Monday, September 01, 2008

ABU SAYYAF GROUP

The Abu Sayyaf Group is a Muslim terrorist organization based on Basilan Island, one of the southern islands in the Philippine archipelago. Since the mid- 1990s, the group, whose origins are somewhat obscure, has carried out terrorist attacks in the Philippines, including a series of high-profile kidnappings in 2000 and 2001.

For centuries, the southern Philippines have had a substantial Muslim population. Sixteenth-century Spanish colonizers spread Christianity to the northern islands, treating the Muslims as a despised minority; the area has seen periodic violence ever since. Its people are among the poorest in the country. In the early 1970s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) began a war of secession against the Philippine government.

Although the fortunes of the MNLF and its splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), have risen and fallen over the past 30 years, violence and lawlessness have been a constant in the southern islands. Defections, desertions, and ideological disputes have resulted in many armed bands roaming the islands.

Abu Sayyaf began as one such band of former guerrillas, led by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalania, a charismatic former Islamic scholar who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Abu Sayyaf means “Bearer of the Sword.” The group first came to light about 1994; at that time, it was thought to be a small splinter faction of the MILF. Most observers now consider it to be an entirely independent group. Early in its existence Abu Sayyaf established connections with international Muslim terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and members may have received training and support from these groups.

Abu Sayyaf professes a desire for an independent Muslim state for the Philippines’ Muslim population, to be governed under shari’a law. In practice, however, the group’s attacks and particularly its kidnappings seem to have been motivated more by potential profit than by ideological or military significance; the Philippine government has long considered them to be mere bandits. In the mid-1990s, Abu Sayyaf’s strength was estimated at 500 members. Ransom money received from kidnappings has since increased that number, with some commentators believing the group to have as many as 4,000 members. Its stronghold is Basilan Island, though it operates on other Muslim-populated islands as well.

Starting in the late 1990s, Abu Sayyaf increased its numbers of kidnappings in Basilan and elsewhere. At first it targeted wealthy Filipino businessmen, usually releasing the captives after ransom had been paid, but sometimes killing them regardless. In March 2000, the group gained international attention after raiding
a local school, taking 27 hostages, most of them children. On April 23, the Army launched a dangerous raid against the Abu Sayyaf compound housing the hostages. Four terrorists were killed; 15 hostages were freed—10 of them seriously wounded. Most of the terrorists escaped into the jungle, taking 5 hostages with them.

Later that day, a different faction of Abu Sayyaf struck again, this time abducting victims from a resort on the nearby island of Sipidan, which is part of Malaysia. The second group took 23 hostages, 19 of them Malaysian and Filipino hotel staff but also several foreign tourists. Some of the journalists covering the kidnappings were also abducted; the hostages eventually included French, German, Finnish, Lebanese, U.S., and South African nationals. The international spotlight was now focused on the Philippine government, which felt compelled to act. Concerned for the safety of their citizens, the French, German, and South African governments prevailed upon the Filipinos to negotiate with the second group of hostage takers rather than launch another risky raid. A Libyan diplomat offered to act as a go-between and negotiations began. After months of negotiations, a ransom of undisclosed amount was paid to Abu Sayyaf and a dozen of the hostages were released. The kidnappers refused to part with the remainder, and President Estrada launched a massive military strike against the group in September 2000. The risky move secured their release. In May 2001, another kidnapping was similarly resolved through military action.

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and taking into consideration Abu Sayyaf’s connections to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, in January 2002 the U.S. government acceded to the request of Philippine president Gloria Arroyo and pledged $100 million in military aid for the elimination of Abu Sayyaf. The United States sent 660 U.S. Army Special Forces troops to act as military advisors, training the Philippine Army in counterterrorism tactics. The aid package caused considerable controversy in the Philippines but seems to have the support of the public, especially as President Arroyo pledged that the Special Forces troops will remain only for a short time. The success of the operation was thrown into question, however, when some surviving members kidnapped six Jehovah’s witnesses on the island of Jolo and killed at least two of the victims.

Source: Encyclopedia of Terrorism by Harvey Kushner.