Monday, March 14, 2005

Harum Scarum

The incapacity of the Philippine State was on display today as Abu Sayyaf rebels grabbed a guard's M-16 at a chowline in a maximum security prison and used it to gun down three guards before taking over the whole hoosegow. The Abu Sayyaf is a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda. This simple hostage taking situation became an immensely complicated exercise because it had to be resolved within the paralyzing and Byzantine political world of Manila.

While lining up for breakfast rations at around 7 a.m., an unidentified bandit grabbed the M16 rifle of his guard and opened fire, Colonel Agrimero Cruz, Metro Manila police spokesman, said. 

The Abu Sayyaf prisoners held the political initiative from start to finish. The BBC reports:

The prisoners later contacted a local radio station, demanding talks with two senior Muslim officials and film star Robin Padilla, a Muslim convert. Police said they believed the prisoners were led by Alhamser Limbong and Kair Abdul Gapar.

Among Alhamser Limbong's crimes were a mass kidnapping that included two Americans and sinking a passenger ferry with a bomb, drowning more than 100 people. Beside Limbong Atlanta's Brian Nichols was a small-time crook. After several hours of negotiations, the following agreement was supposedly reached between the Philippine authorities and the 'rebels'.

"The surrender plan is now ongoing. The negotiation is still ongoing," Senior Superintendent Leopoldo Bataoil told reporters. Bataoils said the rebels would surrender "anytime from now."

The rebels' requests, which were approved by the government negotiating team, include "no bodily harm" to the surrenderees, respect for their human rights, speedy disposition of their cases, redress of their “grievances,” and access to the media after their surrender.

"It's a win-win solution," Bataoil said.

By which he could only mean a win for the Abu Sayyaf and a win for the Abu Sayyaf. As if this were not enough, the Abu Sayyaf  were granted legal representation by lawyers of their choice. Having wrung these concessions the Abu Sayyaf were prepared to lay down their arms -- still warm from the clutch of the dead guards .

Ironically, the jail officials had been warned of an impending escape. Naturally, it was ignored.

State prosecutor Leo Dacera said the authorities had intercepted a telephone conversation between Alhamser Limbong, the alleged leader of the prison revolt, and Abu Sayyaf leader Jainal Sali, who is at large, in which the detainee "requested that eight safehouses be prepared."

Lynne Stewart was convicted of passing messages from her terrorist client to his confederates at large. No wonder Stewart feels unfairly treated. In the Philippines, men like Limbong can simply dial their associates and order them to get safehouses ready so they can hole up after they escape. The Belmont Club pointed out how restrictions imposed by the Philippine Left have severely hampered the campaign against terrorism in that country. According to the Congressional Research Service paper Terrorism in Southeast Asia (available from Gallerywatch.Com):

In consideration of the Filipino Constitution’s ban on foreign combat troops operating inside the country, Washington and Manila negotiated special rules of engagement ... U.S. Special Forces personnel took direction from Filipino commanders and could use force only to defend themselves.

When US and the Philippine military had readied a campaign against the Abu Sayyaf it was deep-sixed by the 'Peace Lobby'. The Terrorism in Southeast Asia paper continues:

In February 2003, Pentagon officials described a plan under which the United States would commit 350 Special Operations Forces to Jolo to operate with Filipino Army and Marine units down to the platoon level of 20-30 troops. Another 400 support troops would be at Zamboanga on the Mindanao mainland. Positioned offshore of Jolo would be a navy task force of 1,000 U.S. Marines and 1,300 Navy personnel equipped with Cobra attack helicopters and Harrier jets. ...

The announcement of the plan caused immediate controversy in the Philippines. Filipino politicians and media organs criticized the plan as violating the constitutional prohibition of foreign troops engaging in combat on Philippine soil. Filipino Muslim leaders warned of a Muslim backlash on Mindanao.

The paralyzing effects of Philippine politics were highlighted in the handling of the prison hostage-taking crisis. Politics is what passes for the exercise of Philippine sovereignty, which in practice is indistinguishable from corruption and therefore creates a very high standard of patriotism among its public figures. But for the average Filipino minimum-wage prison guards the situation is subtly different. He knows he is guarding celebrities who can attempt a jailbreak, constitute the panel to negotiate with if it goes wrong, demand a direct response from the Philippine cabinet, get any legal aid they want; who can kill their warders, extract a guarantee of nonreprisal and give a national television press conference afterward. Little wonder that some guards accept the money offered by these 'rebels' to let them go. That gold can unlock a cell door was demonstrated in the manner in which Jema'ah Islamiyah representative Fathur Rahman Al-Ghozi escaped a Philippine jail in July, 2003. It is described in detail by the Asia Times.

On July 14, the Indonesian Jema'ah Islamiyah (JI) bomb expert, along with two other inmates, members of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, apparently unlocked their cell with a set of spare keys, relocked it, walked out of the jail building and through the prison gates, and used a small guardhouse to vault over the compound wall. Of the four guards detailed in al-Ghozi's area, one was sleeping; another was out shopping. Nevertheless, the guards managed to register their hourly head count as complete. ...

Only when a new set of guards arrived five hours later was the escape discovered; and only hours after that - allowing al-Ghozi a full half-day head start - was the news reported to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She had just met with Australian Prime Minister John Howard to discuss joint counter-terrorism initiatives.

But this craven behavior emboldened rather than weakened the Abu Sayyaf's behavior. The surrender that was expected "anytime from now" waited first upon a personal guarantee from the equivalent of the head of Philippine Homeland Security. Then "the deal appeared to collapse when the inmates demanded dinner before ending the standoff." As of this writing the Abu Sayyaf are holding off the entire Philippine Army with two rifles and pistol.