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Basilan: Before. After. After That?

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

BASILAN ISLAND, Philippines, June 4, 2002 – Basilan Island before: a lawless fiefdom of terrorist groups and thugs. One of the groups, Abu Sayyaf, is affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.

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Basilan leaders greet Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as he arrives on the embattled island in the Philippines. Wolfowitz met June 3, 2002, with Philippine and U.S. military personnel to assess how U.S. aid is helping Philippine soldiers defeat the Abu Sayyaf terror group. Photo by Jim Garamone.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The terrorists kidnapped people for ransom and killed anyone who tried to improve the lives of the 350,000 residents of the heavily jungled island, in the southern part of the country.

The terrorists destroyed bridges and prevented work on roads. Even if roads were open, islanders were afraid to use them. Residents of the small villages kept to themselves. There was no safe drinking water and no medical attention.

There was no airstrip and the piers were rotting. Farmers who could grow crops had few ways to get them to market off the island and had little incentive to try. Abu Sayyaf and other groups would simply rob them.

"This place was hell," said Ernesto, a local leader who did not want to use his last name.

Basilan after: that is, after the arrival of U.S. troops who've been training and assisting Philippine military forces striving against the terrorists. Residents say they feel more secure. Business activity is picking up, in part because of the United States' spending money on facilities on the island, but more because people believe it is safer.

Most important, the Philippine forces are becoming more effective and have driven Abu Sayyaf to ground, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of Joint Task Force 510.

Most of the 1,000 U.S. military personnel involved in the mission arrived in January. The 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa, Japan, is directly involved with the train-and- assist effort.

The rest of the contingent includes Navy Seabees, Marine Corps engineers, Air Force search and rescue personnel from the 33rd Expeditionary Recovery Squadron at Mactan Air Base about 250 miles away, and Army helicopter crews of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, who ferry troops and supplies between Mactan and Zamboanga Island, a stone's throw from Basilan.

Wurster, who also commands Special Operations, Pacific, talks about "severing the links" between the people and the terrorists. Information is key to any such operation. U.S. forces didn't storm the beach with weapons blazing when they arrived on Basilan, but rather worked with Philippine officials to survey the island population.

Surveyors asked residents how they felt about their government and what facilities they needed. They also charted where the danger areas were and the best ways to approach people living in those areas.

The survey found that islanders have much more confidence in the Philippine military than the government or even their own police.

"This isn't a situation like Indonesia on East Timor," said Air Force Maj. Richard Sater, Task Force 510 spokesman. "The military has no record of human rights abuses and is generally respected."

In the survey, the government was seen as ineffective because it couldn't provide some basic necessities such as clean water and sewage disposal.

"Two kids a day die on Basilan because of bad water," Wurster said. "There is no medical care on the island because (Abu Sayyaf) targets health care providers. They either kidnap them or kill them."

The roads and ports are atrocious. Wurster and U.S. military engineers pointed to a bridge that has been repeatedly built and destroyed. The government would fix the bridge and Abu Sayyaf would destroy it.

"It's in the terrorists' interests to isolate the people of the island," said Wurster.

So, Philippine and American military officials used the survey results to form a plan. At its heart is the idea that the people of Basilan had to see that the government in Manila was effective and could see to their needs.

"The idea of this plan wasn't to get the people to like American soldiers, it's to have the people of Basilan like the government in Manila," Wurster said.

People have to see it's better to be affiliated with the government than with terrorist groups. Wurster estimated that a cell of 20 terrorists needs 200 dedicated supporters to operate and another 2,000 people who are aware of the cell and passively support of it.

JTF 510 planners said the terrorist footprint on Basilan is large enough for people to see and report -- if they feel confident their government is effective and will protect them.

The military aspect of the U.S. mission is the Special Forces training and help rendered to the 103rd Brigade of the Philippine military's Southern Command. Headquartered on Basilan, the brigade's job is to go after Abu Sayyaf and other terror groups, said Army Maj. Jeff Prough, commander of a Special Forces company on the island.

The Special Forces soldiers teach light infantry skills such as marksmanship, patrolling and intelligence gathering.

"The Philippine soldiers are good. They are especially at home in the jungle, but we can help them with tactics, and we do," said Army Maj. Les Brown, another Special Forces commander on the island. He said the soldiers have made progress and that their fire discipline and movement to contact are now first-rate.

