MANILA, Philippines -- The US State Department has tagged "remittances from overseas Filipino workers," or OFWs, as a possible external funding source of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), along with Middle East-based extremist groups, in addition to the ASG's kidnap-for-ransom and extortion activities in Mindanao.
In its Country Reports on Terrorism, which it updated on August 5, the state department, however, did not provide other details on its disclosure.
But it noted that in October 2007, the ASG, also known as "al Harakat al Islamiya," had "appealed for funds and recruits on You Tube by featuring a video of the (late ASG leaders Abdurajak and Khadaffy Janjalani) before they were killed" in 1998 and 2006, respectively.
In its October 29 report, the state department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs said the welfare of some four to five million OFWs has been considered "a pillar of Philippine foreign policy."
Asked for comment, the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based OFW group Migrante-Middle East (M-ME) dismissed the August 5 report as "unfounded," "irresponsible" and "unfair."
"It's common knowledge that many OFWs can hardly send remittances to their families in the Philippines on a regular basis due to their meager income. Then here comes this wild idea that OFWs are among the funding sources of the ASG," said M-ME regional coordinator John Leonard Monterona.
The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said it was "extreme paranoia if the US government considers OFWs as a funding source of the ASG."
"Is the US now proposing measures to monitor the movement of OFW remittances? Will the US invoke the provisions of the Human Security Act on OFW bank accounts?" asked Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes Jr.
Reyes pointed out "OFW remittances are the reason why our economy is kept afloat. That the US is somehow linking it with the ASG indicates there may be something bigger at stake."
"Could this be another leverage versus the (impending) review of the Visiting Forces Agreement (between Manila and Washington)?" he added.
League of Filipino Students national chair Terry Ridon said the US was "trying desperately to justify its continuing military presence here amid calls for the abrogation of the VFA."
"They are, however, stoking further anger and protests from our people by blaming our OFWs, our unsung heroes, of being terrorist financiers," said Ridon.
According to Ridon, "our OFWs have already too little to earn for their families to even serve as ASG funding agencies."
"The US government should stop peddling lies to justify their presence here," he added.
Teachers party-list Representative Antonio Tinio believes Washington has an "interest in cultivating the ASG to justify the presence of US troops in the south and it provides a pretext for further intervention."
"This is the case with the state department report on OFWs, which provides them an opening for intervention in our formal and informal banking and finance sectors," said Tinio, who called the ASG a "local peace and order problem but certainly not a credible international terrorist threat."
Youth party-list Representative Raymond Palatino, meanwhile, expressed worry over the "implications of this sweeping accusation to the welfare of OFWs, particularly those based in the US."
"Pinoys become OFWs to help their families, not to fund terrorist activities," said Palatino.
Aside from the ASG, the state department also named two other Philippines-based terrorist groups - the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army and Jemaah Islamiya - in its list of 44 US government-designated foreign terrorist organizations.
Also in the list were the Abu Nidal Organization, Al-Qa-ida, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, Harakat ul-Jihad-i-Islam-Bangladesh, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Kurdistan Workers' Party, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Palestine Liberation Front-Abu Abbas Faction, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the United Shining Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, among others.
In its October 29 report, the state department also tagged the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) in its list of "terrorist groups active in the Philippines."
In its Aug. 5 report, the agency department put the ASG strength at "approximately 200 to 500 members."
The ASG was "designated (by the US government) as a foreign terrorist organization on Oct. 8, 1997."
The same report noted that "some ASG leaders allegedly fought in Afganistan during the Soviet invasion (of the south Asian country) and are students and proponents of radical Islamist teachings. The group split from the much larger Moro National Liberation Front in the early 1990s under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who was killed in a clash with Philippine police in December 1998. His younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, replaced him as the nominal leader of the group. In September 2006, Khadaffy was killed in a gun battle with the Armed Forces of the Philippines."
Founded on the island-province of Basilan, the ASG "operates primarily in the provinces of the Sulu Archipelago," as well as in the Zamboanga Peninsula.
ASG members "occasionally travel to Manila," the report has claimed.
In its October 29 report, the state department also said the ASG and Jemaah Islamiya "have sought safe haven in the vicinity of the Sulawesi Sea and the Sulu Archipelago, which encompasses the maritime boundaries of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines."
"Although Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have improved their efforts to control their shared maritime boundaries, the expanse nevertheless remains difficult to control," the agency said.
It observed "surveillance is improved but remains partial at best, and traditional smuggling and piracy groups have provided an effective cover for terrorist activities, such as movement of personnel, equipment and funds."
In the Southern Philippines, "government control and the rule of law is weak due to rugged terrain, poverty and local Muslim minority resentment of central governmental policies."
"Data on terrorist incidents is limited and incomplete. Many kidnappings or other acts of violence that indiscriminately target innocent people go unsolved and some shootings and bombings occur in the course of criminal activity unrelated to terrorism," said the state department.
But the agency pointed out "Philippine security forces continued to make progress against terrorist groups."
In 2009 alone, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) killed at least 10 ASG members and 165 NPA fighters.
During the same period, the Philippine National Police (PNP) "claimed its personnel killed 14 NPA members," including a co-founder of RSM and two bomb-makers in Mindanao.
The state department disclosed that "US intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance continued to support AFP operations against terrorist elements in the Southern Philippines."
"Additionally, US Department of Justice criminal investigation, police development and counter-terrorism programs supported professional development efforts of the PNP, and provided opportunities for cooperation between law enforcement officials of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia," it also said.
Early this month, the state department issued a new travel advisory warning Americans about the "risks of terrorist activity" in the Philippines.
The agency said terrorist attacks "could be indiscriminate and could occur not only in the southern islands but also in other areas, including Manila."
It reminded US nationals anew that "terrorism can occur anywhere" in the world.
In a November 10 statement, the US Embassy in Manila said they would "continue to work (with the Aquino administration) against terrorism by training Philippine security forces, providing equipment and sharing information on potential threats."
"Our mutual efforts have contributed to significant successes in protecting Filipino and US citizens," the embassy added.