Small Wars Journal

U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Philippines, 2001–2014

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 11:05pm

U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Philippines, 2001–2014 by Linda Robinson, Patrick B. Johnston, and Gillian S. Oak, RAND Corporation

This report examines the 14-year experience of U.S. special operations forces in the Philippines from 2001 through 2014. The objective of this case history is to document and evaluate the activities and effects of special operations capabilities employed to address terrorist threats in Operation Enduring Freedom — Philippines through (1) training and equipping Philippine security forces, (2) providing operational advice and assistance, and (3) conducting civil–military and information operations. The report evaluates the development, execution, and adaptation of the U.S. effort to enable the Philippine government to counter transnational terrorist groups.

An average of 500 to 600 U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps special operations units were employed continuously under the command of a joint special operations task force. They provided training, advice, and assistance during combat operations to both Philippine special operations units and selected air, ground, and naval conventional units; conducted civil–military and information operations on Basilan, in the Sulu archipelago, and elsewhere in Mindanao; provided intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, medical evacuation, and emergency care; aided planning and intelligence fusion at joint operational commands and force development at institutional headquarters; and coordinated their programs closely with the U.S. embassy country team. The authors conclude that Operation Enduring Freedom — Philippines contributed to the successful degradation of transnational terrorist threats in the Philippines and the improvement of its security forces, particularly special operations units. It identifies contributing and limiting factors, which could be relevant to the planning and implementation of future such efforts.

Key Findings

U.S. Special Operations Forces' Activities in the Philippines Between 2001 and 2014 Contributed to a Reduced Transnational Terrorist Threat and Support for Threat Groups

  • The number of enemy-initiated attacks has dropped, the number of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants has decreased, and polls show reduced support for the ASG and a substantial majority reporting satisfaction with Philippine security forces.

U.S. Special Operations Forces' Activities in the Philippines During That Period Also Increased Philippine Security Forces' Capabilities at the Tactical, Operational, and Institutional Levels

  • At the tactical level, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) provided training, advice, and assistance to conventional Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) units at all echelons throughout Mindanao, including Philippine Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force units. In the later years of Operation Enduring Freedom — Philippines, U.S. SOF also provided training, advice, and assistance to the PNP Special Action Forces. U.S. SOF interviewees judged that Philippine SOF are among the most proficient of those Asian SOF units with which they had worked.
  • At the operational level, U.S. SOF advised and assisted the AFP headquarters to improve its joint processes and integrate command and control, planning, and intelligence functions.
  • At the institutional level, U.S. SOF contributed somewhat to strategy, planning, and coordination at the AFP national headquarters, and they helped Western Mindanao Command develop its plans and intelligence analysis and fusion capabilities.

Activities During That Period Had Other Effects as Well

  • The activities enhanced the bilateral defense ties between the United States and the Philippines.


  • U.S. counterterrorism policy in recent years has sought to rely increasingly on indigenous forces. Some efforts have enjoyed greater success than others, including this Philippine example. The study found that key factors that contributed to success in this case were: 1) maintaining the sovereign government lead, which avoided U.S. dependency; 2) adjusting plans through regular assessments; 3) employing SOF and other capabilities in a synergistic way; and 4) creating and maintaining interagency coordination. These findings may be useful in developing policy options and plans for other long-term SOF and partner building missions.

Read the entire research report.


Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 1:50pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

IED was designed to disable the armored vehicle not destroy the vehicle probably the lead vehicle in the convoy....then all shots fired seems to be solely focused on the drivers so that they would not continue driving the vehicle out of the ambush zone which was effectively blocked by the disabled armored vehicle. The photos seem to indicate a single armored vehicle and the interesting point is the majority of the rounds into the jeep were on the right side after the driver was killed so there must have been an officer sitting there which would make sense and potentially he had the he was the key target in the jeep both from rank and cutting off any comms.

From the photos it is hard to tell if there was a second armored vehicle or two photos of the same vehicle.....which might have been.

Based on the numbers killed would say the AS was conducting a messaging attack and an attack to collect weapons/munitions and anything else of military value.

Noticed they did not destroy the vehicles which they should have as they had the time to interesting point is why not as the vehicles are repairable.

In any ambush the goal of those ambushed is to clear out of the kill zone and then turn back to defeat the ambush and or continue moving forward....those in the back of the kill zone and in front of the kill zone should have turned back onto the ambush in an enveloping maneuver forcing the ambushers to disengage.

But it appears as if the ambushers caught everyone in the kill zone thus to me the ambush was a L with at least the ambushers being more than those being ambushed and the length of the ambush matched the length of the convoy....thus they knew about the convoy in advance and the strength of the convoy.


Tue, 04/12/2016 - 8:45am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

These pictures of the ambushed vehicles are making the rounds locally; I think they are publicly viewable:

I don't have the knowledge to draw conclusions about the IED from the nature of the damage to the armored vehicle, but some here might.

Bill M.

