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Widening the War

January 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Since last fall, a small number of American military advisers, or “consultants,” has joined the Philippine Army in its fight against Muslim Separatists linked to al-Qaida. Until now, the details of their mission have been kept secret.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the American mission to the Philippines — a former U.S. colony — will expand soon.

Within a month, the U.S. contingent will number around 600, including 150 Navy Seals, Army Green Berets, Marines and Special Forces.

At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld used the words “training exercises” to describe the mission.

SEC. DONALD RUMSFELD: I believe, the last time I looked, something like 240 or 250 Americans, military personnel, in the country.

They are located in several locations in the country. More are going in. They are there for training purposes, they are there for logistics purposes, they are there for an exercise with the Philippine government.

As you know, we have a very long military-to-military relationship between the United States and the Philippines. And I expect that there will be several hundred more people going in.

SPENCER MICHELS: The American forces will help train more than a thousand Filipino soldiers in their fight against Muslim extremists.

The targeted group is Abu Sayyef — one of several armed Islamic groups in the largely Catholic country.

Based in the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo, Abu Sayyef has kidnapped foreigners for ransom, often killing them in grisly fashion. Last year’s victims included American Guillermo Sobero.

Two other American missionaries from Kansas, Martin and Gracia Burnham, have been held since last May.

Investigators believe Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida helped fund Abu Sayyef in the early 1990s, and said bin Laden’s brother-in-law met directly with the group.

There’s also a Philippine connection to Ramzi Yousef, the man linked to al-Qaida and convicted of plotting and participating in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Yousef once lived in this Manila apartment. In a 1995 raid, Philippine authorities found evidence of al-Qaida plans to crash a jet into the CIA headquarters, blow up several American airliners, and assassinate the Pope.

At the Pentagon, Secretary Rumsfeld was asked if Abu Sayyef was involved in Sept. 11.

SEC. DONALD RUMSFELD: There is no question that there have been linkages between al-Qaida and activities that have taken place in the Philippines.

And second, the United States is clearly interested in al-Qaida. We are interested in a lot more than al-Qaida.

REPORTER: If I could follow — all the documents, the cell phones, the laptops, the evidence that you’ve gathered — does any of that directly point to the involvement of Abu Sayyef in the Sept. 11 attacks? Does any of that support that at all?

SEC. DONALD RUMSFELD: I’m not in a position to respond. I don’t — and I don’t know that I would want to if I happened to have gone through and reviewed all of that material.

SPENCER MICHELS: Concern about terrorism in the Philippines is part of the administration’s worry about Islamic militancy throughout the region.

Last month, Malaysian officials arrested 13 radical Muslims. They say the men contacted Zacharias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, in September or October.

Singapore has arrested 13 men as well, saying eight trained in al-Qaida camps. The Singapore government also released this alleged al-Qaida videotape. It shows a train station believed to be one of the group’s targets. Western embassies and American companies in Singapore were also on the list.

And in Indonesia, the government believes al-Qaida funded a terrorist training camp used by local Muslim militants.

To help fund the new Philippine mission, President Bush in November committed $100 million in military aid to the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

But Arroyo told the NewsHour last November she did not ask for ground troops. Foreign combatants are both unpopular and banned in the Philippines.

JIM LEHRER (Nov. 19, 2001): You do not want the United States to send armed troops in there to help your army get rid of these people?

PRESIDENT GLORIA ARROYO, Philippines (Nov. 19, 2001): Well, I think our… I think that our armed forces are quite good in what they’re doing. So what we really need would be really a technical assistance and equipment, materials, joint planning.

SPENCER MICHELS: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said the Philippine training exercises are scheduled to last six months.

JIM LEHRER: And with us now is the Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Albert del Rosario.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Thank you. Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Have things changed since I had that interview with your president in terms of the situation on the ground in the Philippines and the need for U.S. assistance, military assistance?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Well, basically, Jim, what’s happened is that the – Abu Sayyef, which has been operating in about one or two of the seven thousand islands, have been very elusive.

And although the numbers of the group have been reduced from an estimated 1,200 to what is now purportedly at less than 100, we’re talking about the core group now.

The terrain and the dense forest have made the capture and the eradication of this group very difficult.

And to cover this last mile, the Philippines has invited the United States to provide help in terms of technical assistance, in terms of advice, and in terms of training.

JIM LEHRER: Now many Americans are viewing this as a new step in the U.S. war against terrorism.

How do the Philippines see what’s going on with the introduction of more U.S. troops?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Well, I think we are grateful for the assistance from the United States.

But, I think the public should not view the Philippines as being in the category of some of the other countries being mentioned. We are not harboring terrorism; we are fighting terrorism, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And the U.S. Troops, there’s a lot of terms that can be misused or misunderstood in this case, they are there to train and Secretary Rumsfeld– as we just heard– to provide logistics, but they’re also combat soldiers, are they not?

They’re going to be armed and if something happens they can shoot back, is that correct?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Well, the presence of U.S. Troops in the Philippines is not for combat purposes. They are supposed to observe and assist, and in the process of doing that, yes, they are armed and they may defend themselves if so attacked.

