Saturday, May 2, 2020

2 NPA rebels killed in Agusan Sur clashes (Graphic Photos)

From the Philippine News Agency (May 2, 2020): 2 NPA rebels killed in Agusan Sur clashes (By Alexander Lopez)

KILLED REBELS. Two communist New People’s Army rebels die during the series of armed encounters with the Army’s 26th Infantry Battalion Thursday (April 30) in the hinterlands of Barangay Guibonon, Esperanza, Agusan del Sur. Military officials have called on the remaining rebels in the mountains to return to the fold of the law and live peacefully with their families. (Photo courtesy of 26IB)

The series of clashes this week between the troopers of the Army's 26th Infantry Battalion and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) resulted in the killing of two rebels and the seizure of firearms and ammunition.

Lt. Col. Romeo C. Jimenea, 36Ib commander, said Saturday (May 2)
the armed encounter took place in the hinterlands of Sitio Mahayon-hayon, Barangay Guibonon, Esperanza, Agusan del Sur Thursday (April 30).

Jimenea said the first encounter took place at 2 p.m. Thursday when the troopers responded to the reports of concerned residents in the area about the presence of the NPA.

“The rebels are now hungry as they have difficulties in securing food due to the continuing implementation of quarantines. The residents in the area were worried about their presence. The NPA is also planning to conduct atrocities as part of their offensive against the government,” Jimenea told the Philippine News Agency in a phone interview.

Jimenea said the first firefight that lasted for about seven minutes wounded a soldier on the right arm.

“Our troops pursued the NPA rebels when they retreated after the first encounter. The second encounter took place at around 10 p.m. in the vicinity of Sitio Mahayon-hayon,” the Army official said.

Two NPA rebels were killed on the second encounter that lasted for about 20 minutes, he added.

Following both clashes, Jimenea said the troops recovered two M16 rifles, one AK47 rifle, two bandoliers with eight long magazines and eight short magazines of M16 rifle loaded with ammunition, and one loaded magazine of AK47 rifle.

"I am commending the concerned citizens who reported to us on the presence of these terrorist NPAs. Through their coordination, we were able to immediately disrupt the planned atrocities of these lawless elements despite the attention that we are giving as front-liners on the health crisis that we are facing. If we weren't able to preempt the NPA's plan, it may cause additional burden to our constituents near the area,” Jimenea said.

He also urged the remaining NPA rebels to return to the fold of the law and avail of the program of the government intended for the former rebels.

Jimenea said the recovered dead bodies of the NPA rebels were turned over to the Philippine National Police and the local government for identification and burial.

The NPA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

PNP on red alert vs. renewed NPA attacks

From the Philippine News Agency (May 2, 2020): PNP on red alert vs. renewed NPA attacks (By Christopher Lloyd Caliwan)

The Philippine National Police (PNP) is on full alert after President Rodrigo Duterte dismissed the possibility of holding a new round of peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).

“In response to this, the 205,000-strong PNP under the command of Police General Archie Francisco F Gamboa is now on full alert and is ready and able to defend the country against any atrocities of this communist terrorist group,” PNP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac said in a statement on Saturday.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año condemned the CPP-NPA-NDF for ending the ceasefire with the government at the height of the nation’s fight against Covid-19.

Año said this act of the communist terrorist group is "the final nail in the coffin and is a clear demonstration of their hypocrisy and being anti-peace while the country and the world are in the middle of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic."

Banac said the PNP Chief also condemns the act by the CPP-NPA-NDF as it endangers government response to overcome the pandemic.

The CPP-NPA-NDF declared a ceasefire last March 26, 2020, after the United Nations has called for peace amid the Covid-19 pandemic while the government declared ceasefire earlier on March 19, 2020.

“As government condemns this rebellion by the CPP-NPA-NDF as a threat to public safety amid the pandemic, we will continue to uphold the imposition of ECQ [enhanced community quarantine] in high-risk areas and GCQ [general community quarantine] in the rest of the country from May 1 to May 15, 2020, based on government guidelines,” Banac said.

16 labor leaders with Red links yield in Laguna

From the Philippine News Agency (May 2, 2020): 16 labor leaders with Red links yield in Laguna (By Priam Nepomuceno)

Some 16 labor leaders, who admitted connections to the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army (CPP-NPA), surrendered to the military and police during short ceremonies in Calamba, Laguna Friday.

