JUST over two minutes long, the video clip from the battleground in Jolo island in the southern Philippines is gory and gruesome.
Three Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) teenagers armed with M16 are shooting at an unseen enemy. A foreigner is heard shouting in Arabic to encourage an ASG sub-leader to butcher the body of an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldier.
In a practice known locally as “chop-chop”, the gunman cuts off the head and holds it in front of the camera. He does the same to the body of another AFP soldier.
The video is believed to have been shot three months ago.
Despite its superior numbers, there are times – too many, say some critics – the AFP loses to the ASG in gun battles.
Based on comments on WhatsApp or Facebook, many Malaysians assume it is an easy task to hunt down and eliminate the militant group notorious for cross-border kidnappings in the east coast of Sabah.
During the Chinese New Year break, I was in Zamboanga City, about 150km from Jolo. I asked several Abu Sayyaf experts why the ASG have not been wiped out.
“It is the terrain. The ASG is well-versed with the terrain as it is their area. They can close their eyes and know where they are,” said an intelligence officer.
“For many of the soldiers, it is their first time in Jolo island. They are not familiar with the terrain. Many are young soldiers. They have no reference point in the jungle.”
The jungle looks different depending on the weather and time. A soldier can be at the same spot hours apart but the trees will look dissimilar each time.
“If it is at noon, the leaves are greener. When it gets closer to dusk, they turn brown,” said a Tausug woman who lives on the island.
(Jolo is in Sulu province populated mainly by Tausugs, who are known as Suluk in Sabah.)
She described the battlefield as a twisting obstacle course in a landscape that was a reverse umbrella (a valley). The terrain, she said, was as tricky as a jigsaw puzzle littered with landmines.
In the island’s jungle of Patikul, two Abu Sayyaf groups headed separately by Radulan Sahiron and Hajan Sawadjaan are camped at an elevated cliff.
“If there’s a military operation below, the Ajang Ajang (a teenage subgroup of the Sawadjaan group) will run up to inform the ASG gunmen, who will then withdraw to a prearranged location,” said Octavio A. Dinampo, who teaches political science in Mindanao State University in Jolo town.
The military, he explained, often lost because the ASG members fight guerrilla-style while the AFP does so conventionally.
“When I say conventionally, the (infantry division) moves in bulk. So, even if you don’t have sight, you fire and you can hit them. The ASG fighters move agilely and hide easily. It is difficult to make a kill,” said Dinampo, who was kidnapped by the ASG on June 8, 2008.
(The scout rangers, the AFP’s special operations command unit, operate differently, moving stealthily in small numbers at night like its mascot, the civet.)
The ASG snares the soldiers by using “rabbits” as bait.
“The military will chase after young ASG gunmen, who run up the mountains like a rabbit and lead them to an ambush. The ASG, using their higher position, will shoot at soldiers, who are like sitting ducks,” said the intelligence officer.
He added that this was the ASG’s usual tactic and yet the military never seemed to learn from experience.
An AFP soldier explained how it played out: “The military will take an L-type formation (to avoid crossfire) while the ASG a C-type position. The centre of the C ‘pretends’ to withdraw and the military advances. And then the ASG fighters at the ‘head’ and ‘tail’ of the C shoot at the soldiers.”
In a chat in Kota Kinabalu, a source who is knowledgeable about southern Philippines described the C as not a full C but a half-hook. He said the ASG learnt that tactic from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) trained by the Malaysian army (which acquired expertise in guerrilla warfare when fighting the Communist insurgents) in the early 1970s.
To get an outsider’s perspective, I contacted Zachary Abuza, a professor at National War College in Washington.
“The terrain favours defensive ambushes. The jungle canopy in Jolo is really thick. The ASG dig in really well. They know the terrain,” he said.
“Frankly, the AFP is just not that well-trained. If they were, they wouldn’t rely on artillery barrages as a counter-insurgency tactic.”
Abuza also questioned the origin of the ASG’s ammunition. “They always have enough guns and ammo. While they might be able to pick some off slain government forces, their ability to wage war for so long speaks to the endemic corruption within the AFP,” he said.
While the ASG are not like Robin Hood, Abuza noted they had deep clan ties with the Tausug community and therefore their intelligence was very good.
In the chase between the ASG and AFP, most of the time, the rabbit wins in its homeground.
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