Jewish World Review June 3, 2002 / 22 Sivan, 5762
Thomas H. Lipscomb
American Ambassador Francis Ricciardone announced at a news conference in Manila last week that the United States was now willing to pay rewards of up to $5 million for "information leading to the arrest or conviction" of each of the top five leaders of the Al Qaeda-backed Abu Sayyaf terrorists under the "Reward for Justice" program founded in 1984.
A few blocks down the street from the US Embassy, the chairman of the Defense Committee of the Philippine Senate, Ramon Magsaysay, had just released a report stating there was clear evidence of massive collusion between high-ranking Philippine Armed Forces and the Abu Sayaaf. The Philippine Army has been splitting ransoms with the Abu Sayyaf terrorists and carefully arranging the masterful choreography that keeps them out of one another's way at their hideout on tiny 7 by 9 mile Basilan Island. Magsaysay called for hearings to find out "how high the conspiracy" reaches.
But of course everyone in the Philippines from shoeshine boys to the American Ambassador already know "how high" it reaches. It reaches directly to the strongman behind Gloria Arroyo's shaky Presidency--- the highest ranking officer in the Philippine Armed Forces, her Chief of Staff General Diomedio Villanueva. It all came out in a report last fall by a brave Inspector General of the Philippine Armed Forces Rinaldo Rivera which revealed that Villanueva had personally ordered the Philippine Army to let cornered Abu Sayaaf leaders on Basilan pass through their lines with their three hostages including the kidnapped American missionary couple, Grace and Martin Burnham. Villaneuva admitted the charge and offered to resign.
Local sources believe the Philippine Army took a million dollar payoff presumably to defray the expenses of Villanueva's military escort of the Abu Sayaaf back to the jungles of Basilan Island. With that report in hand, President Arroyo took immediate action-she promoted Villanueva.
But Arroyo and Villanueva had a little problem. The Americans offered a tempting military aid and assistance arrangement which gave millions of dollars of equipment to Philippine Armed Forces but also required the stationing of 1200 US Special Forces and other troops as advisors to the Philippine Armed Forces for six months. And how could Villanueva get the money and equipment without having these crack American troops spoil the game with the Abu Sayyaf?
The solution was simple. Confine the advisors to Philippine Army bases in Basilan and Mindanao. Under the "terms of reference" of the Philippine/American agreement, American troops were barred from any independent action in the field. And they were constantly harassed over minor technical violations by the Philippine government to dampen any initiative they might still have left.
Like world champion boxer Muhammed Ali's "rope a dope" tactic, Villaneuva's military just lay back on the ropes and covered up while their enthusiastic American advisory colleagues wore themselves out in expenditures of strength and ability that were never allowed to connect with any vital interest.
So with American troops hamstrung into irrelevance, their withdrawal is really a minor issue. Whether they leave in 8 weeks or 8 years makes little difference. It is the agreement they are operating under that must be radically revised if they are to have any real effectiveness.
In effect conceding that failure, the United States' newest notion seems to be that the way to destroy the Abu Sayaaf is to offer $5 million each for the five top Abu Sayyaf leaders. Of course, the great archipelagos of the South Pacific have been in the ransom business for over 500 years from Spanish and Dutch colonial governors to Terry and the Pirates. Now there is a new sucker sitting down at the table-Uncle Sam.
General Villaneuva must be delighted at this marvelous opportunity for such a windfall. With cash like that, it may not even be worth the trouble to overthrow Gloria Arroyo's government. And who knows better than he does exactly where the Abu Sayyaf leaders are? No wonder his office put out a press release today praising the American "reward for justice" initiative.
Unfortunately, one of the five Abu Sayyaf leaders on the US "Most Wanted List", Aldam Tilao, AKA "Abu Sabaya," seems to have swiped US State Department money intended to ransom the Burnham's from his own comrades earlier this month. That raises an interesting question. Should the Abu Sayyaf currently scouring Mindanao find their traitor and turn "information leading to the arrest or conviction" of him in through some intermediary, will they receive a $5 million "reward for justice" from the United States?
And if Abu Sabaya is arrested by General Villaneuva's duly constituted troops acting for the Philippine Government and somehow "escapes," does the reward still get paid? And given what he knows about General Villaneuva, he just might get killed "escaping." Does the "reward for justice" still get paid? And what of the colorful local Philippine customs, perhaps not given sufficient weight by the State Department lawyers so intent upon avoiding any offensive "wanted dead or alive" language in crafting their "reward for justice" terms? What if 5 heads are delivered in a plain brown burlap bag by some burly Philippinos to the Embassy in Manila that are unarguably those individuals targeted? Does the reward get paid at all?
Replacing a failed military assistance agreement with a "reward for justice" initiative, even more absurd in the current conditions in the Philippines, invites alternatives. Perhaps Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz will be looking for some on his trip to the Philippines this
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Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.