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The Philippines’ Sanctuaries of Terror

The presence of insurgent or terrorist sanctuaries in non-belligerent countries is one of the most intractable, explosive issues in international relations. It was a central fact of the Vietnam War, brought about the destruction of Lebanon, and continues to plague the coalition in Iraq. It is also key to the present war on terror in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam differed from Korea and Malaya, where containment and counterinsurgency prevailed, because the communists could outflank allied forces in South Vietnam by using “neutral” territory in Cambodia and Laos. Like the PLO presence in Lebanon until 1982, this strategy plunged hapless host countries into civil war and provoked invasions by stronger powers, in turn spurring more extremist movements – the Khmer Rouge, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad.

Like previous host countries, the Philippines is a weak state, at peace with its neighbors and the West. But, since 1994, its lawless southern islands have replaced Afghanistan as the main training ground and refuge for Southeast Asian jihadists. Most are Indonesians belonging to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Mujahidin Kompak, and other Darul Islam factions.

Graduates of Mindanao’s terror camps, for example, now rival in number the older generation of Southeast Asian Afghan alumni that forged ties with al-Qaeda. Veterans of the Mindanao camps took part in almost every JI-linked bombing since 2000, including the attack that killed hundreds in Bali in 2002. New cohorts will pose a danger for years to come.