U.S. soldiers are also working on training junior NCOs and teaching combat lifesaver programs. "Well-trained NCOs are crucial to anything a unit does," said Army Capt. Mike Lazich, an A-team commander. "Combat lifesaving gives the soldiers confidence that if something happens to them, they can get help."

Right now, the train-and-assist effort stops at the battalion level and is due to end in July.

The American soldiers on the island want to move into Phase II training, under which Special Forces members would work with Filipinos at the lower, more intimate company level. The U.S. personnel are limited to battalion-level work, however, because of the Philippine government's concern over U.S. forces serving in the country.

"I believe we've handled this well," Wurster said. "We didn't come in and try to take anything over. All Americans have been very conscious of the concerns of the Philippine government."

The Philippine government has decided to ask the Americans to remain and to move into Phase II, said Secretary of National Security Angelo Reyes. Top American and Philippine officials will make the official decision.

The military assistance is just one portion of the effort. The Naval Construction Task Group is working on a number of projects that will prove the benefits of government cooperation to the people of Basilan. The group, made up of the Seabees and Marine Corps engineers, has drilled one well and will drill four others in various parts of the island.

U.S. and Philippine forces need quick, all-weather access all over the island. The engineer group is building or repairing the roads. One aspect of this, said Wurster, is that the group has consciously decided to buy supplies locally. The group bought 30,000 cubic meters of aggregate for the road -- all broken up by hand and enough to fill 6,000 dump trucks.

U.S. forces on the island need resupply via air. Now there are few helicopter landing zones and there is no airstrip. The Navy group is rehabilitating an airstrip first built by the Seabees in 1946. They hope to have it cleared for use by C-130s. The airport then, of course, could be used by civilian craft as well.

Air resupply is expensive. The engineers are working on fixing or building piers and jetties. While this will resupply American on the island, the new jetties will also allow Basilan's farmers and businessmen to ship goods to and from the island.

The island's education system stopped working because Abu Sayyaf targeted teachers, principals and anyone else who tried to keep it running, said Army Capt. Rick Myskey, a civil affairs specialist. Because the terrorists targeted many Catholic schools, the situation took on a religious edge that previously hadn't really existed.

"Until recently, there hadn't been a graduation exercise on the island in five years," Myskey said. That graduation exercise occurred because a Special Forces soldier volunteered to help teach at a nearby school, he said. The soldier's interest and the help of the rest of the A-team made the area secure. Children flocked to the school.

Finally, the group, in conjunction with the Special Forces units on the island, is providing much needed medical care to the civilians. A little money goes a long way, Myskey said. Philippine army doctors and U.S. specialists are now holding "sick call" for civilians.

"It's been a great success," Myskey said. "Many of the communities had absolutely no medical care because of the terrorist situation. In fact, only the (U.S. Agency for International Development) will come into the area because it is so dangerous." The captain said they are also receiving medical supplies from the Christian Children's Fund.

The medical outreach has tremendous potential for the Philippine government. Myskey said that when the Americans and Philippine troops first started going into certain areas, many of the people made slashing movements at their throats.

Today, waves and smiles have replaced the slash, with SF commander Prough noting his soldiers "feel like rock stars" now when they drive through some areas. But Prough and all the others on the island realize they've just scratched the surface of the problems facing Basilan.

"This is a poor, poor island," said Inocente Gonzalez, a government bookkeeper. "It will take more than six months to make a (lasting) difference."

Another man said the situation on Basilan had improved dramatically, but he is afraid of what will happen if the Americans leave. The Philippine army has sharply curtailed Abu Sayyaf's activities, but the terrorist leaders are still at large. No one thinks they've seen the light and become peaceful.

The Philippine military will continue to keep pressure on the terrorist groups in the Philippines, Secretary Reyes said. American help would make the effort more effective.

"I see no reason why it couldn't continue," he said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA U.S. service member patrols outside a Nipa hut on Basilan Island, the Philippines, during Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's trip to the island June 3, 2002. Wolfowitz was assessing the progress made in training and assisting Philippine forces in their fight against terrorism in the region. Photo by Jim Garamone.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA U.S. service members mans a machine gun mounted in the back of a pickup truck during Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's trip to Basilan Island, the Philippines. Wolfowitz met June 3, 2002, with Philippine and U.S. military personnel to assess how U.S. aid is helping Philippine soldiers defeat the Abu Sayyaf terror group. Photo by Jim Garamone.   
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