Will terrorists now spare the Philippines?

The Philippine government was rewarded by terrorists in Iraq this week when they released Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz unharmed after Manila agreed to withdraw its 51 troops from the country a month early.

The militants had held Mr de la Cruz for almost a fortnight and threatened to behead him unless their demand was met. In the Philippines, this created a firestorm of public sympathy for him. Despite criticism from allies like the United States and Australia for negotiating with hostage-takers, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said she did not regret the decision because it saved the life of a Filipino worker abroad.

Up to eight million Filipinos, about 10 per cent of the population, work overseas, many in the volatile Persian Gulf region. Last year, they sent home about US$8 billion to their families - a key source of foreign exchange for a weak economy.

But will appeasement make Filipinos in the Middle East and elsewhere safer? Will it make the Philippines less likely to be a target of international terrorists? Or will it embolden extremists to continue attacks because they will calculate that a weak leadership will cave in to their demands?

Mrs Arroyo evidently has a short memory. The Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda affiliate based in the southern Philippines, gained strength in part because previous authorities sanctioned big ransom payments to recover hostages.

It is true that countries supporting the US in Iraq have become more prominent targets. But al-Qaeda was on the offensive long before the US invaded Afghanistan, and then Iraq, following the September 11 attacks.

The list of attacks claimed by, or reliably attributed to, al-Qaeda goes back to at least 1993, when a truck bomb in the basement of New York's World Trade Centre killed six people, injured about 1,000 and caused major damage to the buildings' foundations.

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who was convicted of masterminding the 1993 attack, used the Philippines as a base for an unsuccessful plot to blow up in mid-air a dozen transpacific flights in 1995. In the 1990s, al-Qaeda bombed US targets in Saudi Arabia and Africa, and tried but failed to carrying out attacks in Southeast Asia. The group was involved in separate plans to assassinate Pope John Paul during his visit to Manila in late 1994 and former US president Bill Clinton during a visit to the Philippines in early 1995.

Al-Qaeda makes no secret of its aims. It wants to establish a pan-Islamic federation throughout the world by working with other Islamic extremists to overthrow 'non-Islamic' or 'un-Islamic' regimes and expel non-Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. Southeast Asia, including the predominantly Christian Philippines, is to become a caliphate in this global federation.

Is it possible to negotiate an end to terrorist violence with the al-Qaeda network or avoid becoming a target by retreating to the sidelines of the war on terror? Those familiar with al-Qaeda's vision for the world and its absolutist doctrine say that neither negotiation nor neutrality is possible.

Indonesia - a country with more Muslims than any other and a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance - sought to avoid offending Islamic extremists by refusing to crack down on Jemaah Islamiah after neighbouring countries warned of the danger from international terrorist networks in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia.

In October 2002, the JI, al-Qaeda's strongest ally in Southeast Asia, struck at what it saw as a soft target. It bombed a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali, killing 202 people - including 11 Hong Kong residents - and injuring 300. The victims were mostly Australians and Indonesians.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author