MANILA–For the past two months leading up to yesterday’s national elections in the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has led an all-out effort to try to sign a peace agreement with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Although the Bush administration has provided Manila with more than $400 million in U.S. aid to combat local terrorist groups, the al Qaeda-linked MILF continues to operate in the Philippines without government interference. Arroyo successfully lobbied to keep the MILF off the State Department’s terrorist-watch list, and thus off military-targeting maps. Bargaining with this group is doomed to fail, as it has in the past.
A telling hold-up to a peace accord is the MILF’s refusal to disarm its armies–which have been estimated as high as 45,000 strong by the U.S.–and close down its paramilitary facilities, which number at least 40 on the island of Mindanao alone. Most of these camps are the product of the last time Manila tried to cut a peace deal by offering development funds to the MILF. In the early 1990s, aid was given directly to Muslim leaders for public works and infrastructure, which they instead used to construct training grounds, including Camp Abubakar, a 10,000-hectare compound run largely by Arabs that has trained 2,000 terrorists, many of them foreigners. Abubakar’s course of study includes lessons in assault weapons, stealth operations, hand-to-hand combat, and bomb-making.
There is no reasonable justification for the Arroyo administration’s efforts to negotiate a peace settlement with an enemy that does not desire peace. Most Muslims in the southern Philippines do not want to be part of the larger secular nation. A large majority of his people want an independent Muslim nation based on sharia, according to Congressman Hussin Amin, a former separatist leader who represents the Abu Sayyaf’s home of Sulu island.
The MILF effectively runs its own state within the Philippine republic already. Across Mindanao and on some of the smaller islands in the Sulu archipelago, radical Islamists control the roads, rule the people through their own Islamic-based law and maintain their own armies, police, tax structure, and governing councils. The schools, which are separate from the national public-education system, teach Arabic and radical Wahhabi tenets of Islam.
Funded by Saudi and other Middle Eastern charities and drug proceeds from the northwest of the island, this nation within a nation provides a sanctuary for terrorists from all over the world. Even if the MILF leadership signs a peace deal later in the year, a splinter group is guaranteed to form to keep up the fight. The MILF itself split from the Moro National Liberation Front in 1982 because the latter recognized the Philippine constitution and the secular government in Manila.
In an interview, Philippine National Security Advisor Norberto Gonzales told me that he had a “credible” intelligence report that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the Philippines. Other intelligence sources discount this, but the mere fact that the Philippine intelligence community considers it is a possibility reveals how little control the local authorities have over large parts of the country. Daily firefights make the southern islands a constant battle zone, and last week President Arroyo cancelled all of her campaign stops in the south because it was too dangerous. This is hardly a stable position from which to negotiate.
The Bush administration has been criticized for being too unilateralist. That is not a problem in Southeast Asia, where cooperation among American officials and local allies has brought impressive results, such as thwarting an attempt to blow up the U.S. embassy in Singapore and the capture in Thailand of Hambali, Osama bin Laden’s operations chief. There are major problems in the Philippines, however, including multiple jailbreaks by al Qaeda, a reticence to act on U.S. intelligence, and arms sales to terrorists by military officials. Now Manila is hanging fire when it should be firing at will.
If the vote count confirms that Arroyo was elected to another term on Monday, the United States should pressure her to end negotiations with Philippine groups that harbor and train international terrorists.
–Brett M. Decker, a Phillips Foundation fellow, is writing a book on al Qaeda in Southeast Asia.