Like the Bali bombers that struck in 2002, the terrorists that hit a mall in Manila were targeting the foreigners that live, work and revel in the upscale financial district there, dense with malls, cafes and restaurants. The attack in the Philippine capital killed eight people and wounded more than one hundred.
The message of the attack-apparently perpetrated mainly by the Abu Sayyef terrorist group based in the south of the country-is: "We're still here. We're not dead", despite the 500 U.S. military advisers based in the country and the massive operations directed against them, said Zachary Abuza, professor of political science at Simmons College.
On Tuesday, about 6,500 Philippine and U.S. troops began a joint-training exercise, aimed at streamlining military cooperation between the two countries. Interestingly, Philippine marine chief Major General Ben Dolorfino said upon initiating the exercise that the Philippine campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and its Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) cohorts "will pick up again this month because Ramadan is now past and we can now conduct wide-scale military operations."
The terrorist group may have decided to respond in kind. "It's not the A-team of terrorists," said Abuza of Abu Sayyef and today's bombers, but cumulatively, their attacks are dealing an economic toll in the Philippines. "Foreign investors already have diminished expectations from the Philippines" due to these kinds of attacks, said Abuza. The credit ratings of Philippine bonds do not reflect how well the economy is doing, he added. Standard & Poors rates the foreign currency debt of the Philippines as a BB-, a noninvestment-grade rating.
In the underworld of the terror groups of Southeast Asia, Abu Sayyef has earned a reputation for incompetence for its botched or crude attempts at violence. Still, the group is harboring members of JI, a better organized and coordinated terrorist group believed to have been behind the Bali bombing. Those members are essentially stuck with their Abu Sayyef hosts, said Abuza, because "they do not have anyone else to protect them. It's like the last man standing."
Abuza added, "I would really bet my money that someone in Indonesia in JI central gave the order for this." While the attack was not technically sophisticated, it is not easy for Abu Sayyef to strike in Manila, due to the scrutiny that its mostly Muslim members would receive coming from the south. Abu Sayyef launched its most lethal attack in February 2004, sinking a ferry near Manila Bay and killing more than 100 people. But the group mostly perpetrates smaller-scale attacks in the southern Mindanao region, which the West scarcely hears about. The group, which ostensibly wants autonomy for the region, has therefore come to depend largely on its members that have recently converted to Islam and do not officially have Muslim names. Abu Sayyef, while rich in recruits with bravado, does not have cadres of technically skilled members. And each time it perpetrates an attack, the Philippine police, despite its own corruption and incompetence, manages to pick up a few members of the group, Abuza added.
While it remains unclear whether the group has the capability to mount a series of attacks in Manila, today's attack will continue to feed diminished expectations from the Philippines.
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.