By Herbert Docena

SULU, PHILIPPINES: Around 5,500 United States soldiers are coming to the Philippines this February, the latest and reportedly the largest batch in the continuing and uninterrupted deployment of US troops to the country since the global “war against terror” was launched after 9-11. About 250 of them will join an undetermined number of US troops already in Sulu, an island in the southern Philippines where the Abu Sayyaf group supposedly fled to after being driven out of neighboring Basilan island where US troops were also previously deployed. If official pronouncements are to be believed, US troops are coming only to train Filipino soldiers, give away medicines, build schools, and even give veterinary services to pets.[1]
According to people who claim to have actually seen them in action, however, US troops who have been coming to the country are doing more than that. The target: not a “terrorist” group but legitimate liberation movements in the country.


In 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to close down what were once the largest US military installations in Asia, signalling an end to permanent US military presence in the Philippines. While there were regular US deployments to the country even after the closure of the bases, these were limited to small, short, and close-ended training exercises with Filipino soldiers as part of the Philippines’ military alliance with the United States. From 1991 to 2000, not one US aircraft or warship came.[2]

Since 9-11, however, the US has maintained what former US Ambassador to Manila Francis Ricciardone has described as a “semi-continuous” presence in the country.[3] The word “semi” may be unnecessary since not a day has passed when not one US soldier is in the country; at any given day, between one to over 5,000 US troops are deployed somewhere in the archipelago. Not only has the duration of the “war games” been extended to as long as nine months; for the first time, they began being held in actual conflict areas with live enemies whom US troops are allowed to shoot in case they get fired at.  For the past for years, there have been about 17 to 24 training exercises annually;[4] this year, that number jumps up to 37.[5] Apart from the exercises, US troops are also engaged in different and overlapping humanitarian and civil  works programs under different names scattered all over the country. Aside from stationing troops, the US also began enjoying access to various ports, airports, depots, and other military infrastructure throughout the territory, under the Mutual Logistics and Servicing Agreement signed in November 2001.

At one level, US and Philippine officials justified the deployments as part of the global “war against terror.” With the presence of the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and its alleged links with the Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaeda, various US officials have repeatedly branded the Philippines as “the next Afghanistan” or a “doormat for terrorism in the region”[6] – a charge that Filipino officials both echo and deny depending on the circumstances. At the local level, however, officials have tended to downplay the “counter-terrorist” aims of the deployments and instead emphasize their accompanying civil or humanitarian projects.

The Philippine constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military troops in the country without a treaty. While the Supreme Court has qualified this and allowed the entry of foreign troops for military exercises, it bans their involvement in actual combat. The Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, which are often invoked to justify the US military presence, also do not allow participation in actual fighting.[7] So to legally justify and counter formidable domestic opposition to the US deployments, Filipino officials have consistently maintained that the troops keep coming for a variety of reasons – never to engage in war.


Involving about 1,300 US troops, including 160 Special Operations forces, the first and most controversial of the new type of post-9-11 “exercises” was held in Basilan, an island in the southern Philippines, where the Abu Sayyaf was holding foreign, including American, hostages. It was the largest US deployment to Mindanao since the US war of pacification againts the Moros from 1901-1913.[8]

Tagged a “terrorist” group by the United States, dismissed as a bandit group by some, and suspected by others as a military creation, the Abu Sayyaf could not be understood accurately if not in the context of the long-running struggle by the Bangsamoro  against the central Philippine government.[9] The Bangsamoro, who are mostly Muslim people from the southernmost parts of what is now considered the Philippine nation-state, claim a national and historical identity distinct from that of the mostly Christian northern and central areas. Once ruled under independent sultanates prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century, the Bangsamoro were never fully ruled over by the Spanish throughout their three centuries of colonization. It is often said that the Spanish sold what they never really possessed to the Americans at the end of the nineteenth century.

What followed was a long – and still ongoing – attempt to subordinate the area and its people under the Philippine nation-state. Perhaps the most decisive of these efforts was a massive resettlement policy in which mostly Christian and mostly landless people from the north were encouraged to migrate to the south. Filipino landlords and elites, multinational corporations, and settlers claimed ownership of the lands that historically belonged to the Moros or the non-Muslim and non-Christian indigenous groups in the area. So successful has the long-running program been that in 1913, Muslims constituted 98% of the region’s population and “owned” all of the lands prior to colonization. By the time the war broke out in the 1970s, they accounted for minority of the population but majority of the landless. They accounted for only 40% of the population and owned less than 17% of the lands, with over 80% of them landless. Today, the Muslim-majority areas are the poorest provinces in the country.

In the late 1960s, the Philippine military – widely believed to be supported by loggers and politicians – organized and financed paramilitary groups that massacred entire Muslim communities in order to drive them out from their lands. This finally sparked massive, organized resistance on the part of the Bangsamoros. In 1972, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) formally emerged, with widespread legitimacy and popularity among Muslims. War followed, but even with more than 100,000 dead, neither the government nor the MNLF won decisively.