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 1:05am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

There has always been varying degrees of foreign support, I think the the real issue is that little has changed, so the conditions are still ripe for foreign exploitation. ASG and other groups have devolved into criminal groups, and now may be evolving into something more dangerous. The old men leading MILF warned that the window for peace was narrowing, as an increasing number of younger men want to fight. Add ISIL for inspiration and the outlook is not rosey.


Mon, 04/11/2016 - 6:25pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

NPA have been using IEDs for years,, so that was probably picked up from sources close to home. A few ASG and BIFF units have released videos of themselves posing with ISIS flags, but there's no publicly known evidence of any actual contact or communication. Money coming into the system is more likely from ransom payments than from ISIS aid.

KFR is an ongoing business. We only hear about it when a foreign national is involved but the steady money comes from local businessmen.

There's always more to the story. Lots of rumor around locally, all of which has to be taken with a grain of salt, as does the official version, when we hear it. The questions I'm hearing from the local observers focus on whether the other side had advance knowledge of the movement, and on whether the troops in the field received prompt supprot and reinforcement - local reports refer to a 10 hour encounter. Obviously most of the discussion is not fully informed.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 04/13/2016 - 9:28am

In reply to by Bill M.


Pull out your copy of Mao's book on Guerrilla Warfare. He discussed this advantage of the insurgent very well; how the very easiest force of all to defeat are those created by foreigners to protect the puppet regimes they establish to protect their interests.

The US persists, however, in believing that what Mao describes so well applies to other foreign powers, those with evil intentions, and who operate outside the rule of law - but not to us "exceptional" Americans. History, of course, is not on our side. We applied this failed strategy in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq with equally disastrous results for both us and the "partner" nation we sought to create. We argue tactics, but we die by our strategy.

My take-away is that building partner capacity only works with the partner one supports is broadly perceived as having the right to govern those affected by their governance. Do they have popular legitimacy. If yes, then capacity helps them expand their legitimacy and enforce their sovereignty. If no, then we are pissing up the proverbial rope. We think that if we grant a fiat of legal legitimacy on these governments that it will overcome their fundamental lack of popular legitimacy. That is a cornerstone of our hubris and folly as a nation.

Of note, when Britain created foreign forces they did not expect them to fight for the legitimacy of the puppet regimes they created, they expected them to fight for the legitimacy of the British Crown. These forces have proven extremely effective. What a difference popular legitimacy makes in the will of a fighting force.


Bill M.

Wed, 04/13/2016 - 6:42am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I have always thought this was the reasons that communist insurgents, and in many cases jihadists, have been able to hold their own against our partners that we train and equip. We tend to think superior technology, tactics, and resources will trump over a defiant adversary. Our adversaries in many cases focus on ideology and fighting spirit. If those we are training have that spirit we will likely be successful, if not then we could simply be wasting money.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 7:34am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill...we sometimes fail to look a how motivation drives a force....I know this is off the thread.....but right now both the Syrian AQ branch JaN and the US supplied Free Syrian Army are battling a major Iranian mercenary army together with Russian artillery, Spetsnaz and the RuAF a specific town and the Syrian "insurgency" has basically beaten them into the ground.

How can fighters who were civilians just a few months ago repel such attack by Iranian Special Forces? Verily, all power belongs to Allah.

Fighting for the "flag or your own country" is what has been missing in Iraq with the Iraqi forces and the US cannot "instill" must come naturally out of the civil society or ecosystem from which comes the insurgent or counter insurgent. Plus you must have officers who are willing to lead for the "flag and country"....

It is this motivation that I think Robb tapped into with his 21st century ideas....and how that motivation drives evolution and adaptation.

Bill M.

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 3:26am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Clausewitz compared war in his day to the physics of the day. Mao wrote about the ebb and flow of rural insurgencies. He used schools of as an analogy. Rob writes about global insurgency in the 21st century, and appropriately compared war to information technology. IT is the enabler of modern globalization, so it an appropriate comparison and why it resonates with those in the fight in a way the classics are incapable of. I recommend reading both, but Rob is on to something.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 3:05am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan...but and there is always a but.....he was the first to concisely describe it in terms that made every single move clear and concise and understandable if you looked intently enough....that is why I use the term we "did not see and understand" at all in Iraq and later AFG.

Here is though the real failure of the intel world in Iraq in the early years and it actually continued until we left Iraq.....the interrogation side of the house was never fully staffed with excellent individuals who had deep experience in the areas of cultural my time the Army sent a BN of Korean strategic debriefers to Abu Ghraib because the unit wanted to have participated in Iraq.... great that they spoke fluent Korean but they have never worked with translators, never had heard of say Revolution 1920, IAI, Badr Corp, Mahdi Army or even AQ the then QJBR...much less did they understand the tribe structures in Iraq. By the time they got half way decent they left.

Having even looked inside a Koran, or understanding the Sunni/Shia divide and geo politics of the ME..totally forget it...or even worse...the history of Iraq and the Khomeini effect inside Iraq.....

Throw in the fact that the National IC never provided feedback nor collection directions and or their interests and we assigned as operations officers for the shifts officers who have never had interrogation, Humint or field collection experience.....and could not tell the wheat from the was amazing anything was achieved.

