MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines' porous southern border could be used by terrorist groups to transport weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), the US State Department has warned.
In its latest Country Reports on Terrorism released Wednesday, the US State Department said the many islands in the Sulawesi Sea and the Sulu Archipelago make it a difficult region for authorities to monitor.
Aside from illegal activities that occur in the area such as human trafficking and smuggling, the geography of the area and its relative isolation "pose additional challenges to identifying and countering the terrorist threat."
"WMD trafficking, proliferation, and the spread of WMD-applicable expertise have been concerns in this region, given the high volume of global trade that ships through the region as well as the existence of proliferation networks looking to exploit vulnerabilities in states' export controls," the report said.
"Terrorist operatives have sought safe haven in areas of the southern Philippines, specifically in the Sulu archipelago and Mindanao," it added.
"Philippine government control and the rule of law in this area are weak due to rugged terrain, poverty, and local Muslim minority resentment of central governmental policies," the report said.
It said Jemaah Islamiya (JI) fugitives and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are the primary terrorist threats in the southern Philippines, with the Communist People's Party-New People's Army (CPP-NPA) also present in the region.
JI, ASG, CPP-NPA threats
However, the US State Department report said joint efforts of Manila and Washington have managed to reduce the operations of the ASG, JI, and the CPP-NPA.
"Terrorist groups' acts were generally limited to criminal activities designed to generate revenue for self-sustainment, such as kidnapping or extortion," it said.
"Nonetheless, members of these groups were suspected to have carried out bombings against government, public, and private facilities, primarily in the central and western areas of Mindanao; others were linked to extortion operations in other parts of the country," it added.
Aside from kidnapping and extortion, the Abu Sayyaf may also be receiving funding from external sources such as remittances from overseas Filipino workers and Middle East-based extremists," the report said. "The ASG also receives funding from regional terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya, whose operatives have provided training to ASG members and helped facilitate several ASG terrorist attacks."
It stimated that the Abu Sayyaf has between 200 to 400 members, the CPP-NPA has around 5,000 armed fighters, while the JI has anywhere from 500 to several thousand members.
As part of a long-term solution to the terror threat, the Philippine government's 2011–2016 Internal Peace and Security Plan is gradually transferring internal security responsibilities from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to the Philippine National Police (PNP), the US State Department said.
The plan also involves the creation of joint military-police task forces and interagency operations cells in the southern Philippines in Zamboanga, Sulu, and Basilan, and an anti-kidnapping-for-ransom group in Marawi.
"The PNP also established a national Crisis Action Force that combined ground, air, and marine units into a unified terrorist/crisis first response unit," it said.
The police taking a greater role will allow the military to focus on securing the country's territory, the report explained. "The increasing role of the police in maintaining internal security in conflict-affected areas will permit the AFP to shift its focus to enhancing the country's maritime security and territorial defense capabilities."
"The Philippines remained a critical partner nation in the Department of State's Anti-terrorism Assistance program, which provided tactical and investigative training to support the transition in the southern Philippines from military to civilian counterterrorism authority in Mindanao," it said.
The Philippines is also a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus and supported the establishment of an Experts' Working Group to facilitate counterterrorism cooperation with other countries.
It added that since 2008, the US has been sponsoring the Trilateral Interagency Maritime Law Enforcement Working Group (TIAMLEW), which has resulted in better coordination of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines on issues of interdiction and maritime security.
The report said the Philippine government set up a Coast Watch System in 2011 to coordinate maritime security operations and help the country secure its maritime boundary against travelling extremists.
The report said Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have improved efforts to control their shared maritime boundaries, including through the US-funded Coast Watch South radar network, which is intended to enhance domain awareness in the waters south-southwest of Mindanao.
"Nevertheless, the expanse remained difficult to control. Surveillance was improved but remained partial at best, and traditional smuggling and piracy groups have provided an effective cover for terrorist activities, such as movement of personnel, equipment, and funds," the report said.
Country Reports On Terrorism