By Lorela U. Sandoval

Evolving security threats in PHL

Posted on April 17, 2015

THERE is no monitored activity on the ground, direct contact, financial support, instructions, or any established link between the dreaded terror group Islamic State and our local terror groups, according to Police Chief Superintendent Generoso R. Cerbo Jr., acting chief of the Public Information Office of the Philippine National Police.

“What we have [seen are] pledges of allegiance [by] some personalities like Radullan Sahiron, the [Abu Sayyaf Group] leader operating in Sulu, [which we monitored through] Facebook or YouTube,” Mr. Cerbo said, adding that they continue to monitor this.

The international terror group that remains a threat to our country, Mr. Cerbo said, is the Jemaah Islamiyah, as well as groups operating in Indonesia and Malaysia, amid what he called the “porous borders in the southern part of the Philippines.”

Apart from the foreign terrorists monitored in the country before, only two high-value targets remain in the government’s lookout following the death of Malaysian terrorist and bomb maker Zulkifli bin Hir, a.k.a Marwan, in the highly controversial Jan. 25 operation that led to the deaths of 44 members of the PNP’s Special Action Force in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

These two targets are Abdul Basit Usman, the other target in that operation, and a Malaysian suspect whom Mr. Cerbo didn’t name.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has confirmed Marwan’s death and removed his name from its list of Most Wanted Terrorists.

The three groups that Mr. Cerbo identified as threats to Philippine security are the New People’s Army of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP-NPA), and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) operating in parts of Mindanao.

The BIFF is a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, whose peace agreement with the government is threatened by the fallout from Mamasapano amid the public and congressional scrutiny over the MILF’s role in the killing of the Fallen 44.

Mr. Cerbo, formerly deputy director of the PNP Directorate for Intelligence, said the ASG and its ilk are engaged in such terror activities as bombings, assassinations, extortion, and periodic clashes with government troops.

But Mr. Cerbo said there have been significant developments over the years in the fight against terror.

For instance, the NPA -- which he described as “communist terrorists” -- is limited now in its operations, in such areas as Region 11, Region 13, and some areas in the Bicol Region and Northern Luzon, compared with 20 to 30 years ago when the NPA was truly a nationwide threat.

These terror groups are here for various reasons, Mr. Cerbo said.

For instance, the ASG operates in the pretext of their extremism views, but their activities, largely limited now to kidnap for ransom, are “purely for financial gain,” Mr. Cerbo said.

The NPA has also been associated with extortion activities, razing buses, factories, plantations.

“So is that a war against capitalism or simply for extortion purposes?” Mr. Cerbo said.

He further cited politically motivated attacks, targeting government troops, officers of the police and military, and local officials like the governors and mayors.

“Although [they are] very selective [in their targets], in addition to [their] terror activities, [there must be] political gain,” Mr. Cerbo said.

He also pointed out that terror activities such as bombings with minimal to zero casualties are “simply for propaganda purposes.” It’s a message, he said to “the whole nation…that we’re still here.”

Social media has also become a channel for terrorists to communicate their objectives and recruit members. “The use of social media by terrorists is perhaps the latest and most convenient platform for terrorists to promote their ideology and to deliver their message more effectively to a wider audience,” he said.

The Anti-Terrorism Council-Program Management Center (ATC-PMC) is the highest body addressing terrorism in the country, according to Mr. Cerbo. The council sets guidance and overall direction, defines national strategy, and formulates policies for implementation of ground units such as PNP and AFP.

The Philippine Center on Transnational Crime (PCTC), on the other hand, is the agency formulating and implementing “a concerted program of action of all law enforcement, intelligence and other government agencies for the prevention and control of transnational crime,” Mr. Cerbo said.

To be sure, the council has been placed in the harsh spotlight of Mamasapano, with one senator questioning its absence in that operation which had been confined to the since-relieved SAF chief and the now-resigned PNP chief.

For this story, this writer repeatedly tried to interview anyone representing these agencies, but a staff member of the ATC-PMC said in an email that she was “advised by Acting Executive Director Oscar Valenzuela that the ATC-PMC has no authority from the Council to engage in media interviews,” and instead recommended the PNP, being “the lead agency on Anti-Terrorism efforts of the Council.” As for the PCTC and LESIO, this writer was told that Undersecretary Felizardo Serapio Jr. had a full schedule in March. An interview with any other representative of the PCTC was sought for this story but this writer was told in a text exchange that the other one advised to answer was still in Indonesia.

As for the PNP, Mr. Cerbo described this institution as the “workhorse” or “legs and arms” of the ATC-PMC.

Coordination with foreign intelligence is also an integral part of counter-terrorism, especially where it involves global terrorism, and Mr. Cerbo said this is a legal recourse.

“We…can share intelligence assets,” he said, citing too the “information sharing protocol with other countries.”

For instance, there is the ASEANAPOL, the collective police force of the 10 ASEAN countries including the Philippines. “Likewise, we have that kind of arrangement with the U.S. FBI, the Australian Federal Police, and other allied countries,” Mr. Cerbo said.

Intercepting the financing of these terrorist groups is also crucial to the anti-terror campaign, he said. “Without…money, [they will be crippled, they won’t be able to move], so we have to check [their] sources of funds.”

Mr. Cerbo noted that many of these terror groups make a living through kidnapping and extortion of business establishments.

Despite the controversy that spiraled out of Mamasapano, Mr. Cerbo said the government was able to show to the global community their efforts to fight terrorism.

He likened the accomplished mission of Marwan’s death to the successful security for Pope Francis, saying it showed the world that “we can protect our guests.”

Mr. Cerbo challenged criticisms that the Philippine government’s counter-terrorism efforts are weak and inefficient. “I will totally disagree with that observation. We’re gaining grounds against these terror groups,” he said.

Mr. Cerbo again cited the NPA, which he said reached its peak in 1986-1987 with a guerrilla force of 20,000 to 25,000, but now has only about 4,000 nationwide.

“To say [that our] counter-terrorism effort [is weak]…would be unfair to the PNP, AFP, and other security forces. [We are winning.]”