By the way....we tried to do "Requests for Information" out of National....tens were filed and not a single one answered in over 1.5 years.....heck the Marines around the corner in Ramadi answered everyone we requested....but DC...hang it up!

Coupled with the Army when it was training military replacement interrogators for us refusing to allow us to push the trainees as hard as we knew they needed to be pushed "as it would not allow enough of them to be trained"...our attitude was better an excellent few than a mass of poorly order to just hit the "required trained numbers".

The second core failure was ..we had the true Iraqi leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI)....who then rolled as a major Sunni Salafist group into IS...he knew I knew who he was and yet with massive pleading with National I could not get a simple thing like a 600 page hand written personal journal translated nor could I get biometric data worked up and matched against my data.....he smiled when he walked out of Abu Ghraib six months later and when "disappeared"

Interestingly he has never been registered as killed or captured since then.

NOW extend that intel failure into other parts of the globe and yet we wonder why we are running behind them?

BTW...the field has never really and fully tried to understand this adaptation process as that is what has to be "disturbed" in order to gain time for the political process to kick in. Diyala I worked up a series of indicators based on pattern analysis that clearly would indicate when the next series of attacks would occur and usually also where...and yes insurgents get into ruts as well......the BCT would then when the indicators started showing start a series of counter pushes which totally threw off the insurgent groups usually for up to four weeks before they could recycle...gaining the BCT breathing space to work with the tribes and not dodge attacks and IEDs....

But we were the ones that the Baghdad command thought were crazy for not constantly being in the field and not killing more and I often had to fight against the DoS to get approval for some moves.

There was another buzz word that was fashionable in 2005/2008..."insurgent ecosystem" from Kllcullen which soon fell into disfavor but today coupled with Robb's concept of open source insurgency makes massive sense.

In some ways the laboratory for this coupling ...we are now seeing in Syria and would go a long way in explaining what is exactly happening there as well as in Libya.

But what is "out of fashion" always sadly remains "out of fashion"...even when the face of reality dictates going back to it.

The failure to "learn" and "adapt" has been a big problem for the US across all spheres.


Mon, 04/11/2016 - 6:17pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Yes, people learn and adapt, and the less bureaucracy hampers them and the more their survival dampens on adaptation, the faster they adapt. This is not unique to insurgents or criminals, we just notice it more when it's people with guns doing the adapting.

This is well known; John Robb is not the first to notice it. He did perhaps come up with a cooler buzzword to describe the phenomenon than others.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/11/2016 - 3:37pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Ah the beauty of an evolving and learning insurgency.

In the years of say 2006 through say 2010 John Robb pushed a concept called the 10 Standing Orders of an insurgency which in 2012 he expanded to 27 to explain why we were seeing in the field a steady and rapid evolution of insurgent groups at first in Iraq and then in other places

He pushed the concept called open source insurgency as a way of explaining this speed of the evolution of a learning and adapting insurgency.

Open source taken from the concept of open source coding where any number of coders work on a particular open source software and in the end achieve a new software not seen before simply through the process of sharing learned experiences.

We saw this learning and adpating being used by the Iraqi insurgency via the Internet, CDs, and videos already in 2004 and 2005...down to USBs being passed around with the newest and greatest.

To me in the interrogation business I was seeing this every day and it did not in the least surprise me..BUT try reporting it up the chain to National in 2005 and 2006.

They did not want to hear and or see any such reporting as it did not fit what was expected......I was one of the few who fully understood what I was seeing as it was identiical to what I had been trained for in SF in the 60s and what I had even practiced in actual environments and knew it worked.

I remember mentioning it here at SWJ during that period and took massive hits and alot of commenters laughed at it.

But now with an extensive amount of hindsight..was John Robb actually onto something that in it's core was correct??

Just a thought.....

All our debates here at SWJ over UW they have never really answered the question of the ability of insurgent to develop or evolve far faster than the counter insurgent.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 04/11/2016 - 1:09pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Regarding this weekend's attack I received a brief report from a close friend in the Philippines that is telling:

landmine/IEDs covered with auto fires..vehs/armor badly damaged.

I think they may have ISIS/foreign spt Italian hostage has just been released and, as usual, though not reported, huge ransom may have been paid enabling them to get more recruits on contractual basis..

Last year some of these grps pledged allegiance to ISIS thru circulated videos..AFP sources dismissed it as propaganda END QUOTE

This sounds like a fairly sophisticated ambush for the ASG especially if they were taking on "armored vehicles" which are likely wheeled SImbas or Cadillac Gage Commandos and of course the workhorse 2 1/2 ton trucks. If this was an ambush of multiple vehicles and the troops were mounted and hit with land mines that incapacitated the vehicles along with covering automatic weapons fire it would explain the high casualty rate. The last time I recall an attack like this was in Basilan in 2007 when a truck got stuck and separate from the column and it was ambushed by ASG and 10 Philippine Marines were beheaded.

