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Background: The Philippine’s Battle with Terrorism

November 19, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took office the same day as President bush– last January 20th– but her rise to power followed a different route.

PRESIDENT GLORIA MACAPAGAL ARROYO, The Philippines: The path that brought me here today has not been an easy one, and it is not yet an easy one, and I did not make that path alone. I came here riding on the wave created by millions of people making their voices heard above the dark confusion of crisis and confrontation.

TERENCE SMITH: That “dark confusion” arose from the impeachment proceedings against former President Joseph Estrada, a former movie star who resigned amid charges of accepting more than $60 million in bribes. He was jailed in April on corruption charges. But Estrada, still wildly popular with the Filipino poor, who comprise a majority of the Philippines’ 76 million people, would not go quietly.

FORMER PRESIDENT JOSEPH ESTRADA, The Philippines: Vice President Arroyo is just an acting President. So I think I have nothing to regain. Constitutionally, legally, I am still President.

TERENCE SMITH: Despite his claims, Estrada remains in custody, officially accused of plunder, a charge which carries a possible death sentence. A constitutional challenge to the plunder law mounted by Estrada was rejected by the Philippine Supreme Court today. In addition to political travails, Arroyo, the daughter of former Filipino President Diosdado Macapagal, finds herself in charge of an economy in rapid downturn.

She also faces a domestic terrorist threat: Abu-Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group that operates in the southern portion of the 7,000-island Philippine Archipelago. But Abu-Sayyaff is only one of several Islamic groups, moderate and militant, that have advocated a separate Muslim state in the South ever since the Philippines gained independence from the United States after World War II. Muslims represent about 5 percent of the population of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The United States has sent military advisers to the Philippines to assist in the training of Filipino forces in the South.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We have a team in making an assessment and providing some advice and working with the Philippine troops. The Filipinos have a very large force on that island at the present time. We have a relatively small number of people assisting them. They have been putting pressure on the terrorists.

There is no question but that there has been a good deal of interaction between the terrorists in the Philippines and the al-Qaida and people in Iraq and people in other terrorist-sponsoring states over the years.

TERENCE SMITH: Abu Sayyaf, which received initial funding from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida when it was founded in 1991, now funds it activities in part through kidnappings for ransom. It still holds two American missionaries hostage, and was responsible earlier this year for the grisly beheading of another American captive, Guillermo Sobero.

The Filipino links to terrorism go beyond Abu Sayyaf. In 1995, a plot to blow up 12 transpacific airliners and to kill pope John Paul II was discovered when a bomb exploded in an apartment in Manila.

The scheme was concocted by Ramzi Yousef, an associate of Osama bin Laden and the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Yousef was later captured in Pakistan and is now serving life in an American prison for his role in the 1993 attack. And just days after the September 11 attacks, three Middle Eastern men were detained in manila after videotaping the American embassy. Tests of their hotel room showed positive traces of TNT.

Today, another militant Islamic group, the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF, reneged on a 1996 peace deal with the Philippine government and launched an attack on the island of Jolo, 600 miles south of Manila. Coupled with a recent upsurge in attacks by the Marxist New People’s Army, which killed 18 Filipino troopers, the renewed fighting comes just as Arroyo begins her first official visit to the United States.