The surrenderers claimed that they are members of a labor union at a soft drinks plant in Sta. Rosa and were recruited by the communist rebels to join their underground movement as part of the efforts to destabilize the industrial sector which is known in CPP-NPA parlance as "white area operations".

In a statement forwarded to the Philippine News Agency Saturday, Army’s 202nd Infantry Brigade commander Col. Alex Rillera, which has operational jurisdiction over the Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Quezon (CALABARZON) industrial areas, said four of the surrenderers are already full-time CPP members with the rest "kandidatong kasapi".
Kandidatong kasapi are recruits who are just a few courses away from attaining full-time membership.
Rillera said four of the surrenderers turned over four firearms and admitted to having already experienced joining the NPAs in the mountains and participating in the terrorist group’s operations.

“This surrender supports the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and the PNP (Philippine National Police)'s earlier assessment that the NPA terrorists are infiltrating the industrial areas through the labor unions to force the companies to shut their operations down so that innocent employees will be agitated to go against the government,” he said.

The CPP-NPA is listed as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

Rillera also condemned the communist rebels for their "terroristic intentions of overthrowing the government even at the expense of our countrymen whose welfare they purportedly look after.”

Combined police and soldiers took the lead during the local peace negotiations which were held under the auspices of CALABARZON’s Regional Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

Army's 2nd Infantry Division commander, Major Gen. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos, Jr., lauded “soldiers, policemen and government officials who were involved in the localized peace engagement for their commitment and dedication to their duties while fighting in two fronts” referring to communist insurgency and the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

He also called the surrender of the labor leaders and admission of NPA membership as “the best sacrifice that they could do for the country’s millions of members of the labor force as we commemorate this year’s Labor Day since it will lead to them being aware of the deception and manipulation which the underground movement is doing upon their ranks.”

Burgos added that the surrender of labor organizers in this mass exodus of NPA terrorists from the underground movement is a decisive blow since aside from losing leaders, their surrender meant fewer cadres who will oversee their supply line from the urban centers to the hinterlands.

"Put down your arms, give up your armed struggle and return to mainstream society while you still can because, despite this contagion, we are mustering all our strength and focusing our sights to the liberation of Southern Tagalog from the clutches of communist terrorism by crushing the few remaining NPAs in this part of the country,” he said.

Military intelligence assessments indicate that the NPA’s mass base support in this part of the country is now fast-eroding and losing traction due to demoralization from massive intelligence-driven combat operations which is complemented by an unrelenting push for localized peace talks that resulted to an unprecedented number of surrenders.

Since the implementation of the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP) in Southern Tagalog, 509 former rebels already surrendered 108 firearms to government forces.

A major portion of these surrenderers were presented during the NPA’s 50th anniversary last year as well as during their 51st anniversary last March 29.

CALABARZON and Mindoro-Marinduque-Romblon-Palawan (MIMAROPA) have already distributed a total of PHP10.478 million worth of financial assistance to former rebels.

ARGUMENT//There’s Still Life in the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement

Posted to Foreign Policy (May 1, 2020): ARGUMENT//There’s Still Life in the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (By BY DEREK GROSSMAN)

Duterte is trying to kill a critical deal, but his compatriots aren’t happy.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) arrives for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (unseen) at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on April 25, 2019. KENZABURO FUKUHARA/KYODO NEWS - POOL/GETTY IMAGES

On Feb. 11, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that Manila would be terminating the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)—an agreement authorizing, among other things, the U.S. military to have freedom of movement into and within the Philippines. Duterte’s decision was met in Washington with deep concerns about the potential fallout for the Indo-Pacific strategy, largely aimed at countering China’s growing assertiveness.

They were right to be worried. After all, bases across the Philippines—namely Subic Bay Naval Base, Basa Air Base, Fort Magsaysay, Antonio Bautista Air Base, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base, and Lumbia Air Base—are ideally located for U.S. purposes. They’re near or on the South China Sea, significantly enhancing the U.S. military’s ability to challenge Beijing there. Without them, Washington would have to rely more heavily on other, more distant bases in Guam; Okinawa; mainland Japan; Darwin, Australia; Hawaii; and elsewhere. Doing so would likely reduce the ability of the U.S. military to react to challenges, including threats to the Philippines itself, effectively hollowing out the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and severely complicating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, under which the U.S. military is authorized to preposition weapons and equipment at bases in the Philippines. Losing the VFA would probably also weaken other allies and partners’ perceptions of Washington’s security commitments in the region.