So for all of us arm chair quarterbacks out there second guessing this incident and the AFP there may, as usual, be more to the story.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 04/11/2016 - 7:54am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan...fully agree about the role of the government in actually addressing the UW drivers and where there is no will there will never be a way forward and violence will go on as long as the triggers of that violence prevail. No amount of CUW force will stop an insurgency....unless and until the actual drivers of that UW are resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.

Bill...nice to see the summary....that is what RAND should have focused more on.


Mon, 04/11/2016 - 4:48am

In reply to by Bill M.

<i>Was JSOTF-P a success? Yes and no. It achieved about as much it could from a military perspective. It helped create windows of opportunity for political settlements that were squandered. In the end, we can only do so much.</i>

RAND could have published just that short paragraph and done a better job. Maybe they were paid by the word.

Colombia may have seen their problem as more of an existential threat (though Manila has suffered attacks) but there are other differences as well. One is that anti-Muslim prejudice is deeply rooted in the majority Philippine population, making a negotiated solution a tough sell politically. The political opposition (including people who were involved in GMA's similar peace effort) has accused Aquino of everything from treason to national dismemberment to accommodating terrorists for initiating a move toward limited regional autonomy. The majority of the populace seems more responsive to "ubusin ng lahi" ("exterminate them") than to negotiation.

National government also seems very reluctant to challenge the local feudal lords, many of whom have numerous connections to criminal and rebel elements. They see the cooperation of the feudal lords as essential to maintaining short-term marginal stability (and to generating votes) and make no effort at all to bring the local political apparatus within the rule of law. Until that changes it's hard to see any real chance of resolving these conflicts.

Bill M.

Sun, 04/10/2016 - 5:53pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09


I don't know about you, but I prefer to read the commentary from self-critical officers who don't pretend to have all the answers. This is what I did, this is why I did it, and now in retrospect this is what I think I did right and did wrong. I'm tiring of the writers who wear academic credentials, but are little more than Special Forces Groupies on the taxpayer payroll pushing an agenda. As Dayuhan points out below, this RAND report, because we're easily swayed by academic credentials, will become the definitive account and the mission will be portrayed as being much more successful than it was. History is full of lies, this is one we see developing. We have seen the same with the reports on El Salvador (now one of most violent countries in the world), Afghanistan (a long way from anything that could be called desirable, much less a win), and Iraq (need I say more?).

I'll offer a few thoughts based on my knowledge of the mission. First, we didn't leave the Philippines after JSOTF-P was deactivated. The U.S. military continues to partner with and assist our treaty ally on a number a security issues. The JSOTF served its purpose, and one could honestly assess we wouldn't get much return on investment by continuing to maintain that level of engagement. In fact, decentralizing the effort and getting rid of another HQs could increase mission effectiveness. The Philippine security forces are increasingly capable, but again as Dayuhan point out until the politicians in Manila take the situation seriously and come up with an enduring political solution the security situation in the southern Philippines and beyond will be problematic. The U.S. can't solve their problem of corruption and political will. The Filipino people will have to compel their government to change. If they don't, then the situation will continue indefinitely.

On the down side, I think we shared our high value individual (HVI) targeting mentality with the Philippine security forces, which causes one to confuse tactics with strategy, or in this case not even consider how a raid to capture or kill Marwan (how important was he really, he has been dead for a while and the violence hasn't let up?), put a knife in the political deal that could have brought peace between the MILF and the government of the Philippines. Maybe it can be resurrected, but like Dayuhan I have my doubts. The peace deal wouldn't have got rid of all the violence, but it would have been a start to good governance and seriously reducing it.

To get to the core of your question, the true and arguably undeniable tactical/operational success of the JSOTF was assisting the Philippines reduce the horrific level of violence in Basilan during the early years. Over time there was also a degree of professionalizing the local security forces, and assisting their security forces become viewed as more legitimate. These efforts now continue through other means.

I don't know what it will take for the Philippine government to get serious about addressing the drivers of conflict in the region. I think one of the reasons that the successes in Columbia were greater, is that that the Columbian government perceived the threat to be existential when bombs were going off and police were getting killed in Bogota. In contrast, the insurgency, criminal activity, and terrorism in the Southern Philippines is largely confined to the Sulu Sea area.

Was JSOTF-P a success? Yes and no. It achieved about as much it could from a military perspective. It helped create windows of opportunity for political settlements that were squandered. In the end, we can only do so much.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/10/2016 - 1:55pm

18 Filipino Soldiers Killed In Clashes With Abu Sayyaf Militants -…

26 years later (with SF being there from 2001-2014) and they are still on the was in fact the US SF engagement starting in 2001 a success or a failure????

That should be the core question answered by RAND......but it was not.


Sun, 04/10/2016 - 9:51pm

In reply to by RantCorp

There are similarities but also differences. Again local context is key. In the late 80s and early 90s you had a whole string of organized criminal enterprises in the Philippines using former rebels or militia members as manpower and being handled or directed by people within government and the security apparatus... Pentagon Gang, Red Scorpion Gang, Kuratong Baleleng are a few who come to mind; there were others. Typically these started in Mindanao and in many cases moved north to Manila. Very few were ever arrested or tried; when they were no longer of use they were "killed in a shootout", generally under fairly one-sided circumstances, like with their hands tied.

