Beheading as grim reminder
If there’s trash talk among boxers, there are threats of eating the enemy alive among contending forces in war. Last week President Duterte vowed to eat alive the Abu Sayyaf extremists that had beheaded two of their Vietnamese captives. “I will eat your liver if you want me to. Give me salt and vinegar and I will eat it in front of you,” he declared. And this is hardly new. The President made the same promise last year, following a bombing in his home city of Davao that was attributed to the bandit group.
Does that indicate that the threats aren’t working, aren’t getting on the nerves of the Abu Sayyaf, one of the most brutal and violent armed groups in the South? The idea of having their livers ending up as the President’s supper appears to have emboldened the members of this group that are also part of the terrorist army now wreaking havoc in Marawi City. After all, with their penchant for beheading their victims on camera, these bloodthirsty men would welcome the Grand Guignol spectacle of their cannibalized fate as precisely the kind of sensational sacrifice called for by their attention-hungry cause. Sadly, the onus is on the government to prove that bizarre threats of terror on the state’s part as blowback against a hardened terror group have some kernel of strategic, national-security wisdom to them.
Extreme language is par for the course for this wildly popular President, whose admirers are convinced that such words are backed by effective operations on the ground that would neutralize the Abu Sayyaf. In the wake of the news of the Vietnamese captives’ beheading, the Armed Forces characterized it as the bandits’ way of reasserting force in the face of military operations that have “degraded their capacity.” According to the spokesperson for the military, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, as quoted in a CNN report: “Ito’y pagpapakita ng lakas pero hindi naman na sila ganoon kalakas (This is an attempt to show strength but they are no longer that strong).”
Hasn’t the country heard that before? Indeed, how many times has the military said that the Abu Sayyaf is now a spent force? And yet, across successive administrations now, the bandit group has continued its rampage, growing from a ragtag band of outlaws and kidnappers to a small army flush with millions of dollars in ransom paid by foreign captives, and lately pledged to the worldwide terrorist movement Islamic State. The separate and stunningly rapid war that broke out in Marawi against a wave of Maute terrorists has effectively drawn attention away from the Abu Sayyaf, but its beheading of the two Vietnamese nationals is a grim and frustrating reminder that the group remains an unfinished menace: It still holds 22 hostages so far, according to the police — 16 of them foreigners.
Just this February, a German hostage was beheaded on-cam, followed by a Filipino in April. Last year, it was a Canadian national. Press coverage intermittently bubbles up whenever these horrific acts happen, but increasingly the fate of the Abu Sayyaf’s hostages have faded from the consciousness of the general public, especially the ordinary Filipinos among them who are without access to the international spotlight, or simply without the money demanded as ransom for their release. Or is the public now so inured to the sights and sounds of violence that another beheading no longer elicits high outrage and cries for justice? A frightening thought.
Hoang Vo was lucky. Among the six Vietnamese crew members taken hostage from a ship that the Abu Sayyaf attacked in November last year, Vo was able to escape in June and is now back in Vietnam. The headless bodies of his compatriots, Hoang Thong and Hoang Va Hai, were found last week, after eight months in captivity.
The Vietnamese won’t be the last, as long as this terror group is not wiped off the face of Mindanao. The nation awaits the “day of reckoning” for the Abu Sayyaf that Mr. Duterte has promised.
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