad Datu. In June, a Filipino and a Malaysian were kidnapped from another fish farm in Kunak.

In July, at a diving resort on Mabul Island, armed men killed a Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) officer and kidnapped another officer, who remained in captivity at end-2014.

Counter-terrorism cooperation

The State Department noted counter-terrorism cooperation between the Philippines and the US continued to improve in 2014.

It added terrorist groups, including the ASG, JI and CPP-NPA "were unable to conduct major attacks compared to previous years due to continuous pressure from Philippine counter-terrorism and law enforcement efforts."

But it said that while Philippine counter-terrorism efforts sustained pressure on terrorist organizations, members of these groups were suspected to have carried out attacks against government, public, and private facilities.

Such attacks occurred mainly in the central and western areas of Mindanao while others were linked to extortion operations in other parts of the country.

"In addition, terrorist and rebel groups in the southern Philippines retained the capability and intent to conduct bomb-making training, small-scale shootings, and ambushes," it said.

On the other hand, the State Department noted the Philippine government made progress in implementing its 2011–2016 Internal Peace and Security Plan that calls for the transition of internal security functions from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to the Philippine National Police (PNP).

"The increasing role and capability of the police in maintaining internal security in conflict-affected areas will permit the AFP to shift its focus to enhance the country’s maritime security and territorial defense capabilities," it said.

Yet, it said this transition continued to be "slow and ineffective" as continued violent extremist activity, as well as counter-terrorism capability gaps between the AFP and PNP, slowed this transition.

Mindanao peace process

Meanwhile, the US report said the Philippine government’s Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the MILF, seeking to create a new Bangsamoro autonomous government in Mindanao may pave the way for a peaceful solution to the 40-year-old conflict in Mindanao – "if successful."

Yet, after the signing ceremony of the CAB in March 2014, violent clashes with the MILF splinter group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (IFF) continued in central Mindanao, "indicating that violent spoilers to a lasting peace remain."

2014 terrorist incidents

In 2014, the State Department noted "dozens of small arms and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, kidnappings for ransom, and extortion efforts by suspected members of terrorist groups in the Philippines." High-profile incidents included:

January 29: an eight-year-old girl and a pregnant woman were wounded after an explosion ripped through the public ferry terminal in Datu Piang, Maguindanao. The PNP said the bombing was an apparent attack by the BIFF to divert authorities involved in an operation to arrest senior group leaders.

March 2: 16 people, including 11 soldiers and five civilians, were hurt in a landmine explosion that hit a convoy of ambulances in Bansalan, Davao del Sur. The landmine was allegedly planted by NPAs in the area.

May 21: policemen foiled an attempt by as many as 100 NPA communist rebels to take over the town hall of President Roxas city in Cotabato. The Roxas police chief was wounded.

May 22: suspected members of the ASG group demanded US $670,194 in exchange for the release of a Chinese businesswoman and her daughter, kidnapped by at least 10 armed men in early May in Isabela City, Basilan.

December 9: five people were killed and 42 wounded in an explosion aboard a bus in Bukidnon, Mindanao. Authorities filed charges against Garnet Lintang, a commander of the BIFF operating in Central Mindanao.

Law enforcement

While the 2007 Human Security Act (HSA) is the principal counter-terrorism legislation of the Philippines, many aspects of the law have not been used due to strict procedural requirements.

Such requirements include notification to subjects of surveillance before activities can begin and damages of approximately $12,000 for every day of detention if an individual accused of terrorism is ultimately acquitted.

President Benigno Aquino III prioritized the adoption of amendments to the HSA in three main areas:
- revise the definition of terrorism to conform to international standards
- ease the strict monetary penalties and prison terms against law enforcement officials involved in cases where individuals are wrongly accused and later acquitted
- remove barriers to support investigations.


Passport security

The State Department noted the Philippines continued to improve the security of its passports in 2014.

It said three million machine-readable passports remained in circulation at year’s end.

Also, it said the first phase of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) was completed in 2014, which included the build-out of the physical AFIS facility at NBI headquarters, and the digitization of 850,000 fingerprint records.

On transportation and port security, the Philippines has committed to align its priorities with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the US Coast Guard to increase security capabilities at its airports, seaports, and bus terminals.

Operation darkhorse, other operations

On January 27, “Operation Darkhorse” was supposed to end after two days but was extended until February 1 to allow government forces to seize more BIFF facilities, leading to the capture of four BIFF camps and a makeshift explosive factory in Maguindanao.

In the week-long offensive, 52 BIFF members and one soldier were killed, while 49 BIFF members and 20 soldiers were injured.

Eight civilians were also hurt and more than 35,000 were displaced during the operations.

On June 11, terrorist financier and high-ranking ASG member Khair Mundos was arrested by Philippine authorities near the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Mundos was on trial at year’s end, facing local bombing related charges.

On June 17, security forces captured two ASG militants in Zamboanga City, including one allegedly involved in the 2011 kidnappings of an American teenage boy and his mother, as well as a separate kidnapping of an Australian in 2011.

On July 11, authorities in Cebu arrested Australian citizen Musa Cerantonio, a popular pro-ISIL ideologue active on social media, for suspicion he was radicalizing Philippine citizens to join the group. Cerantonio was deported to Australia.

On October 7, authorities arrested Ricardo Ayeras, Andrescio Valdez, and Ricky Macapagal in Manila on suspicion of plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Manila. One of the three suspects, Ayeras, was implicated in the 2003 Maguindanao airport bombing.

On October 20, troops seized several suspected ASG camps in Patikul, Sulu. The AFP kept up the pressure on ASG following the 2013 kidnapping and subsequent release of two German hostages.

Problems with resources, corruption

Meanwhile, the State Department report said an "under-resourced and understaffed law enforcement and judicial system, coupled with widespread official corruption" led to "limited domestic investigations, unexecuted arrest warrants, few prosecutions, and lengthy trials of cases."

"Philippine investigators and prosecutors lacked necessary tools to build strong cases, including a lack of clear processes for requesting judicially-authorized interception of terrorist communications, entering into plea bargains with key witnesses, and seizing assets of those suspected in benefiting from terrorism," it said. — Joel Locsin/LBG, GMA News


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