But there is a glimmer of hope in Duterte’s announcement: Per the agreement, official VFA cancellation does not take effect for 180 days, meaning Washington and Manila have until Aug. 9 to save it or negotiate a new VFA to avert any further alliance crisis. The challenge is that Duterte is an extremely anti-U.S. president who may seek to eliminate the MDT in its entirety in favor of greater self-reliance and better relations with China and Russia. Yet success would speak volumes about the durability of the alliance in spite of the whims of an autocratic president.

While Duterte’s stance is likely to come out on top given his position as chief executive of the country, there are subtle signs that the VFA’s demise is not a predetermined outcome. For example, shortly after Duterte’s termination announcement, the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel Romualdez, noted at a forum in Manila that both countries were exploring “ways and means to see how we can come up with something similar.”

Meanwhile, in a very cryptic tweet from Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. the same day as the announcement, Locsin said: “As a diplomatic courtesy there will be no further factual announcements following this self-explanatory development.” After Joshua Melvin of Agence France-Presse retweeted Locsin’s remarks with the comment “Now the furious negotiations begin. 180 day countdown #VFA,” Locsin retweeted him with “You’re the only one who got that,” suggesting that negotiations were about to begin or already underway. If the two sides are indeed negotiating, it is unknown what each country seeks for the future.

Aside from this reading of the tea leaves, Duterte may not fundamentally possess sole discretion in deciding the VFA’s fate.

Aside from this reading of the tea leaves, Duterte may not fundamentally possess sole discretion in deciding the VFA’s fate. Bipartisan senior leaders in the Philippine Senate, notably led the Senate president, a Duterte ally, filed a petition requesting the Supreme Court review whether Duterte has the unilateral power to terminate the agreement. The petition calls for the executive and legislative branches to reach concurrence on such a decision. Regardless of the court ruling, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said, “We will follow the Supreme Court. Whatever the law says, we will follow.” The Supreme Court, however, tends to favor Duterte.

Members of Duterte’s own cabinet also appear to have serious misgivings about his VFA decision. They have tried to delicately discuss their concerns with him but understand they are unlikely to change his mind. To make their views more palatable to Duterte, they likely sought to highlight the importance of the VFA in maintaining U.S. special forces support to counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines against jihadis.

Although Duterte in 2016 threatened to kick U.S. forces out, he also clearly benefits from U.S. military assistance in these operations as well—and Manila may need more assistance as 11 of its soldiers were just killed battling the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in Sulu. The VFA was also essential in allowing the U.S. military to enter the Philippines in 2013 to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following Typhoon Haiyan. U.S. security assistance over the past two decades of VFA existence has been substantial, tallying approximately $1.3 billion, and annual exercises like Balikatan—though canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic—significantly enhance the readiness of the Philippine military to conduct a range of missions. Indeed, decades of close interaction between the U.S. and Philippine militaries have resulted in highly favorable views of the United States among the Philippine defense establishment, whereas China is assessed as the top threat.

China’s behavior in the coming months could also push Duterte to reconsider. Beijing recently declared the establishment of new administrative districts on disputed features in the Paracel and Spratly islands. Manila in mid-March quietly reaffirmed its favorable Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling to the United Nations, and voices are growing only louder to stay the course. It is more likely, however, that Duterte will continue to value Chinese support—for example, he recently thanked Beijing for coronavirus assistance—and willfully ignore challenges in the bilateral relationship. Duterte’s strategy may reach a breaking point as polls consistently show strong support among Filipinos for alignment with the United States over China.

Paradoxically, the death knell for the VFA might come from Washington itself instead of Manila. When asked his thoughts on Duterte’s notice of termination of the agreement, Trump replied, “I don’t really mind if they would like to do that. It will save a lot of money. … My views are different than others.” Trump’s statement highlights his general lack of appreciation for international agreements and alliances in favor of his “America First” policy. The two leaders did, however, speak on April 19, and it was unclear if the VFA came up. Regardless of what happens, the fate of the VFA will set the tone of the alliance at least for the remainder of Duterte’s tenure out to 2022, if not beyond.

[Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. He formerly served as the daily intelligence briefer to the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Pentagon.]

