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Deadly Filipino 'slugfest' between soldiers and Islamists

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Seven years ago, when the US was looking to expand the war on terror beyond Afghanistan, the southern Philippines, seemed a natural fit. Islands like Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago (here's a map of the island chain) were hives of piracy and lawlessness, not to mention crawling with Muslim independence groups – Abu Sayyaf was just one of them.

The group had some historic ties to Al Qaeda and had recently been involved in the kidnapping of two American missionaries. A joint mission with the Philippines' army to hunt them down seemed ideal; US special forces would pass some skills on to their Filipino counterparts and get practice going after Islamist insurgents somewhere other than Afghanistan. A 2007 Monitor story explains how the US military supported development projects on Basilan were dissuading residents from supporting Abu Sayyaf.

Yet seven years on, it's hard to assess what exactly has been achieved, especially in light of Wednesday's events.

Back in 2002, I was covering this story for the Monitor. Filipino Army intelligence told me that the Abu Sayyaf had no more than 60 armed gunmen on Basilan, and about 200 total in the Sulu Archipelago.

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