Manila's generals have known for years that the MILF is the real challenge in the region. It has a couple of hundred guerrillas on Basilan, compared to the 80 hard-core stragglers that now make up Abu Sayyaf. And on the island of Mindanao, the vast heartland of the southern Philippines, it has up to 12,000. Its dedication to carving out an Islamic state from the predominantly Catholic Philippines is real. (Abu Sayyaf traded that ambition for lucre years ago.) It's got guns, training camps, an ideology—and, it now appears, more current and substantial links to international terrorist groups, including Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM) and its benefactor, Jemaah Islamiah, which is emerging as Southeast Asia's al-Qaeda subsidiary.
Officially, however, the U.S. is only concerned about the smaller Abu Sayyaf. The MILF doesn't appear as a "designated foreign terrorist organization" in the State Department's latest bad guys list. There's no talk of targeting the group if or when Abu Sayyaf are mopped up. When Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo visited Washington in November, she said she and U.S. President George W. Bush had no disagreements on how to combat terrorism in her country. "Where I draw the line," she said, "he draws the line too."
Why send the engines to a tinder fire when the jungle to the north is smoldering dangerously? One reason is that Abu Sayyaf is a more squashable threat. Although its Basilan contingent has evaded 6,000 poorly trained Philippine troops for the past year and currently holds two Americans hostage, it's an operation that can be wrapped up in months, rather than years. (A bomb and grenade went off in public areas in the south over the weekend, probably a protest of the U.S. troops' role.)
Most importantly, Arroyo is in peace talks with the MILF, hoping to avoid a much larger conflict in Mindanao. That requires Manila—and now Washington—to deliberately ignore the MILF's very dark side. It has trained Pakistani, Arab and Indonesian jihadis. Rohan Gunaratna of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Scotland estimates that 400 to 600 foreigners have passed through its camps since 1996. Its links to Jemaah Islamiah are evidenced by the tale of Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian arrested in January in Manila for taking part in a Jemaah Islamiah plot to blow up U.S. targets in Singapore. Al-Ghozi led police to a massive store of explosives in Mindanao's General Santos City that he said were to be used in the attacks. In 1996, al-Ghozi was sent to Mindanao by his Jemaah Islamiah superiors in Malaysia and spent more than a year teaching demolition in MILF camps. He helped organize and detonate a series of bombings in Manila 14 months ago that killed 22. An anonymous caller told Philippine police that the blasts were retaliation for raids on MILF camps ordered by Arroyo's predecessor, Joseph Estrada. The police traced the call to al-Ghozi's phone.
The MILF has formally rejected Osama bin Laden's post-9/11 call for a worldwide jihad, and leaders deny training foreign militants or being part of any terror network. But the group isn't a monolith; radical elements appear to be ignoring the party line. "We believe that the MILF leadership means well but they cannot control their troops on the ground," said Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Lieut. Colonel Jose Cristino Mabanta. The U.S. is in the opposite position: its troops in the southern Philippines do follow orders. They might just have been ordered to fight the wrong guys.