A protracted period of negotiations ensued. The MNLF eventually gave up its goal of establishing an independent state by accepting a degree of autonomy under the Philippine government. Hawks in the military and other forces that had an interest in keeping control of the Bangsamoro consistently attempted to deprive the Moros what they had settled for. The peace talks dragged, and faltered. But in 1996, the MNLF and the government forged what they called – or hoped would be – a final peace agreement in which the MNLF would once and for all lay down its arms and the government would give real power to the Bangsamaro under Philippine territory.


It is in this context that what later came to be known as the Abu Sayyaf first emerged.[10] It started out in the early 90s as a loose grouping of mostly former MNLF leaders and their followers who split from the MNLF after the latter negotiated for autonomy with the central government. Disenchanted with the MNLF leadership under Nur Misuari, the group attracted mostly young recruits. With the MNLF lying low, with Misuari abroad, but with certain interests continuing to sabotage the negotiations and the military  continuing to commit human rights violations against Moros, the group filled the vacuum vacated by the MNLF and was seen by many as taking over the struggle on behalf of the Moros at the period when it emerged.

Initially, the group launched operations to push for political demands, including the banning in the Sulu seas of large fishing trawlers from the north who were displacing Moro fishers in the south. While the group eventually decided to conduct kidnap operations, it was supposedly divided on whether to only make political demands or to also ask for ransom in exchange for releasing hostages. After its founder and ideologue’s death in 1998 and after reportedly being infiltrated by agents planted by the military and by politicians, what was once a highly political group became increasingly known for its high-profile kidnapping and bombing operations. After abducting mostly foreign Catholic priests, tourists, journalists, and local residents, the group raided a diving resort in neighboring Malaysia in 2000, hostaging mostly European tourists and local workers. In May 2001, the group kidnaped another batch of hostages, including three Americans.

US Special Forces then joined the hunt for the Abu Sayyaf in February 2002. Prior to the US’ entry, Filipino officials discounted, if not altogether ruled out, the reported links between the group and the so-called al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.[11] As late as November 2001, Presidential Spokesperson Rigoberto Tiglao, said of alleged links between the Abu Sayyaf and al Qaeda: “Of course there are historical ties, but our investigations have yielded no signs that these international terrorists are at work here.”[12] The National Security Adviser back then confirmed that they have no evidence proving al-Qaeda financing the Abu Sayyaf.[13] Since then, however, the group’s alleged association is simply assumed away as a given; almost all media reports now always prefix the Abu Sayyaf as “al-Qaeda-linked” or mentions its alleged association with the regional grouping Jemaah Islamiah.

While such connections to external groups could not be altogether ruled out, the ideological affinity of the Abu Sayyaf with them and the extent of their operational cooperation are widely disputed and met with great skepticism in the country. By 2003, even officials from different countries interviewed by the New York Times admitted that their information on al-Qaeda presence in the Philippines were “sketchy.”[14] The Washington Post also reported that the Abu Sayyaf’s alleged ties to al-Qaeda “appeared dated and tenuous.”[15]  While US officials continued to trumpet Jemaah Islamiah’s growing links to Philippine-based groups, a White House assessment concluded that the Philippines had “more or less contained the terror group in Mindanao.”[16]

With numerous and credible accusations that the military has been conniving with the Abu Sayyaf, the group’s supposed lines to the generals resonate more than its alleged links with Osama bin Laden.[17] For many, the Abu Sayyaf is understood less as a branch of a global “Islamic terrorist network” and more as the fringe of a local seccessionist movement – its survival more dependent on the solution of the Bangsamoro issue and less on the intensification of military operations.


The Abu Sayyaf hostage-taking ended in June 2002 and since then, there have been contradictory assessments by US and Philippine officials as to the threat posed by the group. At times, the government has tended to portray it as a spent force even as other officials and analysts talk of the group as if it were stronger than ever.

The supposed number of Abu Sayyaf members, and the accompanying pronouncements, tell the tale: In December 2001, the chief military commander in the South said there were only 80 members.[18] A Department of Defense report in late 2002, after the deployment of Americans, put the number at 250, down from 800 in 2001. A few months after, just as the government had announced the deployment of US troops to Sulu, the military chief of staff said a review of military documents showed that the membership is actually bigger, closer to 500.[19]

Near the end of the US deployment to Basilan, US Army Brig Gen Donald Wurster remarked, “[The Abu Sayyaf] are non-functional as an organization.”[20] At this time, Presidential Spokesperson Ignacio Bunye was saying, “It is widely acknowledged that the training, advice and assistance we received in Basilan [from the US] were critical factors that led to the defeat of the Abu Sayyaf there.”[21] A senior US diplomat was quoted by the New York Times as saying that the Abu Sayyaf is “practically null and void.”[22] In May 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, triumphantly said that the Abu Sayyaf “can no longer resuscitate itself under other guises or names.”[23] As of June 2004, a government report states that the group counts only 508 members, down from 1,300 in 2001.[24] In August 2005, just as certain military officials were blaming Abu Sayyaf members for a spate of bombings in the South, newly installed Army chief Maj Gen Hermogenes Esperon said, “We are on full offensive and the Abu Sayyaf are not likely to be able to launch any offensive that could inflict harm to our people.”[25]

