The start of the end

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 June, 2002, 12:00am

The piratical frontman of the Philippines' most dangerous criminal gang may be dead, but the nation's poverty-stricken south has not suddenly become safer.

Abu Sabaya's death simply means the beginning of the end of the Abu Sayyaf, the Muslim extremist group believed to number no more than 60 and linked by the United States to terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

Apart from Philippine Government officials eager for American military and financial support for their country, few Filipinos refer to the Abu Sayyaf as terrorists. The group does have satellite telephones, but its ambitions do not extend beyond kidnapping foreigners for ransom from tourist resorts and banditry. The proceeds are used to buy expensive trinkets, weapons and the support of impoverished villagers.

This is not to belittle the Abu Sayyaf's activities. They have hurt the Philippines' tourism industry and turned peaceful farming communities into war zones. Thousands of Filipino and US troops are combing the Muslim-dominant islands of Mindanao, Basilan and Jolo for the remnants of the group.

Abu Sabaya was personally responsible for dozens of executions. His shooting on a boat in Sibuco Bay does not destroy the Abu Sayyaf. They are one leader less, but not finished.

Such groups will only be eliminated when the lives of people in the southern Philippines improves. Aid and development programmes implemented by the Government and the US are slowly making this happen.

The strategy must be dedicated and long-term and continue long after the Abu Sayyaf are wiped out.