There were people in the ASG who were pushing to take the group in this direction from the start, and to some extent they succeeded... for a while at last. Eventually evolution took an unpredictable course, as it is wont to do.


Sun, 04/10/2016 - 7:58am

I was struck by the similarity of your description of a morphing of an embryonic 'Jihad' into a criminal enterprise in the PH and what happened to the Muj in AF. For some reason folks just don't want to believe how readily this happens no matter how well-intended the original framework or initial successes .

Despite 3000 tons of refined heroin spreading out across the globe and the blatant evidence of hundreds of thousands of hectares of blooming poppies, we are constantly bombarded with PC RAND-speak about the primacy of drivers grounded in spirituality and Jeffersonian legitimacy.

I mean to say the criminal evidence in AF can be seen from the Space Station whereas in the PH it is characterized with typical criminal underworld deceit/deception. As such I don't rate the chance of outside help being of much utility in the PH any time soon.


Well, I read the thing, a rather grim exercise that ended with me channeling Conrad's Kurtz, grasping head in hands and mumbling "the horror, the horror". I can only hope that somewhere in the internal bowels of State and Defense an unexpurgated version is circulating, and that this sugar-coated rose-colored tripe has been rolled out simply for palliative public consumption. It's a bit shocking to imagine what the US Government must have paid RAND for this, a bit scary to think that it will be cited as an authoritative source for decades to come, and downright horrifying to think that it might actually shape decisions in the future.

Without excessive detail... the discussion of the history and development of the Abu Sayyaf is just pathetic; a half-bright high school student with an internet connection could have done better. The critical issue of both civil and military government collusion with the ASG is simply written out of the story, as if it did not exist. Local governance, the key to any actual resolution of the conflict, is treated as peripheral and mentioned only in passing. The focus on ASG and JI as the embodiments of threat severely limits the relevance of the discussion, as does the failure to look at the internal dynamics of the ASG as a contributing factor to many of the developments that are assumed to be caused by US or Philippine Government action. The Mamasapano disaster, which calls into question many of the supposed gains and which effectively torpedoed the Central Mindanao peace process and left the region drifting determinedly back into war, is a footnote.

I got the impression overall that it was simply ordained from the start that the whole thing had to be treated as a great success.

I wish some discussion of this operation would note that while there were some accomplishments on the military side, they are likely to have no long term impact on the region, because the core problem - civilian governance - is completely outside the remit of any plausible US operation. The US didn't solve the problems because it can't. They are Filipino problems and need to be addressed by Filipinos.

I don't see how we can learn from these things if we can't even talk about them honestly.


Sun, 04/10/2016 - 9:39pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

What you said was:

<i>I would argue if you really looked at some of the very early messaging from AS that the so called veneer of jihadism was already there...yes they were a criminal enterprise but hey how else do you get funding in the early 90s as your fighters might fight for a "cause" but they still need to be paid</i>

The '91 ASG was not dependent on criminal enterprise for funding: they had Khalifa for that. The move to criminal enterprise was initiated, eventually, by individuals who saw the group as potentially a purely profit-making enterprise, but that came into play well down he line.

Re this:

<i>AS split with MNLF simply because a large faction inside of MNLF wanted to do a deal with the government and AS was basically against that deal due again to the jihadi side of their messaging ...they did in fact ride the coattails of the larger group.</i>

Your chronology is off: AJ split with the MNLF before the ASG existed. AJ was personally vocally opposed to negotiation; he had too much of a following to be comfortably killed so the MNLF sent him off to Libya for religious study. After he returned (some say via Peshawar and Khost, which would certainly not have been sanctioned by the MNLF but may have happened anyway) he set about building a group aimed at competing with the MNLF, which attracted the attention of Khalifa and Abdul Asmad, who had money and ideology but needed a charismatic leader. You could say that AJ split with the MNLF over the negotiations, but not the ASG, because the ASG was never part of MNLF, it was initiated from the start with the intention of competing with the MNLF. Of course AJ and Khalifa/Asmad had widely divergent views of what the ASG should become, and Angeles, Wahab Akbar, etc had an even more divergent view, hence the identity crisis. I'm not sure I could call the ASG of '91 an insurgency. An aspiring insurgncy, maybe, at least for some of those involved.

<i>Actually when you think about it...when the counter insurgent takes over an area and sees nothing but criminal activity does he really look underneath the rug to check the ideology other than being "criminal" activity?</i>

Not sure how applicable this was to US action against the ASG... the US generally saw more ideology than was actually there, and underrated the extent to which money was a motivator in the whole picture.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/10/2016 - 9:56am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Actually you are saying the same thing I did...just different wording but for all practical purposes the same exact thing....jihadi first criminal element second and a co-mingling due to the lack of heavy outside funding flows in the early years.

AS split with MNLF simply because a large faction inside of MNLF wanted to do a deal with the government and AS was basically against that deal due again to the jihadi side of their messaging ...they did in fact ride the coattails of the larger group.