Almost all of the Abu Sayyaf’s leaders have now been killed. The ones that remain are those leaders and factions that are more political than criminal and which reportedly objected to the kidnapping operations. According to people in Sulu, the primary reason why the Abu Sayyaf is still able to draw people to its fold is because the military continues to commit atrocities against Moros and victims feel that the only way to get justice is by joining armed groups. Stop the military atrocities, they say, and the group will fade away. Despite the limited popular support, the Abu Sayyaf’s ranks are depleted; it is isolated, with few sources of funds, and has very little capacity to inflict damage.[26]

And yet, if one listen’s to the government and the media, the Abu Sayyaf is still everywhere and nowhere; everyone and no one. Everywhere because almost all “terrorist” incidents are still routinely blamed on the group. And yet nowhere because – despite more than fifty thousands troops based in the south running after them for more than ten years now and despite the US military’s help – the Abu Sayyaf continues to elude pursuit and continue to be cited as the justification for military offensives in the south, for efforts to institute more repressive laws throughout the country, and, bizarrely, even for justifying a raid on  a house where evidence of alleged electoral fraud against President Arroyo and Vice President Noli de Castro was stored.[27] Everyone because almost all of those killed or arrested by the military as part of the anti-terror campaign are labelled Abu Sayyaf members.[28] And yet seemingly no one, because – for all those arrested or killed – the Abu Sayyaf lives on and continues to be projected as, in the words of National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, “by far the most dangerous group in the country today.”[29]


In February 2005, the Abu Sayyaf, according to the military, struck again. Four people were killed in Maimbung town in Sulu, including a pregnant woman and a child, in what the military called an encounter with the group. People who know the casualties and other people in the province maintained otherwise. Frustrated by government’s failure or refusal to look into the incident and other previous human rights violations allegedly committed by the military, the MNLF attacked military camps, sparking clashes that lasted for a week and that killed over 70 people. As early as then, a US military official confirmed the presence of US troops in the island during the fighting but denied that they were involved in combat.[30]
In April 2005, more groups of US soldiers started arriving in some of the very towns in Sulu that the military claims to be the base of the Abu Sayyaf and that would later be the site of military offensives. They were supposedly on a mission to conduct an “assessment” of Sulu’s infrastructure ostensibly for the civil projects they were going to implement. Among the things they checked out were whether US military ships and planes could use the island’s infrastracture. US officials declined to specify exactly how many US soldiers were involved. By November, or six months after they arrived, the Americans were still conducting their “assessment.”[31]

On November 11 last year, the Philippine Marines attacked what they initially again claimed were members of the Abu Sayyaf in Indanan town in Sulu. Almost all media reports of the fighting followed the military’s storyline. Those who were being actually attacked – and who were fighting back – however claimed and still claims that they are not members of the Abu Sayyaf but of the MNLF. The Philippine military then revised its story by reporting that they were also clashing with members of the so-called “Misuari Renegade Group” (MRG) or “Misuari Breakaway Group” (MBG) because this group was allegedly coddling members of the Abu Sayyaf.[32] The MNLF, however, flatly rejects these labels imposed on them by the military. They question why the military should reserve for itself the right to name them and why the media should unquestioningly follow the military’s labels.[33]

Various accounts of what transpired in that offensive challenge the military’s version of events.[34] According to Brig. Gen. Alexander Aleo, chief of the military’s Sulu-based task force assigned to run after remaining Abu Sayyaf members, fighting erupted when patrolling soldiers were attacked by Abu Sayyaf members. Witnesses and residents in the area, however, claim that the fighting was initiated by the military when it forcibly entered a known MNLF camp, despite warnings from the area’s village official that what they were entering was indeed an MNLF camp and that the MNLF was not just going to sit back and watch them . Supposing the military was really chasing Abu Sayyaf members, there are questions as to why the armed forces insisted on passing through the MNLF camp even if there was a shorter and more direct route to the area where the military claims the Abu Sayyaf members were located. Even the armed forces chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon was quoted in newspapers, four days after the fighting, openly contradicting his subordinates in the field by saying that there was no confirmation that the MNLF were protecting the Abu Sayyaf.[35]

Invoking the 1996 peace agreement which they claim allows them to maintain their camps, the MNLF leadership said that they were only forced to defend themselves when the Marines intruded into their territory. The MNLF’s military chief of staff Jul Amri Misuari believes that the attack was a deliberate attempt by hawks in the military to sabotage ongoing back-channel talks between them and the government.[36] Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, the Filipino commander who supervised the offensives in November, disputes this, maintaining that the MNLF is not allowed to run camps and that they were not crossing any bounds when they decided to enter their area. He also said that while his forces were indeed aware that they were entering what he calls the “MRG/MBG” camps, they went ahead anyway despite the risk of provoking the “MRG/MBG” if only to run after the Abu Sayyaf.[37]


