A little over five months from now, on December 30, the Philippines will mark two decades since the gruesome Rizal Day bombings that rocked Metro Manila.
The simultaneous terrorist attacks took place at the LRT Blumentritt Station in Sta. Cruz, Manila where 11 people were killed and 19 were injured; at Plaza Ferguson in front of the United States Embassy in Manila; at the parking lot of the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City; at the fuel depot of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City, and inside a bus plying Edsa in Cubao, Quezon City.
The bombings have effectively changed the country's security landscape: it confirmed that regional and international terrorist threats from the Jema'ah Islamiyah and the Al Qaeda have arrived in the Philippines, having established linkages with local groups.
Over the past 20 years, the country has had its share of attacks from terrorist and violent extremist groups: the Dos Palmas hostage crisis in Basilan in 2001 that left five hostages and 22 soldiers dead; the bombing of the Davao International Airport in 2013 that killed 22 people and wounded 143 others; the Marawi siege in 2017 by IS-linked militants that left a death toll of more than a thousand.
Just last month, at least four alleged members of the IS-affiliated Daulah Islamiyah terrorist group were killed in a joint police and military operation. And according to National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., at least eight “sleepers” of the Abu Sayyaf have been arrested in Metro Manila since 2019.
Terrorists are here, there is no denying that. And the profile of a terrorist is rarely that which we have grown accustomed to in the movies: complete with high-powered guns, grenades and a black flag as backdrop.
Terrorists are here, and they hide in plain sight – there is no way to identify them just by the clothes that they wear, nor are they card-carrying members. They can be your friendly neighbor, or even your hard-working colleague at the office, waiting for the right time to be activated to carry out their sinister mission.
Terrorists are here, even as critics of the enrolled anti-terrorism bill have been busy pounding the streets and pounding their keyboards to question the need for such a measure, calling it "draconian" and warning that it would allow the government to crack the whip on dissenters.
But what is the human cost of terrorism? Soldiers and policemen have already accepted their fate that if faced with a security threat, they will have to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that civilians remain safe, regardless of whether these civilians are pro- or anti-government. Men in uniform do not make such a distinction.
Yet the blood of fallen soldiers and cops are not enough to prevent bombings and violent attacks, because terrorists prefer to target civilian non-combatants.
“The horror of an innocent’s exposure to terrorism or even demise will undoubtedly reverberate in the lives of their families forever altered,” said Esperon.
Why exactly is the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 needed? The watered down Human Security Act of 2007 has been proven to be weak and cumbersome in addressing terrorism. The new law broadens the definition to include the intent behind actions or planned actions that cause harm to people or damage to public infrastructure. It authorizes the Anti-Terrorism Council to tag groups or individuals as terrorists and extends the period for warrantless arrest of a suspected terrorist to a maximum of 24 days from only three under the HSA as well as the period for court-sanctioned wiretapping of suspected terrorists to a maximum of 90 days. It also removes the P500,000 fine per day of detention and seizure of assets of terror suspects who are eventually acquitted in court.
In other words, the measure, crafted based on the guidelines and standards set by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, seeks to empower state authorities to prevent a terrorist attack before it can happen, instead of helplessly reacting to the carnage post-attack.
The hefty fine imposed by the old law – half a million pesos per day of detention – has prevented the police and the military from using the HSA to run after suspected terrorists, using instead other provisions under the Revised Penal Code such as multiple murder or illegal possession of firearms instead of calling this forbidding spade a spade: a terrorist attack. In fact, since the HSA was passed in 2007, only the Abu Sayyaf Group was declared a terrorist or outlawed organization in the Philippines, and the proscription happened only in 2015. And there has only been one conviction for violation of the HSA – that of Nur Supian for recruiting participants in the 2017 Marawi siege.
President Rodrigo Duterte himself raised the threat that terrorism continues to pose amid the global challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic during last month's virtual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“While the challenges we face due to COVID-19 are considerable, we must never forget that there are also other threats that can further undermine our effort. The pandemic has not killed terrorism. It remains alive, lurking in the shadows,” the President said.
“In some countries, terrorist elements strike even during government’s relief operations. These acts are unconscionable and we must, therefore, be always on the alert,” he added.
Can the measure be abused? No law is so perfect that it can be implemented perfectly, and it is for this reason that safeguards have been put in place. Section 4 of the enrolled bill states that the definition of terrorism shall not include advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work, industrial or mass action, and other similar exercises of civil and political rights, which are not intended to cause death or serious physical harm to a person, to endanger a person’s life, or to create a serious risk to public safety.
This is not to downplay the legitimate concerns raised by critics of the enrolled Anti-Terrorism Act. But the threat of terrorism is not some abstract bogeyman aimed at silencing dissent.
There is nothing that the government can offer that will be acceptable to those who are not willing to broaden their perspective. Still, we appeal to those opposing this measure to put themselves in the shoes of the victims of past terrorist attacks. Are we supposed to let them down a second time?
Regardless of political affiliation, regardless of political belief, the country's security is something we should all strive to protect. Terrorists are here, and we should give them no license to kill.
Jusan Vincent Arcena is Assistant Secretary, Office of the Global Media and Public Affairs, Presidential Communications Operations Office.