JIM LEHRER: This is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, is it’s not, having foreign troops, particularly from the United States on the ground?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: I think, Jim, that there is clearly a legal framework in terms of the mutual defense treaty and the visiting forces agreement, that appropriately covers this activity.

JIM LEHRER: But in terms of the politics of the Philippines, I read some things today that some people say this is a violation of Philippines sovereignty, violation of the constitution; the U.S. soldiers should not come. I mean how do you read that sort of thing?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Well, I think it’s a matter of education.

The U.S. Troops are there for essentially three missions. One is to provide assistance, training and advice in terms of pursuing the Abu Sayyaf.

The second is to be able to train this one or two light reaction companies in addition to that which has already been trained earlier.

And, of course, the third is to be able to conduct the joint military exercises under the visiting forces agreement; that is actually a yearly occurrence.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Abu Sayyef, you say there are only about 100 of them left still at large.

Tell us about them. Who are these people, where do they come from, what do they believe in?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Well, the Abu Sayyef are a, this is a splinter group of a much larger group which advocates the establishment of an independent Muslim state.

The main group now is under a peace process, and this splinter group actually was formed by a former trainee of bin Laden from Afghanistan. And when he came back from Afghanistan in 1990, he started this group, and they started by their wave of terrorism by bombing churches and Christian groups.

And then they went on to accelerate these terrorist activities in terms of engaging in kidnap for ransom activities. Subsequently, after this was founded by this person, [Abduragak Abubakar] Janjalani was his name, —

JIM LEHRER: Janjalani.

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Yes — there was also a fellow called Khadafy, who happened to be the brother-in-law of bin Laden, who came to the Philippines to start several foundations, purportedly for funding terrorism activity in the Philippines.

Now, he was shut down in — his organizations were shut down by the government in 1995 — 1995, I think it was. And after that, later on, a few years later, Janjalani was killed in a firefight.

So there is documented evidence, Jim, that there is a historical link dating back to 1990 that this group is affiliated with the al-Qaida group.

But after 1995, it becomes rather hazy and circumstantial in terms of that link.

Although in — sometime last year — late last year there was a bombing in Zamboanga, and the perpetrator who was caught, a fellow called Marvin Johnson, I believe, he was related to the Abu Sayyef, and there were documentation found in his person that seem to link him to the al-Qaida groups. So there you are.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Why is it so hard to find these 100 people?

What is it that the U.S. military, what kind of expertise can they bring to this manhunt that has now been going on for several years now already in the Philippines?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Well, I think, as I mentioned earlier, Jim, the terrain is very difficult.

JIM LEHRER: Describe the terrain. What kind of terrain?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: I’ve not been there, but I’m told, and there’s documentary evidence from the U.S. military itself that the terrain is difficult because you have mountains and you have dense jungle, and you have very heavy fog in that area.

So, I think looking for a band of less than 100 would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Now, in terms of intelligence, I think the Philippine forces have human intelligence, but it’s not real time, for example.

JIM LEHRER: You find out something two weeks too late you mean?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: That’s right. Before that human intelligence gets its information back, and before the Philippine troops can mobilize and get transported to that area where the Abu Sayyef may have been viewed, it’s too late, they are not there any more.

So, what we’re looking for from the United States is equipment, real-time intelligence.

JIM LEHRER: Technology as well?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Yes, yes. And the objective, I think I might add, of this joint training is, it gives the U.S. Military exposure in terms of working in terrain like that, and the exchanges that the Philippine forces are able to train in terms of using modern equipment.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any word at all, new word at all on the Burnhams, the two captured American missionaries who are being held for ransom?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: There are supposed to be sightings of the Burnhams, and they seem to be, they are physically weak, but they’re still moving around, they’re being moved around, and they are alive.

And it is our prayer that the military and the cooperation between the Philippines and the United States will be able to safely rescue them, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, much is being made, as you saw in the newspapers this morning, about this new arrangement, in other words the decision to send more U.S. Troops there.

In the first place, is too much being made about this? Do you see, in the Philippines the introduction of the U.S. Troops, as many as 600, is this a big a deal there as it appears to be here for us because it relates directly to Afghanistan or appears to?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: I think the numbers would require some explanation.

We do have a joint military exercise that is taking place at the same time as the pursuit of the Abu Sayyef. Out of the 600 that you mentioned, only 100 or so are Special Forces.

The other 500 are support and maintenance personnel, because they will also have aircraft and they will also have some other equipment there that need to be upgraded and maintained.

JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, would this military arrangement have even happened if there hadn’t been Sept. 11?

I mean, would the Philippines have felt compelled in the atmosphere that existed before to ask the U.S. for this kind of help?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: I think that in the context of what happened on Sept. 11, Jim, terrorism per se is abominable, it is a scourge, and I think that the international coalition in pursuing the eradication of terrorism throughout the world is, was– the Sept. 11 was the catalyst for this.

JIM LEHRER: And an impetus that led to this?

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Yes, that’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

ALBERT DEL ROSARIO: Thank you, Jim, I enjoyed being with you.