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Philippine military unable to keep terror groups at bay, leader saysJOLO, Philippines — The attack was unusually deadly, and it came in a nightmarish form familiar to U.S. servicemembers fighting thousands of miles away in Iraq and Afghanistan — a homemade roadside bomb.

It was Sept. 29 on this remote Philippine island when an improvised explosive device laid by a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida sheared an American Humvee in half. The blast killed Staff Sgt. Jack M. Martin III and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher D. Shaw as well as a Philippine marine passenger.

The two U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers were helping the marine move food to a neighboring camp, part of an ongoing yet largely hidden effort to counter Islamic terrorism by winning the hearts and minds of impoverished Filipinos.

Seven years into the mission here, about 500 U.S. military advisers remain embedded deep in the jungles of the southern Philippines, assisting the nation’s military as it takes the lead against a violent Islamic insurgency.

So far, U.S. expertise and money have helped the Philippine government win pockets of stability and support. But the assistance has not been sufficient to stamp out persistent violence, and the ultimate goal of peace and stability remains elusive.

A recent string of IED attacks indicates that insurgents in this outpost of the global war on terrorism are learning new bomb tactics, Philippine and U.S. officials told Stars and Stripes — tactics that were perfected and used with deadly effect against the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Such violence shows that progress can be slow going, said Col. William Coultrup, commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, which was deployed to the area in 2002.

But Coultrup said his command is not asking to break from its purely advisory role and take ownership of the combat here.

"It is their fight, and we don’t want to own this fight," he said.

The al-Qaida-linked terror group Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic insurgents are blamed for more than 100 bomb attacks in the southern Philippines this year that killed 37 civilians and 10 Philippine soldiers and wounded nearly 300 people, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Military officials say the IEDs range from crude, fertilizer-based bombs detonated with a switch made from wood to more advanced devices triggered by cell phones.

"We have seen the influence of some of these techniques that have come from abroad, and we believe they are being brought in by some of the foreign extremists who are trying to influence the situation in Mindanao," Coultrup said.

In Jolo, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, the IEDs are targeting people, cell towers, water systems and drainage culverts, said Lt. Col. Robert Velasco, commander of Battalion Landing Team 6, one of six Philippine marine battalions deployed to the island.

The technology probably came from Afghanistan," he said.

Terror stalks Jolo’s sweltering jungles and scattered villages in the form of IEDs, kidnappings and beheadings. The island’s rugged terrain has been good to insurgent fighters, who have been melting into the thick foliage and pockets of open-air huts built atop stilts for nearly two decades.

Jolo has been rocked by six IED bombings since Martin and Shaw were killed there, Velasco said.

Earlier this month a school principal was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf, and his severed head was left in a bag at a local gas station, authorities said.

In another example of general lawlessness in the region, 57 election workers and journalists were killed this month in violence between rival clans in an area of Mindanao far north of troubled Jolo. Some of the victims were reportedly raped, tortured and beheaded, and the slaughter triggered the government on Monday to call a state of emergency.

Authorities have blamed the killings on an election dispute, and a local politician was jailed in Manila for the crimes. It remains unclear whether Islamic insurgents were involved, but the jailed politician has publicly blamed the killings on the region’s Muslim separatists, known as Moros.

The most violent and intractable areas are the main focus of the U.S. military, according to Coultrup.

Philippine marines deployed to Jolo get combat training and assistance from elite U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, Navy SEALs and Air Force commandos. U.S. aircraft including high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles ply the air over Jolo and pass along intelligence for Philippine military missions.

The years of combined effort — and often bloody military campaigns by Philippine forces — have shrunk the enemy, Velasco said.

He said much of the Abu Sayyaf leadership has been killed and only about 30 to 40 core members remain. At its height in the late 1990s, the group was thought to have about 2,000 members.

But the terror group can still swell by several hundred sympathizers during times of peak conflict, Velasco said.

Philippine forces and their U.S. advisers are placing much of their hope for victory on development aid, which they believe can turn sympathizers and local communities away from insurgent groups.

In 2008, the United States provided a total of $132 million in funding to promote stability in the Philippines — including military aid and civilian-based aid work — with 60 percent going to Mindanao, according to the State Department.

Philippine marines deployed to camps across Jolo spend up to 80 percent of their time on public service projects on the impoverished island of about 620,000 people, work that is coordinated by U.S. advisers.

As a result, construction projects have sprouted across Jolo. Villages now have rows of brightly painted new homes, shiny water tanks and reconstructed school buildings.

Results of such U.S.-coordinated aid efforts have been encouraging elsewhere. Hundreds of fighters farther north in Mindanao have laid down their weapons over the past six months in exchange for farmland, according to Coultrup.

Jolo might prove the ultimate test of that counterinsurgency strategy in the region.

"We are negating the next generation of terrorists," said Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, commandant of the Philippine marine corps, who recently visited a marine battalion landing team responsible for 23 development projects.

Sabban made the trip across the island in a convoy of fast-moving SUVs and heavily armed Humvees headed by an armored personnel carrier.

The roads, once infamous for snipers and ambushes, are now paved. Attacks are much rarer than five or 10 years ago, Sabban said.

Sometimes local children smile and wave at passing military units, which is considered a breakthrough in Jolo.

Still, the island and large swaths of the region remain lawless, said Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, the minority leader in the Philippine Senate, who was originally appointed by President Corazon Aquino in the 1980s to help with the peace process in Mindanao.

U.S.-led community projects and aid have helped the government gain traction after a four-decade struggle with the Moros, Pimentel said, but those gains have stagnated in recent years.

For example, he noted that the Philippine government has been so far been unable to establish local police and justice systems on Jolo.

"In [Jolo], not a single one of the 18 municipalities has a court," Pimentel said.

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