• Ann Febel Bajo

Saving Lupah Sug: A Proposal to End Local Armed Conflict in Sulu


Photo Source: BBC


On April 17, 2020, 11 soldiers were killed in a firefight between government forces and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). It is reported to be the highest death toll in a gunfight in Sulu last year. For years, terrorism remains a perennial problem in Sulu province, which makes it one of the highest priority areas of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Just recently, Sulu encountered its first Filipino suicide bomber, evidencing that extremist ideology has already influenced the local populace. The recruitment of both foreign and local terrorist groups (LTGs) in the area simply cannot be curtailed due to poverty as a primary reason, exacerbated no less by poor governance. Sulu has a poverty incidence of 74.3% and remains to be the poorest province within the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The AFP has been conducting military operations in Sulu for years and has amplified its forces by organizing the 11th Infantry Division to be more assertive with their focused military operations (FMOs) against the ASG. Yet, military operations in Sulu have been thinly spread due to the lack of military forces and its conduct of civil-military operations, which is equally important to the accomplishment of their mission. Despite its mandate, the AFP is unable to sustain its military efforts due to limited resources and a lack of support from the civilian sector. Any activities that are beyond its warfighting mandate strains the operational tempo of the AFP in Sulu.


In Task Force-Ending Local Armed Conflict Committee meetings and focused group discussions with military personnel, local government officials and community elders, the following recommendations have been reached with the aim of supporting the AFP’s mission and ultimately sustain the gains of the military based on their campaign plan: Non-military efforts are expected to have an impact on the AFP’s current initiatives and, at the same time, produce long-term outcomes for Sulu. The AFP should enhance its capabilities for the conduct of FMOs to defeat local terrorist groups with much-needed assistance from the local government and international partners in facilitating non-military efforts to support the military’s initiatives. Hence, managing the conflict in Sulu requires an amalgamation of both military and non-military efforts.


Military Efforts


Recommendations in this commentary aim to improve the current military operations to keep the AFP at an advantageous position against the ASG. Two key maneuver strategies that need development on the part of the AFP and deemed as game-changers in the fight against LTGs are Intelligence Operations and Information Operations (IO).

Intelligence Operations


The AFP is still highly reliant on human intelligence. Modernizing the intelligence capability of the AFP will allow real-time access to necessary information that can aid in missions requiring urgency. This will capacitate units to conduct their operations directly and efficiently. Intelligence capabilities that are required to be modernized come in different forms – from communications, GPS mapping to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance equipment. It is generally a security risk to use public platforms such as Google maps, Telegram, and Facebook for military operations.

Information Operations


In 2019, a law enforcement mission conducted by the Joint Special Operations Unit ignited concerns among the local populace in Jolo. A concerned citizen posted a Facebook status about the mission that went viral. Questioning the legality of the military operations, the said citizen expressed fear of becoming a victim of the so-called “illegal operations.” The AFP needs to control the information environment in Sulu mainly to avoid misconceptions about the military. This would justify the actions of the AFP in the area. Without enhanced information operations (IO), this leaves the community in doubt and may question the military’s intentions. However, controlling the information environment in Sulu poses several challenges, such as language barrier, media platform, and scope of information. Therefore, there is a need for a sound IO strategy that can be consistently pronounced for every military activity.


Non-military Efforts


Non-military efforts are essential in the accomplishment of the AFP’s mission in Sulu. However, these activities have become far more of a burden because of the lack of support from the local government and civil society. Non-military efforts aim to operationalize existing policies and strategies that will help curtail terrorist recruitment and extremism amongst locals. Unfortunately, there has been a minimal effort on the part of the LGU to provide even the basic services, such as access to clean water, health services, and education. Education is seen as one of the most critical solutions to prevent recruitment. Most youth in Sulu do not have access to basic education due to limited building facilities, teachers, and resources to afford school. Out of school youth has become vulnerable to extremist ideas and recruitment because they are not capacitated with the necessary knowledge and skills to usher them into getting jobs.


There are also several existing mechanisms with international partners that the AFP can maximize support received through non-military efforts. The full-fledged support of the US Armed Forces in counterterrorism has ushered in medical supplies in Sulu during the pandemic. ASEAN neighboring partners continue their commitment to secure border control and prevent illegal entry through the backdoors. Also, agencies of the United Nations provide grants for efforts in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Mindanao. UN experts and non-government organizations can help develop CVE programs at an operational level for Sulu. This will remove the load off from the AFP in conducting CVE and will allow them to focus on sustained military operations down south.

Sulu still has a long way to go before reaching absolute peace, while violence may not be totally eradicated any time soon, it is necessary to reduce it at a level that can be managed by the LGU. A whole-of-nation approach is needed to make these efforts possible. It is important to manage conflict in Sulu to provide a dignified livelihood to communities and destroy a terrorism front in Southeast Asia.

Ann Bajo worked as a Defense Analyst in the Armed Forces of the Philippines for more than 7 years. In 2019, she conducted a five-month fieldwork study in Sulu on counterterrorism and CVE efforts of the Philippine Army. She is currently working with the Special Operations Command, AFP to develop their Joint Special Operations Operating Concept. She also has her own start-up social enterprise called the Coffee Press Co., which supports communities that are victims of armed conflict by selling locally-produced coffee from Sulu, Philippines.