CentCom chief to community: Continue to help us in fight against insurgency

From the Cebu Daily News (May 1, 2020): CentCom chief to community: Continue to help us in fight against insurgency (By: Alven Marie A. Timtim)

Lieutenant General Roberto Ancan, Central Command (Centcom) chief, appeals to the community to continue supporting them in the government’s fight against insurgency. CDN Digital photo | Alven Marie Timtim

CEBU CITY, Philippines — The Armed Forces of the Philippines Central Command (AFP Centcom) is asking the public to continue their help to the authorities to end insurgency in Central Visayas and other regions.

Lieutenant General Roberto Ancan, chief of the AFP CentCom, told reporters on Friday, May 1, 2020, that their campaign against anti-insurgency in the areas around Visayas had progressed because of the help of the community in reporting members of communist-terrorist groups.

“We thank the populace, the residents of the area, they keep on helping us, providing us information,” said Ancan.

However, despite the efforts of the community and the government there are still rebels who are able to execute plans and harm members of the AFP who are keeping the community safe.

The recent encounter with alleged members of the New People’s Army (AFP) in Barangay Camudlas, Bindoy town in Negros Oriental, on April 30, has injured two civilians and and a soldier.

Read: Soldier, civilians wounded in gov’t troops clash with rebels in NegOr

Ancan did not disclose details about the incident and said that they were still waiting for the full report of the incident.

With this, Ancan again called for the continuous support of the community in helping the AFP in tracing the possible whereabouts of the rebels.

“This fight against the communist terrorist groups is not just only the fight of your armed forces, it is the whole of nation approach. Mag tinabangay gyud ta tanan,” said

3 BIFF militants surrender, turn-over firearms in North Cotabato

From the Manila Times (May 1, 2020): 3 BIFF militants surrender, turn-over firearms in North Cotabato (By Julmunir I. Jannaral)

Three members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) surrendered to the Joint Task Force Central troops Wednesday.

Maj. Arvin Encinas. spokesman of the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom) said the militants, who were all members of the Karialan Faction, turned themselves over to the 34th Infantry Battalion in Barangay (Village) Nabalawag, Midsayap, North Cotabato.

Encinas identified the BIFF militants as Lanny Madaluday Salem, a.k.a. Matyak Salem; Rocky Kinal Paguital, a.k.a. Rocky Salilagya; and Usman Abas Salem, a.k.a. Lumanda Salem. They also turned-over one Caliber 7.62mm improvised sniper rifle (locally made), one Caliber 7.62mm M14 rifle, three magazines, 19 rounds of Caliber 7.62mm ammunition, and one bandoleer. “Despite the ongoing challenges we are facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, our troops are more than eager to end terrorism and violent extremism in our area of operation,” said Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the WestMinCom. “We hope that more BIFF members will decide to surrender especially that it is the holy month of Ramadan,” Lt. Gen. Sobejana added.

Are Philippine Militants Looking to Take Advantage of COVID-19?

Posted to The Diplomat (May 1, 2020): Are Philippine Militants Looking to Take Advantage of COVID-19? (By By Kenneth Yeo)

Hints of a united front among Abu Sayyaf Group factions could sorely test a Philippine military already stretched thin by the pandemic.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel James Lewis

On April 17, around 11 Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) soldiers were killed and at least 14 others wounded in a fierce gun battle with dozens of Aby Sayyaf fighters, some linked to the Islamic State (IS), in the southern island of Mindanao. The deadly clashes were believed to have occurred as state troops were tracking down Hajan Sawadjaan, an Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) commander and the touted leader of IS Philippines, in the forested mountains off Patikul, Sulu province.

The region has, for years, been bedeviled by kidnapping for ransom activities, beheadings, and suicide attacks, mostly blamed on ASG, a violent offshoot of the decades-long separatist unrest in the country’s south. Following the Patikul incident, reportedly the deadliest such clash in months, the military was unable to determine the number of militants either wounded or killed, although officials said Sawadjaan worked alongside Radullan Sahiron, another key ASG commander who leads his own faction. Reports indicated Sahiron’s fighters had been in close proximity and contact with Sawadjaan’s forces.

In recent years, Abu Sayyaf militants from the respective factions have kept a distance from each other due to ideological and leadership differences. However, recent developments have fueled speculation that the two above mentioned leaders may have put aside their long-held differences and merged forces under Islamic State’s international banner.

Such claims may be premature, given the complex dynamics inherent in terror alliances in the Philippines. Nonetheless, the possibilities rendered by such a union portend a disturbing trend for the threat landscape in the Philippines and, by extension, the wider region.

