Just 24 hours prior, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) downplayed a travel advisory released by the United States Embassy regarding terrorist activity in the traditionally peaceful Central Visayas region. The following day, the military found themselves in an armed encounter with members of the Islamic State-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group in the island of Bohol.
If that blunder occurred in another country, there would be heads rolling. In the Philippines however, personal ties are regarded more important than competency, hence no one is likely to face the ax for the recent Bohol encounter.
Yet just because no one will does not mean no one should. The fact that the Abu Sayyaf were able to land in this popular tourist destination is very concerning – there would have been thousands of foreign tourists in the island at that time. Had the military not been alerted to the presence of these terrorists, would the Abu Sayyaf score another foreign kidnap victim? They could have also easily detonated an explosive or conducted a mass shooting in an urban area, just as we witnessed in Europe the past few years.
Those scenarios are a nightmare for Philippine tourism, one of our most lucrative industries and the lifeblood of Bohol province. It would also be a huge blow to President Duterte’s ambition of attracting investors by presenting a crime-free Philippines.
The military were able to respond before these terrorist fighters could execute their plans, but the ensuing firefight left several dead. As of the time of writing, six Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed while four perished on the side of government forces. Included in the fatalities is the sub-commander who led this excursion, Abu Rami, who was also behind the execution of German hostage Jurgen Kanter.
The liquidation of a high-ranking leader and the foiling of the group’s plans in Bohol is a victory, no doubt. However, those in-charge of national security should still be held accountable to the fact that the intelligence agencies of foreign nations – the United States and Australia – had been aware of the imminent attack before our own security agencies.
It should also be remembered that in two other noteworthy instances the military’s lack of intelligence gathering was glaring. In 2016, the AFP were confounded by a failed bomb plot of the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Then just last month, the AFP denied reports that members of the Islamic State were operating in the Capital – only for two foreign-born members of the global terrorist group to be apprehended in the upscale Bonifacio Global City in Taguig.
Is the problem incompetency or a lack of capability?
Regardless of the answer, it is certain that there is an intelligence gap. The military have constantly been caught with their pants down in these times of peril, that is a dangerous predicament to have in a country facing threats from several belligerent forces – from communists down to Islamic terrorists.