We will begin with a retrospective of the nation on the Pacific Rim which has played a vital role in the development of the United States on the world scene since the end of the 19th century. Then we will turn to issues that impact us in the present day and foreseeable future.
Three decades after Christopher Columbus added the Western Hemisphere to the known world for the citizens of Europe, Ferdinand Magellan set out also at the behest of the Spanish crown to attempt to circumnavigate the globe from east to west. After transiting the South Atlantic, rounding the Tierra del Fuego and then transiting the South Pacific, Magellan’s attempt came to a tragic end when he was killed by tribal Chieftain Lapu Lapu at Mactan Island in a tropical archipelago in Southeast Asia. After Magellan’s crew completed the voyage across the Indian Ocean, around the southern tip of Africa and back to Spain, these islands would be claimed in the name of Spanish King Philip and go into future world atlases as The Philippines.
Spain remained in the Philippines for 377 years from 1521 until this colony half a world away was wrested from their grasp in the Spanish-American War of 1898. During the nearly four centuries of Spanish occupation, Spanish language, culture and especially Catholicism were all planted throughout the Philippines — except the far southwestern corner in the region of west-central Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago which stretches toward the island of Borneo.
Middle Eastern traders had reached this eastern extreme of Asia and installed Islam centuries before Magellan’s followers brought Christianity to the rest of the country. That dichotomy of an Islamic enclave in a Christian nation still exists today.
The Philippines has been a vital part of the United States’ development as a world power for over 120 years. After an unsuccessful war for independence, Filipinos and their beloved homeland became America’s only colony in Asia for more than 40 years.
In the early 20th century, General John “Black Jack” Pershing attempted to complete the conquest of the Philippines by subduing the Muslims. This effort was never fully successful. “The Swish of the Kris” is a 1936 book and a screenplay not long thereafter starring iconic actor Gary Cooper which documents this volatile period when the USA confronted Islam abroad.
When Pearl Harbor in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii was bombed by the Empire of Japan on December 7th, 1941, Japanese Zeroes simultaneous flew bombing missions on American military bases in the Philippines. Japan invaded and drove the U.S. forces out of the Philippines, with the tragic Bataan Death March being one of the most memorable Japanese victories of that campaign.
American General Douglas MacArthur, who had been born in the Philippines when his father was Governor, issued the famous declaration “I Shall Return” as he departed for the sanctuary of Brisbane, Australia, until his triumphant liberation in 1944 at a landing on the central Philippines Visayan Island of Leyte and the 1945 landing at Lingayen Gulf in the northwest side of the main northern island of Luzon.
After the defeat and expulsion of the Japanese occupiers in World War II, the Philippines was soon thereafter granted full independence and has remained the staunchest of American allies and one of the sources of many immigrants to the United States from a non-contiguous country. The USA maintained Clark Air Base in the province of Pampanga and Subic Bay Naval Base on the South China Sea near the Bataan Peninsula until the Mt. Pinatubo Volcano awoke from six centuries of dormancy to cover all of Clark and much of the provinces of Pampanga and Tarlac with volcanic ash known as lahar.
Within the nearly three decades since Clark and Subic were closed in 1991, the Philippines has played a prominent part in several Islamic terrorist plots with a significant nexus to the United States.
In the early to mid-1990s Islamic terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramsi Yousef are documented to have set up shop in the Philippines. Terry Nichols, co-conspirator of Timothy McVeigh in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 04/19/1995, traveled to the Philippines at least twice in those years and is alleged to have learned the art of bomb-making from the architects of 9/11. Nichols’ wife was Filipina and had family connections in the country as well.
The Islamic operatives were in Manila to prepare for the bombing of 11 jumbo jets over the Pacific Basin in 1995, at least one of which was to have been bound for Honolulu, others to the west coast of the Mainland USA. Test explosions were conducted in a theater and on a Philippine Airlines plane on a route within Asia. Liquid explosives were to be smuggled aboard with nitro-glycerin contained in contact lens solutions.
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As part of this grand terrorist plot, an attempt was to be made to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his visit to Manila in January 1995. Whether successful or not, this was designed to divert world attention away from the planned bombing of the jumbo jets soon thereafter. Just as the deadly but ultimately unsuccessful 1993 attempt to take down the World Trade Center in New York was successfully carried out in 2001, Islamic terrorists have demonstrated their intent to attack previous targets until their complete objective is accomplished.
Within the Philippines, a wide array of Islamic groups exist with varying degrees of animosity towards the Philippine government and the Christian faith of the majority of the country’s citizens — Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and others. Support is known to have come through the maritime “back door” from the tri-border region with nearby Malaysia and Indonesia, particularly the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
A few years ago, an Islamic madrassa was found in the province of Pangasinan. Mosques have apparently been established in San Fernando, Pampanga and other nearby areas. Within Metro-Manila, particularly the suburb of Taguig City, an epidemic of Muslim crime has taken place, some of it Muslim upon Muslim and otherwise Muslim upon Christian.
