Monday, July 13, 2009

Philippine Kidnappings: The next hostage, the new response

Speculations swirl around the release of Eugenio Vagni, the Italian humanitarian worker who was released Sunday after nearly six months of captivity by the Abu Sayyaf terrorists. He was kidnapped on January 15 in Patikul, Sulu, with Andreas Notter, a Swiss, and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba. Lacaba was released on April 2 and Notter on April 18. The three were workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Patient negotiations were cited as a factor by MalacaƱang which credited the work of the Local Crisis Management Committee of Sulu for the Italian’s release. Military operations and pressure on the Abu terrorists helped, according to the Palace. The government and the Red Cross denied payment of ransom, repeating that money for freedom is not a policy of the state.
Insider information, however, said the terrorists asked for, and received, “board and lodging fees” for Vagni’s release. Initially, the Abu asked for P50 million but this was reduced to P5 million on condition that the Department of National Defense (DND) release the two wives of Sayyaf commander Albader Parad who were arrested at a Philippine Marines checkpoint in Barangay Tagbak, Indanan, Sulu.
Board and lodging
“Board and lodging” money, in the language of terrorism and counter-insurgency, is another word for ransom. The Abu Sayyaf—since it began its reign of terror—never spent a peso to force-march its hostages, feed them garbage or make them sleep under the stars. “B&L,” however, softens the terrorists’ demand, puts what looks like a reasonable economic value for the hostages’ housekeeping and enables the government or the private-sector group involved to come across with a straight face.
Whatever, Eugenio Vagni is safe. The Philippines is one terror hostage less, its record on the global terror logbook once again clean. Vagni, we assume, will return to Italy to resume a normal life. The Philippine Army and the Marines would be able to focus on other priorities, spend less on hostage pursuit and put their savings on more urgent needs. The Philippine Navy and Air Force, often called to help the ground units against the savages, could keep their decaying sea and aircraft to other use.
What next?
First, humanitarian organizations, United Nations agencies and foreign groups should suspend work in Sulu and other Abu Sayyaf-influenced places in the Southern Philippines. The Abu terrorists have shown the world it does not respect humanitarian organizations and international relief agencies. No respect either for the media and its members. Journalists doing their job are easy prey to the Abu agenda of kidnapping and ransom taking.
Rifles and jobs
Second, the DND and the Armed Forces of the Philippines should be able to wipe the Abu terror network off the surface of the earth. Other countries have dealt successfully with their domestic terrorism, but not the Philippines. The DND and the AFP have enlisted the help of the Philippine National Police with little success. It has become a yearly ritual for the joint command to announce that the end of the Abu is near, the latest deadline being 2010. The military has begun to review its new timetable and to admit that annihilating the enemy by next year is impossible.
A military solution, the experts agree, will not solve the problem. Diplomacy against terrorism is out of the question. But acting on poverty, disease and ignorance in the South—where the global indicators of development are at their lowest—will help. Prosperity, jobs, justice and education will alienate the Abu from its grassroots supporters and peaceful but poor Muslims, the majority of whom abhor terrorism.
Special forces or the entire AFP?
The AFP also has not developed a professional commando unit trained and skilled in rescuing hostages seized by terrorists, communist guerrillas or Muslim separatists. When the Sipadan hostages were seized in Malaysian waters and taken to Sulu about a decade ago, the military response was to call in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force and put a blockade around Sulu. A guerrilla war calls for small, mobile professional units to surprise and rout the enemy. And hostage-taking situations—there will be many more, perhaps involving important persons—require professionally trained Special Forces teams to conduct swift, stealthy, surprise operations to free the hostages and get them to safety.
The war against terrorism, insurgency and foreign aggression requires sophistication on other fronts. We shall have greater need for professional negotiators. Have the military or the police ever considered undercover work, covert penetration or scam operations to capture a major enemy leader or warlord? Good intelligence will help. Cutting off the foreign terrorists, in particular the Jemaiah Islamiah, will weaken the Abu and contribute to its decline.
The US, which keeps a sizable military presence in the South, considers the Philippines as important as Afghanistan in the war on global terrorism. Where is the United States in these concerns?
Editorial, The Manila Times

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