Filipino extremists stage more attacks

Al-Qaida-linked militants in the Philippines have staged more attacks in the last four years despite many battlefield setbacks, a military report said Thursday, blaming a failure of authorities to isolate the terrorists from their supporters.

The Abu Sayyaf, which has long been blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, launched 74 attacks last year, 19 percent more than in 2010.

The report, which assesses the first year of the government's new counterinsurgency program, said poverty and the large number of unlicensed firearms in the southern provinces of Sulu and Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf has jungle strongholds, have allowed the militants to survive and continue to sow terror.

Attacks by the Abu Sayyaf, which currently has 381 armed fighters, have steadily rose since 2007, when it mounted 31 assaults, despite the capture and killing of many Abu Sayyaf commanders and fighters in U.S.-backed military offensives, the military said.

Last year's attacks included 17 kidnappings for ransom, 18 armed assaults and 16 bombings, the military said.

A bomb strapped to a parked motorcycle exploded Thursday in Basilan's capital city of Isabela, wounding a motorist, police said. The blast also damaged two passing vehicles, including one carrying the city's vice mayor, who was not hurt.

Investigators were looking at the Abu Sayyaf as a suspect, although political rivalry may have also sparked the midday attack near the Isabela city hall, police said.

"Clearly, violence will persist as long as law enforcement is ineffective and the socio-economic and political conditions in Sulu and Basilan do not improve," according to the military report.

Sulu police chief Antonio Freyra disagreed with the military assessment, saying law enforcement in the region has continued to be "relatively effective" despite the limited number of police and the wide expanse of jungle and uninhabited hinterland they have to cover.

While Abu Sayyaf attacks still occur, they are far fewer today than the massive kidnappings and bombings that terrorized Sulu and outlying provinces in early 2000 when the brutal group still had many commanders and had strong ties with terrorist groups like the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, Freyra told The Associated Press.

He acknowledged the Abu Sayyaf continues to be backed by supporters, mostly relatives and other allied armed groups, which provide food, guns and sanctuary when the militants come under military attack.

The Abu Sayyaf — or Bearer of the Sword — was founded in 1991 in predominantly Muslim Basilan province. With an unwieldy collective of preachers and outlaws, it vowed to wage jihad, or holy war, but lost its key leaders early in combat, sending it on a violent path of extremism and criminality.

The U.S. military deployed troops to the southern Philippines in 2002 to provide combat training, intelligence and drone surveillance to Filipino troops battling the militants. The American deployment then was sparked by the Abu Sayyaf's kidnapping of three Americans, two of whom were killed while in the militants' custody.