Manila - It is a well-known fact that the entire southern region of Mindanao in the Philippines has been a haven for regional terrorists of all stripes since the mid-1990s. Yet, Philippine security forces have not been able to destroy the terrorist sanctuary or even arrest terrorist leaders hiding there. What is stopping them?
Many key terrorists leaders which have sought sanctuary there are believed to be holed up in a swampy area called Liguasan Marsh, about a two-hour drive from the city of Cotabato.
The marsh, which covers 200,000 hectares, is dotted with a few hundred houses and also serves as a bird sanctuary. However, getting to these houses - which are believed to be the hideouts of terrorist leaders such as Jemaah Islamiah (JI) member Umar Patek and Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani - is not easy.
"It is full of water lilies, tall grasses and mangrove forests," Maj-Gen Edilberto Adan, the southern Philippines' military commander, told The Straits Times. "You need small, metal-hull boats to reach the area. We have limited capability."
Apart from swamps, Mindanao is also a mountainous area and much of it inaccessible - making it the perfect terrain for terrorists fleeing police. About 62 per cent of Central Mindanao is covered with thick forests.
The Philippine Navy lacks the boats and other equipment needed to patrol some 1,610km to 3,220km of shoreline in the south, leaving them virtually unguarded.
"This has allowed militants to slip in and out of the country - either from Malaysia or Indonesia," said counter-terrorism expert, Mr Abraham Purugganan. "That to me, is a major weakness because border crossings by terrorists are left almost unhindered."
Terrorists who seek refuge in Mindanao also have another advantage - they can be assured of being welcomed with open arms by many residents there. The region is, after all, the base for several rebel groups which control sizeable areas where terrorists can hide.
These include the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), whose 12,000 fighters make it the biggest rebel group in Mindanao. The group is now negotiating a peace deal with the Philippine government.
Then, there is the Abu Sayyaf, a smaller but more vicious group. Captured JI members have admitted that the Abu Sayyaf's jungle lairs in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi have provided them refuge.
Another terrorist group is the communist New People's Army, which has between 1,400 and 1,600 armed cadres across Davao, Davao del Sur and Davao Oriental.
Both the MILF's separatist rebellion and a communist insurgency continue to simmer in the central Mindanao provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Sultan Kudarat and the adjacent provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao.
The foreign terrorists in Mindanao have cultivated ties with local rebel groups and have helped plan and fund some of the terror attacks in the Philippines in the past five years.
"They have been using the Philippines as their training ground as well as a testing ground (for attacks)," said Maj-Gen Adan.
* Terrorist sanctuary (The Straits Times, Nov 7)