MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines’ southern border area -- specifically Sulu --has been red-flagged by the United States as a possible transport route for weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups.
In the US State Department’s 2011 Country Report on Terrorism, it raised concern over the difficulty of local authorities to monitor illicit activities in the numerous islands of the Sulawesi Sea and Sulu Archipelago area.
“WMD trafficking, proliferation and the spread of WMD -- applicable expertise have been concerns in this region, given the high volume of global trade that ships through the region as well as the existence of proliferation networks looking to exploit the vulnerabilities in the states’ export controls,” the report, released in Washington on August 1, said.
But the report also highlighted that face that the Philippines managed to curtail terrorist operations -- reducing them to carrying out criminal activities.
Nevertheless, it said Manila should increase its presence in Mindanao to prevent the establishment of terrorist safe havens.
The report highlights Sulu and the Sulawesi Sea as potential terrorist safe havens despite recent attempts of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia to monitor and interdict illicit activities in the areas.
The report did acknowledge that the area “remained difficult to control” but added that, “Surveillance was improved but remained partial at best, and traditional smuggling and piracy groups have provided an effect(ive) cover for terrorist activities, such as movement of personnel, equipment and funds.”
The report said the US hopes to further bolster the Philippines’ capabilities by funding a Coast Watch South Radar Network in Mindanao “which is intended to enhance domain awareness in the waters south -- southwest of Mindanao.”
Since 2008, the US has been supporting the Trilateral InterAgency Maritime Law Enforcement Working Group, which Washington boasted has resulted in better maritime security coordination between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
But the State Department report noted that the Sulu archipelago and Mindanao are seen by terrorists groups such as the Jemaah Islamiya and the Abu Sayyaf as safe havens due to weak government presence.
“Philippine government control and the rule of law in this area are weak due to rugged terrain, poverty and local Muslim minority resentment of central government policies,” it said.
Despite this assessment, the State Department described the Philippines as a strong ally in counterterrorism and stressed that Washington continues to provide support and cooperation.
It cited the role of the Aquino administration’s implementation of its 2011-2016 Internal Peace and Security Plan in curtailing the activities of terrorist groups.
“The ability of terrorist groups, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, Jemaah Islamiya and the Communist People’s Party/New People’s Army, to conduct terrorist activities inside the Philippines remained constrained,” the report said in its Country Report chapter on the Philippines.
“Terrorist groups’ acts were generally limited to criminal activities designed to generate revenue for self-sustainment, such as kidnapping and extortion,” it added.
Although there were incidents of bombings in Central and Western Mindanao, these were primarily seen as extortion-related.
The State Department report also cited the increased role of the Philippine National Police in internal security operations, a key feature in the Internal Peace and Security Plan, and the creation of joint military-police task forces in Zamboanga, Sulu, Basilan and Marawi, which it called “steps in the right direction to achieve lasting peace.”
“The increasing role of the police in maintaining internal security is conflict-affected areas will permit the AFP to shift its focus to enhancing the country’s maritime security and territorial defense capabilities,” the report said.