"Here am I, your special island!"
"They'll slit your throat on Jolo," people told Col. Jim Linder, head of a U.S. military task force in the Philippines. But Jim Linder had other plans. The Smithsonian reports. (Hat tip: Chester and reader LS)
He recalled the prediction as we buzzed toward Jolo Island in a helicopter. Linder, a 45-year-old South Carolina native who has the remnants of a Southern drawl, has led Special Forces operations in the Middle East, Central and South America, Eastern Europe and Africa for the past 20 years. His latest assignment is the remote 345-square-mile island at the southernmost edge of the vast Philippines archipelago. Jolo is a known haven for Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, including Abu Sayyaf, or "Bearer of the Sword," which has used the island for 15 years to train terrorists and to coordinate attacks. ...
Today, a crucial but little-known battle in the expanding war on terror is under way on Jolo Island. Designed to "wage peace," as Linder says, it's an innovative, decidedly nonviolent approach by which U.S. military personnel—working with aid agencies, private groups and Philippine armed forces—are trying to curtail terrorist recruitment by building roads and providing other services in impoverished rural communities. The effort, known to experts as "the Philippines model," draws on a "victory" on the Philippine island of Basilan, where U.S. forces in 2002 ended the dominance of Abu Sayyaf without firing so much as a single shot. "It's not about how many people we shoot in the face," Linder said. "It's about how many people we get off the battlefield."
The Washington Post runs a remarkably similar piece on Jolo.
U.S. officials say their approach to Jolo, in the southern Sulu Archipelago, is based on a successful turnaround that began in 2002 on neighboring Basilan. Today that island, which once tied down 15 Filipino battalions, requires just two. A local fast-food chain opened an outlet there in a widely hailed sign of "normality."
But skeptics say Jolo might not prove so pliant, and some are increasingly impatient for outright victory over the Abu Sayyaf Group, Islamic militants turned kidnappers for ransom, and their allies. "This has dragged on for years and years and has involved a hell of a lot of money," said U.S.-based analyst Zachary Abuza, speaking by telephone from Boston. Abuza blames restrictions on U.S. troops, who are barred by the Filipino constitution from direct combat, and corruption in the armed forces for what he says is a lack of tangible progress.
Jolo is home to the archipelago's dominant warrior tribe, the Tausugs; it is awash in guns, from World War Two vintage to the latest models; it is far poorer than Basilan; and resentment at America's past colonial domination of the region still runs deep...."Our reporting suggests that until recently the Indonesians were daily making IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," said one intelligence source, adding that recent military pressure had likely disrupted the bomb-making operations.
Jolo is definitely a tougher nut to crack than Basilan. And the problems of official Philippine corruption that Abuza describes are very real. That plus the refusal by the Philippine Left, to allow US troops more flexibility certainly limits degrees of freedom (see the previous Belmont coverage on the Lance Corporal Smith rape case, an attempt to roll back the status of forces agreement which allows US troops to train Filipino soldiers). But the key to working successfully with Filipino counterparts lies in letting individual Americans work around nominal restrictions. It's important to build personal networks of loyalty among Filipino officials and soldiers. After that, stuff happens, and anyway that's how the Abu Sayyaf operates within Philippine society too. They don't wait to ask for things politely at ministerial meetings; they ask favors from their friends. But the arrival of the Washington Post on the scene fills me with foreboding because it increases the probability the campaign for Jolo will not only need to be fought in Indanan, but inside the Beltway too.
But in case anyone thinks that the Abu Sayyaf and the JI are ready to listen to the voice of sweet reason like Syria and Iran, here's some AP news for them.
The U.S., Britain and Australia warned Thursday that terrorists may be plotting attacks in the central Philippines, the site of next week's summit of Asian leaders. Australian and British officials used identical language in separate advisories, saying they believed "terrorists are in the final stages of planning attacks." ...
All three countries warned their citizens to avoid travel to Cebu province, a tourism and industrial hub 350 miles southeast of the capital, Manila. Australia upgraded its warning for Cebu to the highest level. "We continue to receive reports that terrorist groups are planning further attacks and believe that they have the capacity and the intent to carry out attacks at any time and anywhere in the country," the British advisory said. Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold their annual summit Dec. 11-13 in Cebu along with heads of state from six other nations, including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Philippine security officials said they have not discovered any specific terror threats against the summit, but that they could not discount them.
Old timers may recall that there was an air station once in Mactan, a small island right off the present city of Cebu. It's since become a major airport. There are lots of special islands, many of them far too nice to surrender to the likes of the Abu Sayyaf. Like Linders, we should have other plans.
Also, somewhere in the Sulu sea, somewhere necessarily near Jolo, hat tip Ace of Spaces.