In what seems to be a growing net around the Al Qaeda movement in Southeast Asia, Filipino and American troops have started a series of new joint simulation exercises as part of the ongoing War on Terror in Jolo, a base of the Al Qaeda-related Abu Sayyaf group.
This terrorist organization has already eliminated three Americans, including a member of the US military in Zamboanga City.
Its leaders, Jainal Antel Sali Jr., Radulan Sahiron and Isnilon Hapilon are top on the US list of terrorist most wanted. The Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Campaign has offered to pay up to $90,000 for the capture of Abu Sayyaf members, a bonus on top of the $200,000 the US Pacific Command has offered for the arrest of the leaders. President Arroyo has her own system of rewards, offering up to P100 million in return for the capture (dead or alive) of any elders of the Abu Sayyaf and their lieutenants. The US has identified Sali, alias Abu Soliman, now spokesman for the Abu Sayyaf, as the mastermind behind the spate of bomb attacks in Zamboanga City and is also well-known as a pirate who has preyed on foreign ships and the kidnapping of many Indonesian and Malaysian sailors in the Jolo waters.
This exercise is held yearly. This year’s exercise is dubbed Balikatan and is the 22nd in a series that started in 1981. Marines with both expertise in naval and land warfare would be involved in this exercise alongside the usual infantry units. In order to prevent the simulation from becoming too real, security is tightened for these troops, just in case they were attacked while on exercises. The exercises are modular in nature with many lessons crucial in preventing anti-terrorist attacks and logistical movements. One of the most important elements is helicopter training to provide fast-strike capabilities to the Filipino military.
In order to make the exercises more effective, humanitarian missions are carried out alongside the military exercises to alleviate poverty amongst the folks on the island in order to win over their hearts and minds. Such missions include construction work and also offshoots of the exercises in terms of logistical requirements and military budgets would provide the islanders with some incomes on the sidelines. They would also join an existing group of US troops already on the island helping out with mercy relief. US civil affairs forces is also cooperating with Filipino troops to drill wells, construct roads and set up the provision of medical services in Jolo. Perhaps, because of the humanitarian bent to this exercise, many Filipinos are supporting the presence of US soldiers in Jolo. Also important in this exercise is the fact that the Americans will not be allowed to join or participate in any combat operation against the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo unless they are attacked in the process.
* RP-US military exercises to start on Jolo Island February (Manila Times, Jan 4)