Certain sections in  the military have long held that the Abu Sayyaf is the “dirty tricks department” of the MNLF, a charge that the MNLF has consistently denied. What the MNLF stands to gain from joining ranks with the Abu Sayyaf is not clear. Associating with the Abu Sayyaf would only have given the MNLF’s opponents in the Philippine government – those factions who continue to insist on wiping them out to once and for all end the movement — justification to undermine the 1996 peace agreement and continue military offensives against the organization, something the MNLF presumably doesn’t want as shown by its insistence that the peace agreement be respected. Moreover, the MNLF could presumably have calculated that in this global “war against terror,” associating with the Abu Sayyaf would only train the world’s only superpowers’ guns at them –  a prospect which which the MNLF might not necessarily relish, especially in its current condition.

The military, on the other hand, seems to have much to gain from blurring the lines. Given the prevailing opinion against the Abu Sayyaf, to claim that one is running after them – or those who are coddling them – is a sure way to garner public support, to elude scrutiny, and to label those who question the military’s actions as, in the words of President Arroyo, “Abu Sayyaf lovers.” Under the “war on terror,” to claim to fight against the Abu Sayyaf, even as one is really targetting other groups, is a way to argue for a bigger budget from the national government and more military largesse from the United States. In fact, a group of Filipino soldiers who staged a mutiny in July 2003 had accused the military top brass of setting off bombs in Mindanao that were in order to pin the blame on “terrorists” and thereby demand more military aid from the United States.[38] Among all other countries in the region, the Philippine armed forces has received the most dramatic increase in foreign military funding from the US since 2001.[39]

The military has also previously claimed to be running after someone only to admit later that they were actually running after somebody else. In January 2003, the military launched a military offensive in Pikit, Cotabato, initially claiming that they were chasing the Pentagon Gang, a kidnap-for-ransom group, only to later admit that they were really going after the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the secessionist group which split from the MNLF in 1977 and which is currently holding peace talks with the government.[40] After the fighting, military officials couldn’t identify the alleged Pentagon gang members from among the casualties.[41] An intelligence officer was quoted as saying the threat posed by the Pentagon gang was exaggerated and that the military’s oft-repeated allegations of supposed links between the gang and the MILF were inconclusive.[42]

Training in Action

In pursuing the so-called Abu Sayyaf members, the military assembled a combat troop of about 1,500 soldiers. Military planes dropped 500- to 1,000-pound bombs. Troops bombarded the area with howitzers and mortars for three days. In the end, Gen. Pajarito admits that of the 200 Abu Sayyaf members that the military claimed to be pursuing, they were not able to retrieve any of the bodies that they had killed in their offensives.[43]

Through all that, various civilian witnesses claim that US forces were in the middle of the action. Witnesses claim to have spotted US soldiers in full battle gear together with their Filipino counterparts aboard trucks and Hummers at the battlefield. One witness professes to have seen at least four US soldiers aboard a six-by-six military truck proceed to the combat zone. Another report states that US troops were seen aboard rubber boats along the shorelines very close to the scene of the fighting. Others claim to have sighted US soldiers helping their Filipino counterparts mount heavy artillery, operate military equipment, and remove landmines. Throughout the fighting, a US military spy plane was seen constantly hovering above the area where fighting raged. One spy plane actually crashed and was later recovered by farmers in the area.[44]

There were even reports that at least four US soldiers were killed in the operations, including a certain “Sergeant Grant.”[45] Witnesses allegedly saw their bodies in body bags in the process of being transported by helicopter back to the military bases. This could not be verified independently, however, unless the US military releases the complete and uncensored list of its casualties in its operations. In October 2002, one U.S. Special Forces soldier was actually killed in a bombing in Zamboanga City, supposedly by the Abu Sayyaf, but this incident only made it to the foreign news – and only as an aside – a few months later.[46] 

Witnesses who attest to seeing US forces during the operations have executed sworn affidavits and have testified at a closed session of a congressional committee that went to Sulu to hear the allegations. But their allegations seem not to have caught the national attention. Other witnesses decline to speak on record because, in an island where massacres and killings almost always end up unresolved, they are afraid that the military would get back at them if they refute their claims.