How else does a initially small group survive and recruit? You even agree with the comment early on they had no real mass base and or controlled territory...that was all MNLF.

Small insurgent groups will always tie themselves to a larger one if one exists in their area simply to survive and history has shown that often the larger groups due to internal tensions often splitter over the long haul and the smaller ones do not due in some aspects to their initial smallness that allows for a better cohesion to develop.

AS was still by 1991 of no interest to the US as many never envisioned ever having to fight again after Desert Storm and the Wall coming down.

Criminal activities by an insurgent group should not surprise anyone...there is how they survive and pay the troops.....even in Europe during the leftist days of the RAF, Red Brigade or say 2 June..they lived from bank robberies so does that make them "criminals"??

Even with the various African NLF groups there was a healthy dose of criminal activity that paralleled their insurgencies.....

Actually when you think about it...when the counter insurgent takes over an area and sees nothing but criminal activity does he really look underneath the rug to check the ideology other than being "criminal" activity?

When Hezbollah gets in bed with transnational drug gangs do we analyze their religious motives or do we treat them as "criminals"...when IS takes over and runs the human trafficking out of Libya raking in massive sums do we question their "criminal activities" or when they smuggle out oil to fund they "war machine" are they jihadi's first or "criminals" second?

It is simply the same page just a different has always existed in an insurgent driven UW campaign....


Sun, 04/10/2016 - 6:00am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Your chronology is mistaken. The early ASG messaging was entirely jihadi, and funding was in place from Khalifa, who adopted AJ and convinced him to move on from his prior marginal group and establish ASG. There were some cross purposes involved, with Khalifa's people pushing for an internationalist agenda and AJ aspiring to be Basilan's Hashim Salamat, but both sides were fully focused on religion and jihad. In the early stages, though, they had no real mass base or controlled territory. The criminal element was present early on - Edwin Angeles established his early credibility with AJ by facilitating the purchase of assault rifles using Khalifa's money - but didn't achieve real ascendancy until '94 or so and were not fully in control til more or less '98. That's when a real mass base was established, but that had nothing to do with jihad, it was driven by money.

I don't see how ASG could ever have been said to have tied themselves to the tailcoats of the MNLF... they were trying as hard as they could to break out of the MNLF legacy, but of course AJ never had Hashim Salamat's experience, connections, or organizational capacity.

Americans may have only discovered the ASG after 9/11; they were well known here long befre then. They probably were not seen as an American problem (the US had little interest in adopting these problems in the 90s, and not only in the Philippines), and that was really not such an unreasonable perspective.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/10/2016 - 3:20am

In reply to by Dayuhan both missed and caught inadvertently the curve with AS...

Perceptions play a very large role within an armed group....whether they cover themselves in say a "leftist ideology trend" or in the case of AS at first "national liberation".and later "jiahdists" is that perception that assists in recruiting and get then the recruits to fight for the "cause". Thus their tying themselves onto the tailcoats of the Moro National Liberation movement in order to grant them the "perception" that they were a coming group.

I would argue if you really looked at some of the very early messaging from AS that the so called veneer of jihadism was already there...yes they were a criminal enterprise but hey how else do you get funding in the early 90s as your fighters might fight for a "cause" but they still need to be stating that they worked with the local government security apparatus is true for every country where corruption exists and the Philippines is no exception in this case....and where there is an insurgent group...look at the interaction between a dictator Assad and the creation of IS in Syria or how the Russian FSB and Iran have really aided in the development of AQ over the years...

Remember the international funding streams for the various jihadi groups was not in place in the early 90s that it is today so criminal activities is not a major surprise nor issue when analyzing AS in the early 90s.We even see cases of say Hezbollah dabbling in the global drug trade to drive funding.

That is the problem even IS is now facing in Iraq and Syria.....where they have reduced the monthly salary by 50%.

For me the Moro group was not an issue as they were in ongoing discussions with the Philippine government AS was not and remember as I pointed out virtually no one in the US even had AS on any radar screen criminal or 90/91.

That is the key...these groups have been around for a long time and "discovered" only after 9/11...why is that should be the question asked?


Sat, 04/09/2016 - 9:04pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

ASG had an identity crisis from its inception, founded by a cluster of parties with distinctly and sometimes wildly different agendas, so it's hard to accurately classify the group at that stage as one thing or another. In '91 the group had no territorial base to speak of and operated almost entirely in Zamboanga City, with unsophisticated "bombings" that were mainly pitch-and-run grenade attacks on soft targets.


<i> Once the AS missed their chance at overthrowing government control in their areas of operations they radicalized as a result of this perceived failure and drifted a number of years later into the jihadi movement of today as part of that radicalization process.</i>

This is simply wrong. ASG never had any chance of overthrowing government control and made no serious effort to do so. The group actually de-radicalized as it developed. One faction, most visibly Edwin Angeles but with a few others in there as well, some of whom were later to become prominent in very different roles, saw the group from the start as something that could be developed into a money-making enterprise working in thinly-veiled concert with parts of the security apparatus, as was fashionable at the time. That faction eventually achieved dominance through the simple expedient of getting the jihad-focused and insurgency-focused leaders killed. By '98 the group was essentially a criminal enterprise with only the thinnest veneer of nominal jihadi idntity.

