US cable likens Mindanao to Afghanistan
Emphasizing the gravity of the terror threat in the country, a secret US Embassy cable in 2005 compared the situation in the Mindanao to that in Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban.
The cable, sent by then US Charge d’Affaires Joseph A. Mussomeli to his home government on April 7, 2005, said the threat of terrorism was “arguably more dangerous in the long term” in the Philippines than in any other country in East Asia.
It also questioned the role of some financiers from Saudi Arabia who were allegedly funding the terrorists.
“Terrorism is a disturbingly ordinary, ongoing reality here,” said the cable, titled “Fighting the GWOT (Global War on Terror) in the Philippines.” It was one of hundreds of US Embassy cables released recently by the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks.
“The southern Philippines lies along a strategic fault line in the global campaign against terrorism, with its porous borders, weak rule of law, long-standing and unaddressed grievances of Muslim minorities, and high levels of poverty and corruption offering a fertile field for nurturing terrorist groups,” the cable said.
“Only Afghanistan in the 1990s had a mix of elements more conducive to the spread of radical Islamic movements and the safeguarding of terrorists,” it added.
Afghanistan in the 1990s was torn between warring tribal factions before the Taliban rose to power in the middle of the decade, capturing most of the country.
‘Threat is real’
The cable said the Philippine government had some successes in fighting terrorism but it had “fallen woefully short in many areas.”
“The threat is real here … terrorism is arguably more dangerous in the long-term in the Philippines than anywhere in East Asia,” the cable said.
It noted that four groups on the US Foreign Terrorist Organization list were operating in the country—the New People’s Army (NPA), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Pentagon Gang and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asian network.
“While the NPA is responsible for regular attacks on and killings of Philippine security forces and civilian officials, it is not now focused on confronting the United States. No US citizens have been harmed by the NPA since the early 1990s,” the cable said.
“This is not the case with the Islamic terrorist groups. ASG elements, trained by the JI, were responsible for Asia’s second most deadly terrorist attack—the SuperFerry bombing in February 2004—as well as for deadly bombings in three cities (including Manila) in February 2005.”
“There are clear indications of ongoing JI/ASG planning for attacks on US citizens, as well as possibly on the US Embassy, in addition to further attacks on Filipinos and other foreigners.”
The cable also noted that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), although not on the US terror list, remained a “credible military threat,” at least in Mindanao.
But in the face of these security threats, the cable said that “key institutions” in the fight against terror in the country were “broken.”
“The bottom line we and the (government) face in confronting terrorism is that major institutions of the Philippines involved in the GWOT—notably, the (Armed Forces of the Philippines), the PNP, the prosecutors, and the judiciary—are riddled with corruption, are poorly equipped and under-budgeted, have ineffective management systems, and are often under weak leadership,” the cable said.
“Our training of the military and police is helping, as are several USAID programs, but without profound institutional fixes, there will be no enduring improvements in antiterrorism capabilities,” it added.
Help from Saudis
Under the heading “What’s not working at all,” the cable also noted a need for Saudi Arabia to curtail funding for Islamic groups in the Philippines.
“The role of the Saudis—whether with funding from private or public sources or, more egregiously, in direct interference from the Saudi Ambassador to get suspected terrorists with Saudi passports released from custody and permitted to depart—remains ambiguous,” the cable said.
“We see no improvement in Saudi efforts to curtail funding to Islamic groups in the Philippines. We need to impress on the Saudi government the importance of information-sharing with other governments in the region.”
In another secret cable the following month, then US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone said he met with then Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo and told him of US concerns about Saudi funding for terrorists.
“In a meeting on May 2, Ambassador told Foreign Secretary Romulo of our concern about the role Saudi-based financiers appear to be playing in Mindanao by channeling money to terrorists linked to the JI and ASG,” the May 2005 cable said.
The cable said there was at least one case in which the Saudi ambassador “successfully intervened with the Bureau of Immigration to secure the release of a suspected terrorist financier.”
It said the US government should “impress more fully on the Saudi government the importance of information-sharing with governments in the region.”
“We reported that there have been no discernible Saudi efforts to guard against private Saudi funding to extremist Islamic groups here,” the cable said.
“We recommend greater attention to this issue across … regional bureaucratic lines and a serious and candid discussion with the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs about countering terrorist financing from the Gulf to Mindanao, and to Southeast Asia generally, if the problem is as evident elsewhere in the region,” the cable added.
The April cable noted that US military financial assistance, humanitarian aid and other support for the Philippine Defense Reform initiative—which aimed to “transform the AFP into a more modern, professional, transparent and accountable institution”—was working.
The cable called for increased US assistance to redress inefficiencies in the Philippine judicial system that make prosecution of terrorist suspects “at best a long-term struggle” and technical assistance to develop high-security jail facilities for holding terrorists suspects, “some of whom have, notoriously, escaped Philippine prisons.”
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