Muslims hired as hitmen and shabu dealers have been reported in open sources. There was even a case of the Muslim imam in Pangasinan being involved in shabu trafficking. Shabu is crystal methamphetamine, known in Hawaii and much of the USA as “ice”. Narco-terrorism needs to be considered, but the source of the drugs and destination of the drug money has not been confirmed. Often the Muslims in the Philippines appear to be cooperating with the manufacturers and suppliers in China.
Among the most troubling Islamic elements in the Philippines are the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Rajah Solaiman Revolutionary Movement (RSRM). ASG is believed to number only in the hundreds and has not demonstrated a passion for imposing Islamic ideology on non-Muslims though they have pledged support publicly for ISIS. ASG rather operates more like bandits kidnapping foreigners and prominent Filipinos and demanding ransom. Some of their hostages have lost their lives whereas others have been released upon payment of a hefty sum by their families and/or home country governments.
RSRM has emerged and reemerged over the last 15 years The group’s name is derived from a pre-Magellan Islamic ruler and is indicative of a mind-set that explains why Christians who become Muslims (which is the very nature of the group) are said to have reverted, rather than converted, to Islam. Those who have left Catholicism or other Christian denominations often act and react in such a way as to demonstrate their allegiance to Islam by targeting Christians and governments led by Christians for death and destruction.
In 2004, Super Ferry 14 was bombed after departure from Manila by an RSRM member working in conjunction with ASG. Over 100 innocent people lost their lives. Then a bombing was conducted in Manila on Valentine’s Day (a symbol hated by Muslims) in 2005.
RSRM was designated a terrorist organization by the United States government in 2008. From that time, there was less open source publicity until reemergence in 2014, when open sources indicated that RSRM was believed to be gathering on the Bataan Peninsula just across Manila Bay from the nation’s capital as other open sources simultaneously reported that operatives of the Islamic State had traveled from Syria to Bataan to prepare for a major terrorist operation. ISIS also threatened the life of Pope Francis. The Pontiff was in Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines in January 2015 but an attack was prevented.
Pope John Paul II visited Manila in January 1995. Only a fire at a bomb laboratory in an apartment building in Manila gave away the plot to assassinate him and shortly thereafter to blow up jumbo jets across the Pacific. These were not designed as suicide bombings, it should be noted, but to smuggle the explosives onboard the aircraft on a previous leg of the flight, then disembark before the plane was taken down in mid-air or upon landing.
As ISIS loses control of its territory in Syria and Iraq, its goal of a Caliphate will be redirected into dispersing jihadis into other vulnerable and volatile regions. This may include Afghanistan, Kashmir and the Philippines. A country under nominal Christian rule is a very lucrative target to be subjugated to Islam.
In May 2017, ISIS was instrumental in the siege of the Islamic City of Marawi on Mindanao, during which many atrocities were committed, including the desecration of Christian churches. We will save more about that for a future discussion.
The Philippines and the United States have a very special and unique long-term relationship. Since 1898, the influence of Spain has been counterbalanced by the nexus with America.
After decades as a U.S. colony followed by the Japanese Occupation during World War II and then independence in 1946, the majority of Filipinos have a positive view of the USA. We have not discussed here other significant problems such as the continuing communist insurgency throughout the archipelago. Rather we have focused here upon the mutual defense of liberty by the Republic of the Philippines and our own country against Islamic terrorism.
One article can never say everything that needs to be said about the very special relationship between Filipinos and Americans. Current President Rodrigo Duterte who is from Davao on the island of Mindanao has had a very different experience from previous Philippine presidents. Many Philippine leaders, both civilian and military, have studied in the United States.
Pres. Duterte has indicated that members of his own family are Muslim and he has developed an adversarial relationship with the predominant Catholic Church in his nation. He has courted closer ties with both China and Russia. He has equivocated about the continuing role of the U.S. Military in the Philippines. We will not go into allegations of extra-judicial killings and persecution of journalists at this time.
This has been a review of Philippine-U.S. relations over the last 121 years as a resource in its own right. But we have also laid the foundation for a future, deeper look at what our bilateral future may portend.
I was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in the Philippines when former President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and in Hawaii when he and his family fled here in 1986. So, we will soon apply these lessons from the past to a fuller and empathetic examination of a now sovereign nation in Southeast Asia that will ever remain near and dear to my own heart.
The first part of this article was an update of a perspective which I composed back in December 2014. Since then, the election of Rodrigo Duterte as Philippine President has led to a testing of our two nations’ long-term affinity for one another. But we shall all benefit from the mutual respect inherent in reaffirming our relationship.
The majority of Filipinos who legally immigrate to the United States are loyal and patriotic citizens who contribute greatly to the quality of life here through their presence. For this, we owe them an everlasting debt of gratitude.