US officials dismissed the allegations “as absolutely not true.” While they admit that US soldiers were indeed in the island during the fighting, US Army Liutenant Colonel Mark Zimmer, public affairs officer of the Joint Special Operation Task Force Philippines, “we are not in any way involved in military operations conducted by the Philippine Armed Forces.”[47] According to Zimmer, their mission has not changed: “We are there to advise, assist, and to train the armed forces” and “also share information with counterparts.”[48]

Filipino military officials, however, corroborated some of the witnesses’ claims. One colonel who refused to be named was quoted by Reuters as admitting that they have indeed requested US troops to clear landmines.[49] Gen. Pajarito confirmed eyewitness reports that the soldiers were indeed where they were seen. According to him, at the time of the fighting, he was requested by the mayor of the municipality of Indanan to fix a minor damage to a water pipe but, since they didn’t have the resources nor the expertise to do so, he asked the US soldiers for help instead. The US troops hitched with them on the way to the battlefield, he said, so that Filipino troops would not have to provide a separate security convoy for them.[50]

Such an explanation has only served to raise more questions regarding the US troops’ actual role in the November clashes, in particular, and their mission to Sulu in general. Why do fully armed US soldiers – and not civilians – have to be the ones to conduct “humanitarian” missions? Why was the minor water pipe damage such a pressing concern in a time of war and why was no less than the top general leading the war worrying about it? Why did US soldiers – and not Filipino soldiers or civilians – have to fix the water pipes? Weren’t the US troops aware that fighting was going on?  Did they know that the Filipino soldiers they tagged along with were attacking fighters of a national liberation movement or were they led to believe that they were running after a “terrorist” group? Or were they aware that the fighting was against the MNLF but they went along anyway? What interest, if any, does the US have in joining the fight against the MNLF?


This is not the first time that reports of involvement by US forces in fighting surfaced. In a little-known incident, the Los Angeles Times reported that US troops have actually fired back and killed guerillas when they were in Basilan in June 2002.[51] In June 2005, US forces also allegedly joined the Philippine military in their operations against Abu Sayyaf members in Maguindanao province in mainland Mindanao – even when no training exercises or civil projects were announced then.[52]

A Bantay Ceasefire mission, a coalition of groups monitoring the AFP and the MILF, reported recovering empty Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) packages that are issued to US soldiers in the area.[53] As in Sulu, a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft for pinpointing enemy positions was sighted and was even caught on video.[54] An Associated Press report confirmed that the operations were indeed “backed at times by US surveillance aircraft.”[55] A Philippine military official denied this, saying the US is not permitted to conduct reconnaissance flights in the country, but claimed that the surveillance aircraft may have been used for a “humanitarian” mission, not for spying.[56] Another spy plane which had crashed and gone missing would also be recovered a few months later in Central Luzon.[57] 

At times last year, unnanounced appearances of US military ships and planes appeared to have caught Filipino government and military officials by surprise, giving rise to questions as to the extent by which the US military informs the Philippine government of its actions within the country’s territory. In October 2005, for example, an 11,000-ton US military ship was spotted off Basilan near Zamboanga City. Foreign ministry and military officials gave the ship different names and conflicting explanations as to their mission. The foreign ministry spokesperson initially claimed that the US didn’t inform the government of the presence of the ship only to retract later. US officials eventually stated that the vessels had come for medical, dental, and civil works projects.[58]

The foreign press has a description for all these mysterious sightings of soldiers, spy planes and ships. According to the Associated Press, the Philippines is fighting the “war against terror” with “covert US non-combat assistance” in Sulu.[59] Another key US ally in the region, Australia, is also helping out by sending personnel to country who are involved in what Australian media refer to as a “covert operation” in the country.[60]


The possibility that US troops are not just playing games, building schools, or handing out pills in Mindanao is not such a wild allegation. In an editorial questioning the vagueness of the states objectives of US troop deployments abroad, The New York Times itself had earlier warned that, “The Pentagon has a long and ignoble history of announcing that it is dispatching American forces abroad as ‘advisers’ when they are really meant to be combatants.”[61]

That these ‘advisers’ will just look after pets is not conspiracy theory: Certain sections in Washington are known to have been agitating for it since 2002. Some of the highest-ranking US military officers such as former chair of the joint chiefs of staff Richard Myers and Pacific Command commander Admiral Thomas Fargo were reported to have been advocating for a “longer and more intense mission” in the country after the initial deployment to Basilan.[62]

Outside the US military, there have been calls for the US military to assume a more direct role  in the fighting. In an opinion column for the International Herald Tribune, Brett M. Drecker wrote, “If Washington and Manila are serious about eliminating Abu Sayyaf, the US Special Forces should be given the assigment. The terrorist group consists of about 100 poorly trained amateurs. They would be no match for American soldiers already in the Philippines, but they are still eluding Filipino troops.”[63] In an editorial published after the July 2003 mutiny by Filipino soldiers, the influential conservative Wall Street Journal echoed the suggestion, saying, “If the US wants to defeat terrorists in places like Mindanao and Basilan, it should insist on a more hands-on role in the partnership with the Philippine military.”

The Philippines has since been included in the list of “emerging targets for preemptive war” of a new US military unit authorized to conduct clandestine operations abroad, according to a memorandum prepared by the same Gen. Myers who had been pushing for deeper involvement in the country.[64] Seymour Hersh, the prominent investigative journalist, has written about presidential order that allows the Pentagon “to operate unilaterally in a number of countries where there is a perception of a clear and  evident terrorist threat.” Though the list of countries was not revealed, the description fits that of the Philippines: “A number of the countries are friendly to the U.S. and are major trading partners. Most have been cooperating in the war on terrorism.”[65]


In fact, when US troops were first supposed to come to Sulu in February 2003, they had already announced that they were going to fight. A US defense official said back then: “This is not an exercise, this will be a no-holds-barred effort.”[66] Reportedly worried about the possibility of suffering casualties and not being able to explain them to the public if they present the operations as mere games, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to call a spade a spade. He said: “Whatever it is we do, we describe in language that is consistent with how we do things. And we do not tend to train people in combat.”

