Having already launched a grim, brutal war on drugs that has reportedly led to thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of arrests, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now turning his eye to southern Philippines, where a collection of insurgent groups/terrorist organizations/bandits have wreaked havoc for decades. (Southeast Asia is also now home to more piracy attacks than any other region of the world, and the waters of the southern Philippines are part of this massive piracy problem.) In recent days, Duterte has, in his usual tough guy style, vowed to step up the government’s war against the Abu Sayyaf, which in the past year has allied itself with the Islamic State group, increased its number of kidnappings, and appeared bolder in its ability to stand toe-to-toe with Philippine army troops in gunfights in the deep south. Duterte now has promised to have the army totally destroy the Abu Sayyaf militarily. In early September, the president vowed that he would “eat [the Abu Sayyaf] alive,” and declared that the Abu Sayyaf were trying to build a caliphate in the southern Philippines.
But destroying the Abu Sayyaf, a wily group with havens in some of the most remote and lawless areas of the southern Philippines and the waters between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, is going to be very difficult. For fifteen years, Philippine presidents, and the Philippine army, have tried and largely failed with various strategies to destroy the Abu Sayyaf. These have included all-out wars (including plans by the Aquino administration to declare martial law in the deep south), special operations designed to kidnap the top Abu Sayyaf leaders while pressuring their followers to surrender, and putting feelers out to the Abu Sayyaf for a negotiation that would lead to a permanent ceasefire.
Duterte has not explained how his war on the Abu Sayyaf will differ from those of previous administrations, and the Philippine armed forces face the same challenges in their battle now as they did during the Aquino or Macapagal-Arroyo administrations. The army has limited intelligence about the Abu Sayyaf’s strongholds. Graft remains a huge problem in the Philippine armed forces, as is keeping details about impending maneuvers secret.
Meanwhile, the Abu Sayyaf is widely reviled in the deep south, but the army’s history of brutality in the south—and its inability to protect informants—badly undermines its chances of effectively tracking the Abu Sayyaf’s movements.
The Duterte administration has shown few signs that it has a new approach that could comprehensively eliminated the Abu Sayyaf, or lead to some kind of negotiation in which the Abu Sayyaf would join other southern groups in accepting a peace deal for Mindanao and the deep south. It doesn’t help matters that Duterte’s brusque, wild style could alienate many of the regional partners whose support he needs in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf. Duterte has, in recent weeks, condemned the United States for criticizing the abuses that have become common in his war on drugs, but U.S. assistance and training has been crucial in helping Philippine troops learn modern counterinsurgency strategies and develop battle plans for combating the Abu Sayyaf. It will be challenging for the Duterte administration to take the fight to the Abu Sayyaf if Duterte is serious about reducing U.S. assistance for the Philippine army and coast guard.
In addition, although the new president has not yet alienated Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore, whose cooperation he needs to improve the quality of patrols in the lawless Sulu Sea, don’t count out the possibility. Duterte needs Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur’s cooperation to implement a deal the three nations made in August to allow their navies to pursue Abu Sayyaf members who have taken hostages into each others’ territorial waters. But earlier this year, Duterte slammed Singapore publicly. Given his personality, it is probably only a matter of time before he says something that alienates leaders in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, further undermining cooperation in combating the Abu Sayyaf and piracy in general.