Tightening US-Philippines relations

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez - The Philippine Star

The recent signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the United States and the Philippines to establish a state-of-the art Regional Counterterrorism Training Center in Cavite City is another example of how our relationship with the US continues to get stronger. As I have said on many occasions, the relationship between the two nations has never been better than it is today because of mutual respect, with both sides recognizing each other’s sovereignty and cooperating closely on many issues especially on the fight against terrorism.

The signing of the MOU – which President Duterte recently approved – will enable law enforcement units and operatives not only from the Philippines but other nations in the region to enhance their training on counterterrorism through the center (to be located within the Philippine National Police Academy in Silang, Cavite), which will be jointly managed and operated by the PNP and the US Department of State. As mentioned by PNP Chief General Oscar Albayalde, who represented the Philippine government, the initiative will boost our counterterrorism capabilities, underscoring our thorough and strengthened partnership with the US. 

Our friend Ambassador Sung Kim – who unfortunately will be leaving the Philippines soon for his new posting – worked hard for the establishment of the center, and the signing of the MOU brings this a step closer to its fulfillment. The center will be one of the legacies of Ambassador Kim. Suffice it to say, I found it fruitful and rewarding to work closely with a professional career diplomat like him.

Undoubtedly the problem of terrorism and violent extremism has reached global proportions, with no less than the UN Security Council adopting a resolution to address the relationship between terrorism and organized crime, with the latter becoming a funding source for extremist groups. Whether local or transnational, organized crimes – such as trafficking in arms, illegal drugs, trafficking in persons, illicit trade in natural resources, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, bank robbery, piracy and other criminal activities – have become intertwined with terrorism. Which is why now more than ever, cooperation between nations, especially our neighbors, is important since the Philippines is right at the crossroads in Southeast Asia.

As Malacañang noted much earlier following the pledge by the US to boost the intelligence capability of the Philippines, “terrorism knows no boundaries, politics, religion and creed. It is the new evil in the world that strikes at every country and every continent. We need all the help as every member-country in the United Nations needs the assistance and cooperation of each member to combat and crush terrorism.”

Just recently, the Philippines and Indonesia gave their commitment to collaborate in the area of counterterrorism, recognizing the shared threat that both nations face particularly from the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist group. For instance, increased collaboration in maritime security covering such areas as the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas through trilateral patrols involving Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia which is also being eyed by foreign militants as another safe haven transit and logistics center.

Counterterrorism experts are warning that the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East does not necessarily mean the organization has been crushed. On the contrary, ISIS operatives are looking at Asia as their new wilayat (province), with the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka by suicide bombers last May putting the global spotlight on the unrelenting terror activities perpetrated by ISIS and its converts. 

In fact, the terrorist group is now bent on global expansion, and this was explicit in the recent video message of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declaring new provinces in Central Africa and Turkey, with claims that they have also established footholds in such countries as Yemen and Somalia.  

No less than General Joe Dunford – the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – said that while the caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been defeated, the threat continues as there is “still a fairly vibrant insurgency that has reverted to guerrilla tactics,” compounded by the fact that the ideology remains alive.

Experts are also warning about the “Asia pivot” of the terrorist group. Based on reports, an estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq during the height of conflict, but these are now returning to their home countries following the defeat of the caliphate early this year. Following a “hibernation period,” remnants of the group will move to “rise from the ashes of their defeat,” experts said, with Asia now on the crosshairs. 

The game plan is for these foreign terrorists to integrate into the community by marrying local women, entering educational institutions either as students or resource persons/lecturers, or putting up businesses to establish legitimacy. According to Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency chief, the influence of ISIS continues to be an “eminent threat,” which is why they have embarked on a national action plan to prevent radicalization and counter violent extremism, which is also in accordance with a UN resolution asking nations to have their own plans to fight terrorism. 

National Security Adviser Jun Esperon himself spoke of a possible “chilling escalation in tactics, damage and barbarity” of these extremists to further their agenda, citing the recent suicide bombings in Basilan and Sulu. That a Filipino – Norman Lasuca – took on a suicide bombing mission in Indanan, Sulu last June highlights the growing threat of radicalization in the Philippines and the growing alliance between local terrorist groups and ISIS.

Now more than ever, countries must collaborate and cooperate to counter the continued threat of terrorism. Clearly, the MOU for the regional counterterrorism center is a step toward the right direction.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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