The Abu Sayyaf1 is a group of a few hundred heavily armed men based in the islands of Basilan and Sulu in southern Mindanao, third largest island of the Philippines.
The name is derived from that of Professor Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan intellectual who preached Wahabi or Wahabism, an ultra-conservative Islamist ideology. It has been aptly described as a “CIA-created monster that had gone berserk” (Santuario, n.d.) In a privilege speech delivered before the Philippine Senate on July 31, 2000, Senator Aquilino Pimentel noted that before the kidnapping of foreign tourists by this group, “the Abu Sayyaf had already been blazing a bloody trail of murders, abductions, rapes, mutilations, arsons, and other heinous crimes that is impossible to match in terms of callous cruelty by any armed band of hooligans locally or even internationally.”
Pimentel cited an observation by Cooley that the Abu Sayyaf is “the most violent and radical Islamist group in the Far East, using its CIA and ISI [Pakista’s intra-military directorate for intelligence services] training to harass, attack, and murder Christian priests, wealthy non-Muslim plantation owners and merchants and local government [officials] in the southern Philippine Island of Mindanao.” (Pimentel, 2000).
Nobody knows the actual strength of the Abu Sayyaf.2 Of late, the Philippine military has placed their strength at about “400 to 450”, following encounters with the Philippine military that left scores of the terror group dead or wounded (Inquirer, 2007, 2). Its original members, recruited and trained by the CIA to fight America’s surrogate wars, were among the 35,000 Muslim militants from 40 countries who engaged the Soviet army in the Afghan jihad in the 1980s.
Most of these young moujahideens or volunteer Muslim warriors came from the Muslim areas in war-torn Mindanao where two rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), demanding secession and the establishment of an independent Bangsa Moro Republic, have been waging a protracted war with the Philippine military since the Marcos years.
From their base in Beshawar, Pakistan, most of the surviving, battle-tested moujahideens returned to Mindanao after the Russians pulled out from Afghanistan in 1989; the rest were recruited by various Islamic fundamentalists. From this core group was born the Abu Sayyaf.
Its principal organizer was Abdurajak Janjalani, who was killed in 1999 in an encounter with the police. His brother Khadafy Janjalani, a charismatic young man, took over the leadership of the ASG, but he was also killed later. As members of the ASG operated in the fringes of Muslim-controlled territory, they were recruited by some leaders of the Philippine Army to spy on the MILF and the MNLF. Some of their supposed handlers included top-ranking officers of the Philippine army, the Marines, and the Philippine National Police.
Whatever its goals, the Abu Sayyaf (known also as ASG or Abu Sayyaf Group) announced its existence to the world by fire and destruction on April 4, 1994, as it swooped down on the sleepy town of Ipil, Zamboanga del Sur, burning houses, and killing and inflicting mayhem on the unarmed inhabitants.3 The Abu Sayyaf eventually developed its own agenda independent of its controllers: it found out that kidnapping for ransom was lucrative and relatively easy to execute. From neighboring Sipadan, Malaysia, the Abu Sayyaf took hostages: men, women, and children, mostly non-Muslims, including a Filipino priest who was later beheaded.4
The ASG’s link with al-Qaeda has been suspect from the very beginning of its existence. The moujahideens who fought in the Afghanistan jihad knew Osama-Bin Laden as among their stalwart supporters. The US State Department itself has labelled the Abu Sayyaf a “foreign terrorist organization” which once received funding from the al-Qaeda network (Tribune, 2006). Pimentel pointed to the obvious link between the Abu Sayyaf and the al-Qaeda: “Soon after the kidnapping of the Sipadan tourists, the kidnappers who had proclaimed themselves as members of the Abu Sayyaf announced that one of their demands was the release of Ramzi (implicated with bin Laden as one of the bombers of the World Trade Center) from US prison.
As above-stated, the Abu Sayyaf name was inspired by a Wahabi preacher. The Abu Sayyaf, presumably, have been indoctrinated into Wahabism, which promotes anti-West ideology.5 Moreover, the Philippine National Police has tagged the ASG responsible for several bomb attacks, of which the most serious was the bombing of a Super Ferry vessel that killed many people (Jacinto, 2006).
In the jungles of Basilan and Sulu, the ASG can operate with almost total impunity. Pursuing government troops find their quarry quite elusive, disappearing in the shadows cast by the thick canopy of the forest within seconds upon sight. They have proved a wily, relentless enemy, even to the highly trained Filipino scout rangers, many of whom have been killed in fierce encounters with the band.
But perhaps the ASG’s most vital asset is the sympathy of the local population. When pursued, an ASG member can easily conceal his weapons and take refuge in the house of a local. When in town, he can easily blend with the crowd. A disturbing revelation about the ASG, which was the subject of Senator Pimentel’s speech, is its alleged connivance with some top-ranking officers of the Philippine military and police, although denied by them.