That triggered a public outcry in Manila, prompting denials from Filipino officials. This despite the fact that a Justice Department undersecretary had already previously declared that the Philippine government will allow Americans to participate in combat.[67] Following Pentagon pronouncements, Defesne Secretary Reyes stuck to the official justification, saying, “It’s a question of definitions and semantics,” to imply that Manila and Washington were both referring to the same thing but just had different names for it. However the operations are labelled, the fact is that US forces in the Philippines are sent to actual conflict areas with the right to shoot back at real enemies. Whether merely providing military aid to the Philippine military to fight enemies, giving them training and advice, sharing information, or actually joining them in the battlefield constitutes “participation in combat” is, as Reyes puts it, a question of semantics.

Though it was eventually called off, the US government never took back its characterization of the planned deployment as an actual combat operation.[68] According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, US officials claimed that their Filipino counterparts asked them to lie to the public in case Americans are killed or wounded in action. “We could always cover it up,” one Filipino officials was quoted as telling them.[69]


With the recent military offensives and with successive unexplained and unresolved killings gripping the island in the past few weeks, Sulu is again tottering on the precipice of full-scale war.  With spy planes and helicopters hovering above and naval ships berthing and dislodging military equipment, residents of Sulu say that it feels like the 1970s all over again – but this time, with GIs around. One thing is for sure: if true, the involvement of US troops in attacks against the MNLF will not push back the island away from the edge.

Even before the November offensives, the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF already lies in tatters. It began disintegrating even before 2001 when open clashes resumed between the MNLF and the government and Misuari was subsequently arrested by the government.

According to the government, only factions loyal to Misuari – the so-called MRG/MBG – attacked the military after the administration refused to support Misuari’s candidacy for governorship of the Muslim-majority autonomous region. According to MNLF fighters, however, they were finally provoked into taking action then by successive military attacks on MNLF forces despite the ceasefire, continuing military atrocities against Moro, and continuing government and military attempts to render meaningless the concept of autonomy. 

While Misuari, who remains in prison, has ordered the MNLF to maintain “peace and order” for the duration of the US troops’ indefinite stay, MNLF commanders said they will remain on the defensive and will not just lie back when they are again attacked. Further military offensives in the name of fighting “terrorism” will only escalate the fighting and, as has been the case for the past thirty years, will likely result in more human rights violations and killing of innocent civilians. It will do nothing to address the roots of the conflict. According to one official, the MNLF is not only re-consolidating but is also, because of the failure of the thirty years of peace talks, becoming more radicalized. Having learnt its lessons from the past and having cast off its dependence on outside support, the MNLF, he claims, is now even stronger and more determined to carry on with what he says the Bangsamoro have been doing for the last five hundred years: resist and fight.[70] Even the military concedes that the movement continues to enjoy wide popular support.[71]

And as American GIs roam around Sulu, many residents couldn’t help but remember what they did the last time American soldiers were around. In March 1906, about 500 US troops supported by Filipino members of the constabulary climbed up Bud Dahu, an extinct volcanic mountain in Sulu, and surrounded at least 900 Moros who had fled to the bowl of its crater in order to escape from and resist the rule of the American colonizers in the towns below. From the rim of the crater, the American troops bombarded the Moros below for four days – “like rats in a trap,” wrote the American novelist Mark Twain. Following their commander Gen Leonard Wood’s order to “kill or capture those savages,” the American troops spared no one, not even women and children – “not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother.”[72]

A hundred years ago, the Americans also said that they had only come to help._

(Herbert Docena is a research analyst with Focus on the Global South.)

