Travel advisories and terror threats

Posted: November 3, 2010 in War on Terror
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The recent travel advisories on the Philippines by at least five countries have been played up in the media as very serious security challenges for the Aquino government.  The travel warnings come in the wake of a foiled terror attack in the US. Authorities say the attacks intended to use parcel service or package delivery service such as Fed Ex or UPS as vehicles for transporting improvised explosives. United States authorities have described the plot as an internationally coordinated attack.

Days after the plot was thwarted, countries like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom issued travel warnings to their citizens who are visiting or are residing in the Philippines. All of these countries warned of potential or imminent terror attacks in the Philippines but provided very little new information as to who the attackers are and where the attack would be. The advisories made mention of previous incidents such as the declaration of Martial Law in Maguindanao, recent election violence, and the bombing of a bus in Mindanao (likely because of an extortion racket) as some of the incidents that may pose a threat to foreign nationals. The advisories also made mention of threat groups in Southern Philippines, but offered any detail as to the nature of latest threats.

The officials of the Aquino government, in typical fashion, gave different, uncoordinated and sometimes conflicting responses to the travel warnings. The Palace spokesman tried to downplay the advisories saying these were expected in the aftermath of the foiled terror plot in the US and that these were part of a global terror alert and was not focused particularly on the Philippines. The AFP spokesman meanwhile stated that there were indeed terror threats from foreign groups but considers the threats concentrated in Mindanao. Meanwhile, the Department of National Defense is also saying there is no terror threat in the Philippines. Just the same, everyone has been placed on heightened alert.

Meanwhile, other news reports say that Philippine authorities have received intel information on possible terror attacks, including one in San Juan, Metro Manila. The ‘exclusive’ report aired over ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, which I found a bit sensational, even quoted the PNP as indicating that since there is a Muslim community in San Juan, this could be used as a staging point by the terrorists.

The successive travel warnings on the Philippines have become big news, and government has been trying to show itself to be on top of the situation.

What is interesting to observe in the unfolding events is how the Aquino government will react or overreact to the alleged threats.

Muslims are again likely to be tagged as the usual suspects, as with the San Juan threat. It’s not just the Abu Sayyaf that’s being blamed. Even the MILF, which is engaged in peace talks with the Aquino government, is being accused of plotting terror attacks.

The dreaded Human Security Act or anti-terror law can also be used since the Supreme Court has dismissed on a technicality all the petitions assailing the constitutionality of the law. It is important to remain vigilant in the face of potential abuses and rights violations which can be committed in the course of “validating” and responding to alleged terror threats. This will not be the first time abuses can happen  since state security forces are known to have a dismal human rights record.

We should also keep an eye on the US government since it can move to take advantage of any ‘terror hysteria’ to justify the continued and permanent presence of US troops in Mindanao under the pretext of conducting ‘anti-terror training’ and other forms of intervention. This maneuver is particularly worrisome since the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement is now under review. There have been calls for its abrogation, though Aquino is limiting the review to “fine-tuning”. The US will likely demand that the status quo remain insofar as the VFA is concerned. A “terror hysteria” can help serve this purpose.

As government tries to validate the threats, the public should be ever-vigilant, not just of terror from so-called “threat groups”, but also from state terror that has become widespread and even many cases, more dangerous.   ###

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