What was the genesis of this story?
From This Story
I've covered a lot of what's been referred to as the second front in the war on terror, the Southeast Asia wing of militant Islam. One of the stops along the jihadi highway is the southern Philippines. Since the 90s there's been this link to the world of global jihad, from a couple of the Bali bombers who are currently at large there to Ramzi Yusef and Khalid Sheik Muhammad. At the same time, Filipino Muslims have a much older, very legitimate complaint about a lack of representation in the central government and all that goes along with it—they have no money, no jobs, no education. I was very interested in assessing the gravity of the situation in the southern Philippines to see if it was different from what I'd seen in southern Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
And was it different?
Much, much different. In the longer view, militant Islam doesn't come to play in the fight for self-determination in the south—it does a bit, but not compared to the other places in southeast Asia where militant Islam has raised its head. There are pockets where that's not the case, but not in the vast majority of the country.
What's your opinion of the U.S. approach on Jolo?
What's going on in the Philippines is important and interesting because now we're seeing—in other places too—a larger move toward soft power, toward a non-military response to counter-terror, and this is the oldest model of that. It's not cutting edge, it's just common sense and sensitive application. What makes the Philippines also a bit different than say Afghanistan or Iraq is that the culture is not as hostile to America generally. One might argue, "It's the Philippines, of course it's working better," and that's true, but I definitely think there's something there that may be useful in other places.
What lessons could be applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where anti-Americanism is more ingrained?
An extremely high level of cultural awareness makes it much easier for the small number of special forces soldiers who are operating in the southern Philippines to build confidence. It's also important to have a deep understanding of the societal ills and what they are giving rise to. In the Philippines it's really about the money. This is a very impoverished population willing to turn to kidnapping to make its money.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the Philippines?
The degree to which society is feudal. Some people will say, "Look at how many female presidents the Philippines has had, so many women in high places," but the truth is that's just about families perpetuating their influence at the highest level.