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Poor Philippine Muslims See ‘Rebel’ as a Good Job

Times Staff Writer

Abdul Mohammed Katar picked up a rifle and joined the rebels when he was 15. He says he had little choice because economic prospects for young Muslim men in the Asian nation with the most Christians are so bleak that the best job offers often came from the guerrillas.

Much the same thinking led him to switch sides when a peace agreement with the government opened the door for some former rebels to join the Philippine army. Katar jumped at the opportunity, which he said didn’t feel so much like a betrayal as doing the right thing for his family.

“Most Muslims are discriminated against and they can’t find work,” said Katar, 28, a sniper who admits killing former comrades in his new role as army sergeant. “I feel good because now I have enough money to support my family and I can send my children to school.”

About one in 10 rebels has joined government forces, but that still leaves tens of thousands of Muslim guerrillas, said Henry Pungutan, 32, a former rebel and current army sharpshooter.

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“Most of my comrades are still up in the mountains; some of them have joined the Abu Sayyaf,” he said, referring to a militant group linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network.

Despite its relatively small Muslim population, the Philippines increasingly has become an important front in the global war against terror. Soon after a car packed with explosives killed 191 people in Bali last month, a spate of bombings racked Manila, the capital, and the southern island of Mindanao, where most of the country’s Muslims live among a population that is predominantly Roman Catholic.

But the front is wider than domestic issues. Many of Al Qaeda’s recent plots, including the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., have been traced back to terrorists who lived or worked in the Philippines. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan last year, radical Muslims with suspected ties to Bin Laden are believed to be moving their jihad to Southeast Asia.

Radicals hope “to establish a fundamentalist Islamic republic comprised of several countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and parts of Thailand and Mindanao,” said congressman Prospero A. Pichay Jr., chairman of the committee on national defense. “They want to use the bombings to weaken the resolve of these governments, to destroy the leadership of these governments and to incite the Muslim communities to take up arms against these republics.”

A Breeding Ground

Steeped in a history of uprisings, economic disparity and political disenfranchisement, this archipelago of some 7,000 islands has become a fertile breeding ground for foot soldiers fighting a holy war. In recent years, bombings, kidnappings and battles have not only claimed lives but turned the Philippines into a country afraid of itself.

“For an average young Muslim man whose only future, being as ill equipped and poorly educated as he is, maybe a cargo handler in some port, joining the Abu Sayyaf is cool,” said congresswoman Imee R. Marcos, daughter of former president Ferdinand E. Marcos. “They give you Oakley sunglasses, a gun, radio equipment and you belong to a brotherhood. If you die, they believe you end up in the garden of earthly delights, so what’s the problem?”

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo repeatedly has denounced poverty as “the handmaiden of terrorism,” but the Philippine government has been unsuccessful in solving the problem. In this dirt-poor Muslim area in the southern city of Zamboanga, the consequences of that failure are seen in broken shanties and battered lives. Village elders say as many as 90% of residents are unemployed.

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“I have 14 children and 33 grandchildren,” said 82-year-old Alpa Muallil At-Haj. “Only four of them have jobs, and they are living abroad.”

All work is hard to come by, but Muslims say Christians are preferred candidates regardless of qualifications.

“My son is a licensed engineer, but when the employers look at his resume and see that he is Muslim, they just tell him to come back later,” said a 52-year-old former guerrilla who did not want to give his name. “Two years later he still hasn’t found anything, while less deserving Christians managed to land jobs.”

It is a situation repeated in Islamic communities across the country, say Muslims.

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“That’s why they join the rebels,” said Shariff Jullabi, a former senior commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s biggest armed Muslim organization. It considers itself moderate compared with the Abu Sayyaf, a radical splinter group known more for its banditry than its philosophy. Although Jullabi broke with the MILF this summer to lead his own splinter group, he still boasts of an army of “100,000 moujahedeen.”

“We don’t have to recruit them, they recruit themselves,” Jullabi said from his hide-out in Zamboanga.

Officials don’t buy that.

“We are a poor country, we have to admit that,” said Gen. Narciso Abaya in Zamboanga, who assumed his post as southern command chief on the day of a department store bombing in April. “But being poor doesn’t mean you can violate the law. There are countries poorer than us and they do not do terrorist activities, so what kind of justification is that?”

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Officials argue that they have devoted financial resources to fight poverty in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao -- which Manila set up in the mid-1990s to appease Muslim militants demanding a separate state in the south -- but Muslim leaders there apparently failed to take advantage.

“We put in so many millions of dollars for economic development projects, but it went to waste because of corruption and mismanagement,” Abaya said.

It’s no wonder, authorities say, foreign militants have stepped up their recruiting in these poor Muslim neighborhoods.

Al Qaeda Ties Denied

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Just up a dusty dirt path from Kasanangan village is the shuttered two-story building that once housed a charity organization run by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Bin Laden. Officials suspect Khalifa used the International Islamic Relief Organization as a front to supply money to Philippine rebels and build terrorist networks.

In return, the indigenous groups are believed to be merging their own causes with those of the global terrorist campaigns.

“When the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped people in March 2000, their initial demand was for the release of the [1993] World Trade Center bombing mastermind, Ramzi Yousef,” Abaya said.

The rebels, however, insist they have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. “We are not connected to the terrorist activities in the other parts of the world,” said Jullabi. “Our objective is the regaining of our homeland.”

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Regardless, Philippine officials say they are fighting a two-pronged war.

“Whatever is the category of these groups, whether it’s Al Qaeda or a franchise of Al Qaeda, we have to fight it,” said Sen. Rodolfo G. Biazon. “But the solution may not just be military. We need to address the economic, social injustice and political roots of the problems.”

The Philippine Muslims, known as Moros -- derived from the Spanish for “Moor” -- make up only about 5% of a country of 80 million. They bear a proud tradition as descendants of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu, an Islamic kingdom that ruled the seas long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

“We do not consider ourselves Filipinos,” Jullabi said. “Filipinos are those who surrendered to the Spaniards. We never surrendered.”

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The Moros have a long-standing culture of fierce resistance. At the turn of the last century, American colonial forces subdued the rest of the Philippines but failed to conquer the Muslim south. The adoption of the more powerful .45-caliber automatic was hastened by the army’s desire to defeat the Moros.

No matter how impoverished and degraded, the Filipino Muslims kept on fighting, against the Spanish, the Americans and now Manila. Despite periods of peace and the creation of the autonomous region, life has improved little, fueling fears that splinter rebel groups are more likely to join forces with Al Qaeda.

“The problems in Mindanao haven’t ended,” Marcos said. “Unfortunately we are going to see a lot more violence.”

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Ni was recently on assignment in the Philippines.


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