Philippines Mulls Military Strike Against Terrorists

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Authorities in the Philippines are contemplating a military strike against Islamic militants who have threatened to behead an American hostage unless the U.S. frees three imprisoned Arab terrorists.

The Abu Sayyaf gang has also demanded $10 million for the release of 24-year old African-American, Jeffrey Craig Shilling, Philippine officials said Friday.

Manila newspapers Friday cite a range of government and military officials as indicating that this week's kidnapping of Schilling would not be handled like the case of the last group of foreign hostages seized by Abu Sayyaf.

Those hostages, most of them abducted last April from a diving resort in nearby Malaysia and taken to Abu Sayyaf's southern Philippines stronghold, have been the subject of drawn-out negotiations involving a Libyan envoy.

Six were freed earlier this week in exchange for what negotiators say was $6 million in ransom paid by Libya. Another 24, mostly Filipinos but also including six westerners, remain captive.

But unlike European Union governments which had appealed to Manila not to use a military option to free their nationals - and, according to French reports, promised diplomatic benefits to President Muammar Gadaffi in return for the mediation - the U.S. has made it clear it will not pay ransom or deal with terrorists.

Government executive secretary Ronaldo Zamora said in a radio interview that in the Schilling case, no foreign government had asked Manila to avoid the military option. Neither was foreign mediation again being weighed.

"Basically, the United States said this is an internal matter and we will treat it that way," he said.

"What's clear is that this should not be handled the way the other hostages were handled ... we will see if we can do this within the regular government agencies. This is a purely police matter and I don't think we should involve any other country."

Domestic pressure is building on the government to hit hard at Abu Sayyaf. The Philippines Daily Inquirer reports that a number of lawmakers have urged action to stop the kidnappers once and for all.

Military officers in southern Philippines say they are only awaiting the order to strike.

Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado played down the possibility of an immediate military attack, but suggested that policy could change soon: "This thing has become a revolving door. There are hostages coming in and hostages getting out. I think one of these days we should close that door."

The U.S. Embassy in Manila Thursday appealed to the kidnappers to free Schilling, an Oakland, Calif. resident, whose parents said was seriously ill and required regular prescription drugs.

"'From a humanitarian standpoint, he should be released as soon as possible," embassy spokesman Thomas Skipper said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher responded to speculation that the American, a convert to Islam, may have gone to the Abu Sayyaf camp of his own accord by saying it was the understanding of the U.S. and the Philippines that Schilling was being held "against his will."

The Abu Sayyaf gang holding Schilling is a different one from the group that seized the other foreigners last April. Government negotiators hope the process of having the remainder of those hostages released will not be affected by Schilling's capture.

Schilling's captors have demanded the release from American jails of three men linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six and injured 1,000. The faction beheaded two Filipino hostages last April, after failing to have the same demand met. It also tortured and killed a Catholic priest.

The Philippine Star quoted a Libyan foreign ministry official as saying Tripoli would not turn its back if Washington requested its help.

Boucher said in Washington the U.S. was "not interested in third-party mediation" and that the Philippines government was in charge of efforts to secure Schilling's release.

'Kidnapping cottage industry'

Franklin Drilon, president of the Philippines Senate, said in a statement it was time for the government to use military means to "put an end to the mockery of the law in the South.

"It is necessary for the Philippine government to reclaim its authority and to demonstrate to the Filipino people and to the world that it is capable of defending its citizens and foreign guests from all enemies of the state," he said.

"We cannot allow a small group of bandits to dictate the course of our economic and political future."

Lawmaker Roilo Golez was quoted in the Philippine Star as saying Abu Sayyaf had gone berserk and was now challenging not only the government but the U.S. as well. He warned the crises could damage the tourism industry and result in capital flight.

Fearing spreading instability, other voices in the region have been calling for action. The Straits Times in Singapore said the hostage crises were jeopardizing southeast Asia's image.

It said the terrorists "have made a cottage industry of kidnap-for-ransom and their actions are going to do [the Philippines] irreparable harm as these are now international in scope.

"The Abu Sayyaf has to be stopped. The negotiating has to get past the easy-does-it phase, with the Abu Sayyaf left in no doubt that outlaws do not prevail."

In another indication of a mood change, a southern Philippines regional governor who is himself a former Muslim extremist said military action would be taken against Abu Sayyaf.

"The public opinion for a military action against this group is too strong because it has focused more on the business of kidnapping rather than on ideological warfare," said Nur Misauri, a former leader of the mainstream Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace pact with government in 1996.

"What this group has done is a crime against humanity. In fact, it is the highest form of abnormality to sell human beings," said Misauri, who now governs an autonomous Moro (Muslim) region.

Misauri said he would be meeting military chiefs to discuss options.

The Manila Times quotes an unnamed retired military general as saying Abu Sayyaf would now be harder to defeat than in the past. The organization had grown in size from 200 to 2,500 active combatants and beefed up its weaponry using funds acquired from ransom payments.

Meanwhile wire services report that U.S. firms operating in the Philippines have tightened security for their employees.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow