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The President vs. Abu Sayyaf: Three Months of Duterte

The President vs. Abu Sayyaf: Three Months of Duterte

Commentary

3 min read

Posted on: 17th November 2016

Elected on a populist ticket of fighting crime and building a strong nation, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has captured headlines by insulting US president Barack Obama, threatening to quit the UN, and vowing to kill three million drug addicts using an analogy to Hitler and the Holocaust. The rhetoric is proving popular at home. A July poll gave him a 91 per cent approval rating.

One of Duterte's most prominent manifesto commitments was being tough on extremism and militancy. This included a pledge to 'eat alive' members of Abu Sayyaf, the ISIS-linked jihadi group notorious for its beheadings and kidnappings of foreigners.

With Duterte taking office on 30 June 2016, a day before the quarter began, our sample gives insight into his approach to countering extremists, specifically Abu Sayyaf, during his three months in power.

Incidents of state counter-extremism steadily rose between July and September, with a 100 per cent month-on-month increase. These state actions included arrests, hostage releases, and attacks on militant hideouts. Our data also pointed to a rise in government counter-extremism rhetoric during this period.

July saw the peak of extremists killed by state action, with 15 militant deaths. The number dropped in August and September. Meanwhile, September saw the highest number of civilians dying in violent extremism, with 14 killed and 70 wounded in one incident. The attack was on a market in Davao, the city where Duterte was mayor for three years. The Abu Sayyaf-affiliated gang that claimed responsibility said "we are sending a message to President Duterte [we are] not afraid of him."

There has been a notable naval theme to state counter-extremism operations, as the group's prime areas of control are remote islands, and their main transportation sea-borne. The Philippine navy deployed its largest vessel as the command and control ship in the campaign against Abu Sayyaf. The army announced in September that 200 of the group's high-powered speedboats were seized in a military operation, significantly impacting the "primary transportation assets of Abu Sayyaf in their kidnapping activities." The effect of increased military pressure has caused the militants to splinter into smaller groups, according to the army. The Islamist militant group still has 16 hostages, including 12 foreigners, who are all believed to be "in good condition."

Duterte's first three months were characterised by tough talk on extremists, but he did make a veiled reference to having made a ransom payment of USD 1 million for the release of a Norwegian hostage in August, appearing to contradict his own unbending line.

Duterte's decision to reject US counter-terrorism assistance, whilst moving closer to regional allies such as China, has been another major trend. The move could overhaul a relationship described in the past as "iron clad." On 12 September, Duterte announced he wanted US military advisers tasked with helping fight Islamist extremism to leave the country after 14 years of operations. At a time when America is attempting to engage in its 'Asia pivot,' the world will be studying how much of Duterte's rhetoric on extremism manifests into action.

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