Date: 01-25-2002

The East-West Wire is a news service provided by the East-West Center in Honolulu. For more information, contact Susan Kreifels at 808-944-7176 or


HONOLULU (Jan. 25) -- With more than 600 U.S. troops facing a difficult, dangerous and unclear mission in the Southern Philippines, the United States needs a careful and well thought-out approach to its fight against terrorism in the region, East-West Center researchers said.

"The goal of the American presence in the Philippines is unclear and appears to be drifting from day-to-day," said Gerard Finin, a specialist on the Philippines and the Pacific islands. With no guarantee that U.S. and Filipino troops will be able to subdue Abu Sayyaf bandits, and with the U.S. military presence already a divisive political issue in Manila, "the worst-case scenario may ultimately lead to a lack of success militarily and a weakening of bilateral relations."

Richard Baker, a specialist on regional security and on Indonesia, said working with Indonesia is even more complicated. American and Asian officials believe Osama bin Laden has been working for the last two years to establish a base in the world's most populous Muslim nation. But Baker pointed out that Indonesia is home to numerous and vocal Islamic activist groups who are pressing their government to not cooperate with the United States in the war against terrorism.

"Anything we do in Indonesia has to take into account the very complex local scene and political tensions in the country," Baker said. "It's not in the U.S. interests to do anything that exacerbates internal tensions there."

Finin notes a number of uncertainties and difficulties facing the U.S. special forces and support troops sent to help the Philippine military rid their country of the Abu Sayyaf group, which has kidnapped Filipinos and foreigners and is still holding two U.S. missionaries. "It's unclear whether the U.S. mission is really for training, rescue of the American captives or subduing al-Qaida sympathizers," Finin said. "Moreover, the mission does not appear to have a clear 'exit strategy' or timetable."

The Abu Sayyaf operates well in dense jungle and can move rapidly via speedboats throughout the islands and as far away as Malaysia. The difficult terrain, plus the group's ability to use knowledge of local conditions to stage ambushes, pose great dangers to U.S. troops. Even the basic identity of the guerrillas is under question. "Is the Abu Sayyaf truly a terrorist organization with operational links to the al-Qaida network or a kidnapping-for-profit ring with no real political ideology? How will U.S. forces in the field distinguish them from other armed groups in the region such as the Moro National Liberation Front or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?"

Finin also emphasized the domestic conflict the U.S. presence has already stirred, and said it may undermine the confidence of Filipino troops to eradicate banditry within their own borders. "Philippine nationalists see this as an infringement upon sovereignty and a return to an era when the presence of U.S. bases played a significant role in domestic policy."

Regarding Indonesia, Baker said little is known about organizational links or active collaboration between Indonesian militants and al-Qaida. But some Indonesian Islamic groups do share bin Laden's vision of creating Islamic fundamentalist states around the world. Indonesian officials worry more at this point about the problems caused by indigenous fundamentalist groups than any international links, Baker said.

However, a disturbing new development is increasing evidence of operatives working in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore who have direct links to al-Qaida. And Baker notes that if al-Qaida could become established in the tightly controlled Singapore, they could more easily operate in the politically unstable Indonesia.

Baker believes the best U.S. approach at this point is to encourage cooperation among the three Southeast Asian countries to meet their common concerns, and assisting them, for example, through sharing U.S. technology that can be used by all of them. "At least for the foreseeable future, direct involvement by the U.S. military in Indonesia does not appear called for or advisable," Baker said. "It's more a case of working with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, exchanging intelligence to get the best consolidated picture, and then jointly developing a response with the forces that are most appropriate for the job."

Gerard Finin can be reached at 808-944-7176 or Richard Baker can be reached at 808-944-7371 or
This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center