All of that of course happened much later, but I would have to question the extent to which the ASG in '91 could have been reasonably classified as "insurgency", in anything beyond a very aspirational sense.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/09/2016 - 4:49pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan.....what was so disconnected from the reality of AS in 1990/91.

They were Muslim focused and in the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf split from the Moro National Liberation Front, one of the two major ethnic Muslim separatist movements in the southern Philippines fighting for the right to govern themselves instead of a perceived Catholic central government.

Using the terms of the 70s one could have just as easily called AS a national liberation movement in the early 90s as was the Moro group name tied to national liberation, but they were actually at that time more focused on the following activities....bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortion against the Philippine army that was based in their operational areas.

In 1990/91 some of us were far more focused on the Muslim insurgent aspect of AS than the rest of the world in 1991 was.....which was basically not at all.

What many miss is that UW insurgencies are always to a large degree the same regardless of where they occur...finding the trigger is the important piece.

Once the AS missed their chance at overthrowing government control in their areas of operations they radicalized as a result of this perceived failure and drifted a number of years later into the jihadi movement of today as part of that radicalization process.

We see this drifting into jihadi radicalization ongoing in a number of countries when governments fail to respond to the demands of their Muslim civil societies.....


Sat, 04/09/2016 - 7:38am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

That would all be very impressive if it weren't completely disconnected from the reality of what the Abu Sayyaf were in 1991, and for that matter from the reality of the very different Abu Sayyaf that drew US attention a decade or so later. Useful though the exercise may have to wonder if it bore any relationship at all to actual conditions on the ground in the Philippines.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 04/09/2016 - 2:39am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan......your not "challenging" in the least so here it is....

1. the drivers behind a developing UW campaign from the insurgent side
2. the role of the population and their towns in a counter UW environment
3....AND this is critical
4. the often subtle overlooked indicators of the depth and support/non support by the civil society for the UW insurgents campaign and how the insurgent ties that into his UW campaign
5. the info war messaging/civil actions that has to accompany any CUW campaign

Then onto the subtle and not so subtle intel indicators of the next UW moves....the subtle and not so subtle weak points of the UW campaign of the insurgent coupled with analysis of your own weaknesses in countering the insurgent.

This point was the hardest for them to grasp....their own weaknesses and limitations.

Then taking this all into account and how to then advise all of this into your Philippino infantry counterparts.....and then into joint ops with the 7th acting as advisors not combatants....providing through a QRF for the Philippine infantry counterpart.

Remember this was long before the COIN debate and built on the insurgency experiences of the US SF CIDG program in SVN.

In the end the really hardest part for the trainees was determining the so called "indicators" as they developed and then tracking them as a CUW campaign never stops nor rests and it is 24 X 7 X 365 that is why we ran the exercise a full 24 hours for two weeks.

In the end most Americans had never heard of Abu Sayyef in the first place in 1990/91 and exercising CUW just after Desert Strom was not the "norm".

Also remember the Philippines is a vast set of islands and jungle.....nearly identical to that jungle environment of SVN so lessons learned from VN applied nicely into the Philippines....

Actually the hardest part for us was the generation of exercise inputs as this was not the "year of the computer" and a lot of it was by hand jamming and there were only two trainers....myself and what use to be called Order of Battle Techs.

The lesson learned that we took away was that light infantry with their mindset of walking vs mechanized and the independence that gives a small unit coupled with the ability to grasp CUW quickly coupled with solid field generated intel analysis was present in 1991 inside the US Army as the experiences of the VN generation were still present in the Army and were slowly fading out.

Not now though.


Fri, 04/08/2016 - 6:49pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Not to challenge your unquestioned omniscience or anything... but when you say they "got it", what exactly did they "get"?

Outlaw 09

Fri, 04/08/2016 - 1:16pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Just a side comment....I built a three week training concept for intel staffs of the Regiments of the 7th Light Infantry Division at Ft.Ord and successfully used Abu Sayyaf as "the guerrilla force of choice" long before anyone was paying any attention to Abu Sayyef in 1990/1991.

Used all the Abu Sayyef guerrilla indicators that made up their then UW campaign at that time and hate to say it the intel sections of the Regimental Staffs "got it" and "got it" in an easy fashion once they understand what to "see and understand".

We coupled it with a one week UW focused lead in with all aspects that one sees in an UW environment to set the mindset.

It forced all aspects of a UW engagement.....Ft. Huachuca wanted it complete with the over 4000 message traffic driven decision makers when we wrapped up the Regimental cycles...

THEN they took one look at it and stated...."we will store it for the future as we envision no UW events in the coming years"..... one else was looking at Abu Sayyef in 1991.

Side effect of the training was that when the 7th deployed to Panama the Regimental Staffs functioned like clockwork.

THEN in typical Army fashion the entire Light Division was disbanded within three months.