[1] Aside from medical and engineering missions, US troops are also going to provide veterinary services in Sulu. See Dona Z. Pazzibugan, “GI in hot water for shooting stray animals in Sulu camp,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 15, 2006
[2] Manuel Mogato, “Wooing Washington Back,” Newsbreak, October 31, 2001
[3] Carolyn O. Arguillas, “Q and A with US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone: ‘Ops-Intel-fusion is not spying’,” MindaNews, February 28, 2005
[4] Carolyn O. Arguillas, “Q and A with US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone: ‘Ops-Intel-fusion is not spying’,” MindaNews, February 28, 2005
[5] Jojo Due, “Biggest RP-US military exercise starts next week,” Philippine Business Daily Mirror, February 17, 2006
[6] Nikko Dizon, “Ricciardone: Cotabato doormat for terrorists,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 12, 2005
[7] Roland Simbulan, “US military intervention in the Philippines: A New Phase,” UP Forum, April 2002
[8] Roland Simbulan, “US military intervention in the Philippines: A New Phase,” UP Forum, April 2002
[9] For a concise but comprehensive introduction to the war in Mindanao, see Aijaz Ahmad “Class and Colony in Mindanao” and “The War against the Muslims,” in Gaerlan, Kristina and Mara Stankovitch (eds.), Rebels, Warlords, and Ulama: A Reader on Muslim Separatism and the War in Southern Philippines (Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy, 2000)
[10] Based on interviews with individuals privy to the history of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, January 28 to February 7, 2005. See also  “Basilan: The Next Afghanistan?”, Report of the International Peace Mission to Basilan, Philippines, March 23 to 27, 2002, (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South, 2002); John Gershman, “Is Southeast Asia the Second Front?,” Foreign Affairs Volume 81 Number 4, July to August 2002; and Julkipli Wadi, “They’ve Come this Far,” Newsbreak, January to June 2003.
[11] For a detailed discussion on the questionable links between the Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda, see Stephen R. Shalom, “The United States in the Philippines,” Z Magazine, March 2002
[12] Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 2001, quoted in Shalom
[13] New York Times, November 2, 2001 cited in Shalom
[14] Raymond Bonner, “Philippine Camps are Training al Qaeda’s Allies, Officials Say,” New York Times, May 31, 2003
[15] Bradley Graham, “Military Action Aims to Cement RP-US ties,” Washington Post, February 22, 2003
[16] Christine O. Avendano, “Palace Hoping US Would Restore Aid,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 8, 2005
[17] The most frequently cited proof of this alleged collusion was the June 2001 incident in Lamitan, Basilan, in which Abu Sayyaf hostage-takers managed to escape from the Filipino troops who had surrounded them. There have also been persistent reports of the military selling guns and ammunition to the Abu Sayyaf. See Basilan: The Next Afghanistan?”, Report of the International Peace Mission to Basilan, Philippines, March 23 to 27, 2002, (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South, 2002) and Jose Torres, Into the Mountains: Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf (Quzezon City: Claretian Publications, 2001)
[18] New York Times, December 30, 2001, cited in Shalom
[19] B. Garcia, “Claiming firm proof of al Qaeda ties, US gears up for Jolo,” Associated Press, February 21, 2003; “US troops may fight in Philippines,, February 20, 2003
[20] John Hendren, “Deeper US Role in Asia Urged,” Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2002
[21] Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 17, 2003
[22] Raymond Bonner, “Philippine Camps are Training al Qaeda’s Allies, Officials Say,” New York Times, May 31, 2003
[23] quoted in Steven Rogers, “Manila must counter the return of Abu Sayyaf,” International Herald Tribune, May 21, 2004
[24] Roel Pareno, “2,000 Sulu folk flee fighting,” Philippine Star, November 15, 2005
[25] Dona Pazzibugan, “New Army chief vows to get elusive Abu Sayyaf leader,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 18, 2005
[26] An expert writing for the US military confirms this, though he argues that the group has morphed and is again on the ascendant. See Zachary Abuza, “Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf,” Strategic Studies Institute, September 2005
[27] On August 17, 2005, military intelligence agents raided a house that contained evidence of alleged electoral fraud kept by a handwriting expert. The evidence was to be used to prove that cheating occurred in the May 2004 presidential elections. The chief of the intelligence agency claimed they raided the house because Abu Sayyaf members were hiding there. See Malaya, “Nene: Something smells in posting ISAFP in San Mateo,” September 13, 2004
[28] There have been many usually unreported cases of police rounding up scores of Muslim civilians tagged as Abu Sayyaf suspects in communities in Metro Manila since 2001. In November 2005, in what turned out to be a major embarrasment to authorities, the police announced that it had captured the top Abu Sayyaf leader, Radulan Sahiron, only to later admit that they arrested an innocent businessman. (“P5-M reward caused Sahiron arrest blunder,”, November 7, 2005.) There are also allegations that investigators are using “recycled” evidence against “terrorist” suspects. (Alcuin Papa, “Did government agents recycle evidence vs bombers?” Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 3, 2005) In Mach 2005, leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group were believed to be summarily executed in a jail in Manila. Other prisoners who were also killed were also tagged as Abu Sayyaf members. See Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates, “What is the Truth of the Bicutan Siege?” April 2005.