Uniting the Sawadjaan and Sahiron ASG factions presents a unique dynamic. While there is little evidence of open animosity, they diverge significantly in their ideology and leadership traits.

Sahiron, regarded as the senior leader in ASG, has so far refused to publicly align himself with IS, and appears more interested in pursuing criminal activities. This led, in 2014, to a splintering within the Abu Sayyaf, with other key leaders such as Isnilon Hapilon, Sawadjaan, and various sub-leaders breaking away to pursue bolder terrorist activities. Hapilon was subsequently declared the emir of the IS East Asia Wilayah and led the five-month long Marawi siege in 2017, although he was later killed.

While no official declaration was made, Sawadjaan was mooted to have been appointed the next IS emir to unite the various pro-IS factions in Mindanao. Under his command, kidnap-for-ransom operations were reinitiated in September 2018, following a lull of almost two years. Sawadjaan also orchestrated the first Jolo church suicide attacks in January 2019, for which he recruited two Indonesian Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) members. This was followed by a series of attempted suicide attacks in Sulu, mainly involving foreign fighters from the Middle East.

If, as some have speculated, Sahiron embraces IS, the AFP will have to deal with a more radically aligned and fortified ASG network, estimated to number between 200 and 300 fighters. Sahiron commands a significant proportion of these militants. Moreover, collaboration between Sahiron and Sawadjaan can inspire other ASG factions based in Basilan to join them. These combined forces could then potentially be mobilized against the Philippine military, whose resources are severely stretched dealing with the domestic COVID-19 outbreak.

Indications that Sahiron’s ASG faction has embraced IS ideology are present, but not definite. In a statement, IS claimed “16 killed from the Crusader Philippines Army” shortly after the April 17 incident. This showed tight communication between the official IS media outlets and militants in Sulu, and it was notable Sahiron’s group did not protest the pronouncement.

Alternatively, it is also possible Sawadjaan could have sought a tactical alliance with the non-IS aligned Sahiron, creating a potential precedence for IS groups in the country and wider region to collaborate with other non-IS aligned terrorists and criminal organizations on joint operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The contest for leadership in the ASG remains uncertain, with both Sahiron and Sawadjaan displaying contradictory approaches in leading their forces. Such group dynamics would need to be ironed out before collaborations can be further fortified.

Sahiron inherited the leadership of ASG after the passing of Khadaffy Janjalani in 2006. However, ASG under Sahiron’s leadership was dormant, passive, and conservative. His primary operations are perceived to be self-serving criminal activities and territorial defense. Nevertheless, ASG members continue to respect the 68-year-old leader due to his seniority. Sawadjaan’s pro-IS cell, in contrast, has been credited with pioneering suicide attacks in the Philippines despite strong cultural opposition toward such a tactic.

Having previously served under Sahiron, Sawadjaan is likely to face resistance from his older counterpart, who prefers a more conservative approach to militancy. It is uncertain if these kinks in operational preference have been addressed.

The Philippines government continues to face grave security challenges on multiple fronts. While significant resources have been channeled to address the worsening domestic COVID-19 outbreak as well as eradicating ASG-linked terrorism, other groups continue to also pursue extremism.

Another major group is the pro-IS Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Of late, the BIFF has made renewed appeals for followers to launch attacks. Following the unhappiness caused by mosque closures to curb the spread of COVID-19, a BIFF leader, Sheik Muhiddin Animbang, alias Commander Kagi Karialan, urged fighters to launch attacks against government assets because they were “destroying Islam” by disallowing congregation in mosques.

Further appeals to exploit the COVID-19 outbreak to raise arms against the authorities are possible. BIFF militants are mainly located at the densely forested and mountainous regions of Maguindanao and Cotabato. There, loose firearms and explosive materials are not difficult to attain. Hence, an armed assault at a police or military outpost south of Mount Piapayungan of Maguindanao and Cotabato cannot be ruled out.

The unification of the Sawadjaan and Sahiron ASG factions and the appeals for attack by BIFF serve as a reminder that terrorism remains an ongoing threat in the Philippines. Hence, it is crucial for the government to double down on investigations of any linkages between terrorist and criminal groups to head off any opportunities for collaborations that can further raise the radical temperature on the ground.

[Kenneth Yeo is a Research Analyst in the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)]