AND later for Iraq and AFG.....they were sorely missed.

How many times does the US Army have to literally reinvent the wheel?...BUT hey the Bush "peace dividend" was the rage of the times....

Bill M.

Sat, 04/09/2016 - 2:29pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


Unfortunately you hit the nail on the head with your description. The Bangsamoro Law is most likely dead, and younger jihadists in the Southern Philippines will leverage this as a rallying cry that I predict will undo the positive political developments under President Aquino. As for transnational links, they're there, always have been, but the degree of relevance may have been exaggerated. Tend to agree with Bob that U.S. task force assisted in professionalizing the Philippine Armed Forces and helped increase their legitimacy with the locals in the Southern Philippines. As for security? Seems to be pretty much as it has been (terrorists, militants, criminals, and pirates, the hybrid irregular threat) the three links below are simply three examples of many if anyone cares to search for more. This indicates that confusing long term and persistent presence with successful strategy is misleading, if not an outright deception. Yes it takes time and persistent presence, but what you do with that time (the strategy execution space) is key. Being honest with your assessments is also key.…

Terror groups form Islamic State powerhouse in the Philippines: video…

Philippine militants wound 22 soldiers in clash after freeing Italian…

Sulu Sea area risks becoming a terror haven, expert warns

"We have no 'hot-pursuit' agreement and so militants or criminals are able to slip between jurisdictions because borders mean nothing to them." she said, adding they were cunning and capable of adapting to threats.


Fri, 04/08/2016 - 7:06pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

There's no question that the ASG was founded with the intention of building a transnational jihadi group, but by '98, well before the US involvement, the group had gone out of control and morphed into a primarily criminal enterprise often working in collusion with authority. By this time time the jihadi sponsors had pretty much abandoned the project: most support dried up after Abdul Asmad, Khalifa's main man on the ground, was set up and killed in '94. Ironically, increased military pressure under US leadership actually drove a swing back to jihadi principles. When the KFR revenue stream was cut off and some of the more charismatic criminal leaders remover, Khadaffy Janjalani tried to lead a jihadi revival in concert with some fundamentalist MILF elements and the Luzon-driven Rajah Solaiman movement, leading among others to the Superferry bombing.

I'd agree that the US deployment had some positive impact on the Philippine military, though this may at times be overstated: incidents like the mess in Mamasapano make one question how much was really learned. The other great limitation, of course, is that the US involvement did not and could not affect the utterly toxic environment of local governance that generates the problem in the first place. Discussions of civil-military operations and conspicuous aid and assistance delivered by foreign and even domestic military forces must but rarely do accept that these operations often only serve to underscore the incapacity and corruption of the local government that is supposed to be delivering these services.

The Bangsamoro Law is a dead deal; it is not going to happen... and we can look forward to plenty more Small War action in the area to analyze and discuss in coming years. Unfortunate, but true.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 04/08/2016 - 10:47am

In reply to by Dayuhan


Your assessment is spot on. JI were the only ones operating in the region that one could truly call a "transnational terrorist threat" (though I always felt our presence, regardless of how well crafted and executed, was likely to make them more likely, rather than less likely, to conduct an attack against some US target). ASG was usually characterized as "drugs and thugs" or some such, recognizing, as you well know, their primary purpose for action is profit motivated criminal activity.

Our operations in the Philippines "didn't make it worse." And I believe, actually helped shape a small, but positive evolution of relationships between government security forces in the south and the populations they engage with. I believe it also helped to facilitate the development of the Bangsamoro law, which is IMO very smart COIN - but like the US Civil Rights laws (also very smart COIN) is the beginning of the journey, not the end.

The Philippines remain very high on the instability index for very good reasons, all of which you are far more aware than most of us. Spanish colonialism is a gift that just keeps giving...


I'll have to read the entire report, but the classification of the Abu Sayyaf as a "transnational terrorist threat" seems initially suspect. Any attempt at applying the lessons of this exercise to other conflicts needs to recognize that by the time the US got involved the Abu Sayyaf was primarily a criminal enterprise and that its appeal to both communities and recruits was almost entirely dependent on the group's ability to generate money, primarily through ransom payments. The rapid rise of the ASG was a consequence of a number of high-profile kidnappings that generated large ransom payment, not of ideological appeal.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 10:30pm

This excerpt can be summarized as Special Operations Forces simply doing their job by relying on their training, long term relationships with the host nation military, understanding of the operational environment because of continuous training in country for decades, and most important employing the fundamental SOF doctrine as it existed at 9-11.

QUOTE U.S. counterterrorism policy in recent years has sought to rely increasingly on indigenous forces. Some efforts have enjoyed greater success than others, including this Philippine example. The study found that key factors that contributed to success in this case were: 1) maintaining the sovereign government lead, which avoided U.S. dependency; 2) adjusting plans through regular assessments; 3) employing SOF and other capabilities in a synergistic way; and 4) creating and maintaining interagency coordination. These findings may be useful in developing policy options and plans for other long-term SOF and partner building missions. END QUOTE