[29] Quoted in Simon Elegant, “The Return of Abu Sayyaf,” TIME Asia Magazine, August 23, 2004.
[30] “US denies troops engaged in fighting in southern Philippines,” Xinhuanet, February 21, 2005
[31] Carolyn O. Arguillas, “US troops moved around conflict zones for ‘civic actions’ and ‘ops-intel fusion,'” MindaNews, January 9, 2006
[32] Military officials started using the terms MRG or MBG to refer to MNLF fighters loyal to Nur Misuari, who attacked the military in November 2001, in order to differentiate them from MNLF leaders who broke away from him.
[33] Interview with the following MNLF officials: Ustadz Habier Malik, chief of MNLF Jabar Uhod command and MNLF spokesperson, Hajji Jul Amri Misuari, chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces; Al Mujahid Biao, deputy chief of staff of the MNLF in Sulu-Tawi-tawi-Palawan, Khaid Ajibon, state chairman of the MNLF Sulu State Revolutionary Committee, and others. January 29-30, 2005.
[34] Interviews with various combatants and witnesses, January 28 to February 6, 2006.
[35] Roel Pareno, “2,000 Sulu folk flee fighting,” Philippine Star, November 15, 2005
[36] Interview with Jul Amri Misuari, chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces, January 29, 2006.
[37] Interview with Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines 104th Brigade, February 6, 2006.
[38] Philip C. Tubeza, TJ Burgonio, Alcuin Papa, “Macapagal, Reyes, Corpus Accused,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 28, 2003; Roel Landingin and John Burton, “Mutiny Likely to Prevent Macapagal Standing again,” Financial Times, July 28, 2003
[39] Thomas Lum and Larry A Niksch, “The Republic of the Philippines: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, January 2006
[40] “Military captures MILF stronghold in Cotabato,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 16, 2003; Dona Pazzibugan, “MILF, not Pentagon gang, real target, says military,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 17, 2003
[41] Carla Montemayor, “Precarious Peace,” Newsbreak, March 17, 2003
[42] Carlos H. Conde, “The Pentagon Puzzle,” Newsbreak, January 30, 2002
[43] Interview with Pajarito, February 6, 2006.
[44] ABS-CBN television news report, February 16, 2005
[45] Carolyn O. Arguillas, “4 US Soldiers killed in Sulu?,” MindaNews, November 26, 2005
[46] Cited in Abuza, “Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf”
[47] “Moro groups want US soldiers out nof Sulu,” Inquirer News Service, Nov 28, 05
[48] Carolyn O. Arguillas, “Civilians want proble on US military’s alleged supervision in Sulu war,” MindaNews, November 24, 2005.
[49] “US Troops Remove Landmines in Philippine South,” Reuters, December 2, 2005
[50] Interview with Gen. Nehemias Pajarito, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines 104th Brigade, February 6, 2006.
[51] John Hendren, “Rebels shoot at US Troops in the Philippines,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2002
[52] “Party-list group opposes holding of Balikatan drill in Cotabato town,” Manila Bulletin, Jan 11, 2006
[53] Carolyn O. Arguillas “US troops moved around conflict zones for ‘civic action’ and ‘ops-intel fusion’,” MindaNews, January 7, 2006
[54] Dennis Jay Santos, “US planes involved in Abu hunt, NGO says,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 8, 2005
[55] “RP, US troops begin military exercises to strengthen anti-terror drive,” SunStar, October 14, 2005
[56] Carolyn O. Arguillas “US troops moved around conflict zones for ‘civic action’ and ‘ops-intel fusion’,” MindaNews, January 7, 2006
[57] Reynaldo G. Navales, “‘Spy Plane’ found in Clark,” Sun Star, October 22, 2005
[58] “US military ship sneaks into Southern RP,” SunStar, October 12, 2005; Al Jacinto, “Mystery vessel hi-tech,”, October 13, 2005; Max de Leon, “RP officials differ on ship’s mission,” Manila Times, October 13, 2005; Al Jacinto, ‘Mystery’ vessel in Zamboanga, Philippine Star, October 28, 2005
[59] Associated Press, “More than 5,000 US troops to hold war exercises near Philippine Muslim rebel lairs,” January 4, 2006
[60] “Elite Australian troops to join hunt for JI terrorists in RP,” Inquirer News Service, Octeber 11, 2005
[61] quoted in Simon Tisdall, “US aims its sights on the Philippines,” The Guardian, January 24, 2002
[62] John Hendren and Richard Paddock, “US troops deployment to RP called off, dispute blamed,” Los Angeles Times, 2 March 2003
[63] Brett M. Drecker, “Time to reorient US aid,” International Herald Tribune, October 20, 2003
[64] Barton Gellman, “Secret Unit Expands Rumsfeld’s Domain,” Washington Post, January 23, 2005
[65] Seymour Hersh, “The Coming Wars: What the Pentagon can now do in secret,” The New Yorker, January 24-31, 2005
[66] “US troops may fight in Philippines,, February 20, 2003
[67] ‘Everything must be conducted with Philippine government consent,” Newsbreak, February 13, 2002
[68] Ellen Nakashima and Bradley Graham, “Missed Signals Forced Suspension of U.S. Philippine Mission,” Washington Post, March 3, 2003
[69] John Hendren and Richard Paddock, “US troops deployment to RP called off, dispute blamed,” Los Angeles Times, 2 March 2003
[70] Interview with MNL official, February 5, 2006.
[71] In the February 2005 clashes, the military complained about the lack of civilian support in their operations against the MNLF (“Military lacks civilian support to win war in Sulu,” Sun Star, March 14, 2005)
[72] Mark Twain, “Comments on the Moro Massacre” in Jim Zwick (ed), Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War  (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992)