Thursday, January 13, 2011

Philippines Surpasses Neighbors in Terror Threat

Risk down in the region as Manila takes exception to its elevated profile

The Philippine government has reacted negatively to a report by the security consultancy FTI-International Risk that the country has overtaken Indonesia and Thailand as facing the greatest threat from terrorism.

"It's a matter of perception," President Benigno Aquino III's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda told reporters in discussing the report at a regular televised briefing. "We disagree that we have overtaken Indonesia or Southern Thailand."

"But remember that [the Philippine-based terrorists'] pool of recruits is a lot smaller than that of Indonesia," he said, and that the operations of the local Abu Sayyaf group have already diminished, based on the latest government assessment.

"We monitor all threats, whether in the south or in the city… but again, it is not as grave as it has been assessed," Lacierda said, according to the GMA News Web site.

But a separate report by Manila-based Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA) backs up the FTI findings, at least when it comes to the island of Mindanao, saying that in particular a communist threat could drive international mining operations out of the country.

In all, the FTI report says, "Governments across Asia have made steady progress in confronting terrorism during 2010, notably in Southeast Asia where enhanced counter-terrorism efforts have curtailed terrorist attacks and casualties."

In South Asia especially, the report says, "the risk of attack in the region remains severe." South Asia, it says, "continues to be an extremely high risk region while most of Southeast Asia is at low or moderate risk, with Pakistan facing the threat of major and sustained terrorist attacks, while the risk to India remains high as well."

However, according to the report, "the risk for the Philippines is elevated, although this increases to high for Mindanao and other southern provinces."

PSA is considerably more pessimistic, however, pointing out in its Jan. 10 report that the communist New People's Army (NPA) has vowed to expel large foreign mining firms operating in the Philippines, chastising the companies for reaping huge profits while stealing the ancestral lands of indigenous people and exploiting workers.

As a result, seven major mining companies operating in Mindanao have threatened to stop operations because of the NPA's increasing extortion demands.

The Philippine government's attempts to secure mining ventures has been mostly reactive, the report says, including temporary increases in troop deployments and establishing checkpoints at mining operations.

But, the report says, "it appears that the Aquino administration's response is no different from its predecessor," including turning over security to poorly disciplined militias, a practice that dates back to the 1970s in Mindanao. It was just such a private army that staged one of the worst massacres in recent history, with 57 people gunned down, including 33 reporters, in November 2009 in the Mindanao province of Maguindanao.

"The government's inability to curb or contain NPA extortion lends itself to the impression, both domestically and globally, that it is simply unable to establish the rule of law, particularly in Mindanao," PSA wrote.

Much of the threat to Philippine security, the FTI-International Risk report says, "is centered in the Southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf, the Moro National Liberation Front, the communist New People's Army, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are all active. Abu Sayyaf appears to be regaining some strength after a long period of decline and has been conducting kidnappings, beheadings, bombings and jailbreaks, including a deadly attack in Isabella City in Mindanao that killed 14 people."

Indonesia's counter-terrorism program was successful in 2010, according to Steve Vickers, the chairman of FTI-International Risk. While Indonesia's security services have proven more effective than in the past, "small bands of extremists remain a threat."

The terrorism profile is also low for most of Thailand, but in the southern part of the country, it is elevated to high because of a continuing insurgency from Islamic separatists, the report notes.

"Outside these two sub-regions, the rest of the Asia-Pacific region does not suffer from significant terrorist risks, although there are occasional problems in outlying regions such as Xinjiang in Northwest China, which are largely externally influenced," the report says.

Asia Sentinel

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