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24 Sep 2008

Intel Brief: The Abu Sayyaf model

Abu Sayyaf fighters and corpses

Abu Sayyaf fighters and corpses

Although Abu Sayyaf, once the greatest threat to Philippine security, has been dismembered with US help, this prescription is not likely to be an effective global policy, Diane Chido writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Diane Chido for ISN

Abu Sayyaf has been contained thru anti-terrorist measures as part of the war on terror, but this is due to several factors unique to this group – factors that do not make this process a model for successful application in other regions.

Despite the fact that Abu Sayyaf's founder, Islamic preacher Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, was devoted to Islamic fundamentalism and achieving its aims through targeted violence, his troops were never as ideologically motivated.

Janjalani, a former Mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan, had studied Islam in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and continued his studies in Libya. He was often described as "brilliant," and ultimately preached a fundamentalist message akin to Middle Eastern Islamic militants. 

Abu Sayyaf, or the "Father of the Executioner," is the Philippine branch of "Harakat-al-Islamiya," or the Islamic Movement. Their stated goal is to convert the southern island of Mindanao into an "independent and pure Islamic theocratic state." This group was once believed to pose the gravest threat to the government, and in 1993, Lieutenant General Alfredo Filler, the Philippine military's vice chief of staff, called them, "the Young Turks of the Islamic extremist movement."

Janjalani formed Abu Sayyaf in the early 1990s, through a split from the Moro National Liberation Front, a major Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines, which was attempting to reconcile with the central government. Abu Sayyaf's first major independent attack came in 1991, when one of its grenades killed two American evangelists in Basilan Province.

Abu Sayyaf was largely self-financed through multi-million-dollar ransom payments from kidnapping, robbing banks, raiding villages, and "taxing" the inhabitants of areas under their control. They used guns stolen from police posts and the bodies of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers they had killed.

Abu Sayyaf abducted indigent Christian Filipinos, keeping them for weeks or months to serve as slave laborers, and kidnapping women who were often forced to marry guerrillas. The group often attacked and beheaded plantation workers and bombed churches. Once, its forces abducted 20 tourists from a luxury resort after its leaders vowed to continue kidnapping Americans and Europeans until they stopped supporting Israel and removed all military bases from the Middle East.

To garner world attention to their cause, Abu Sayyaf often required payment from journalists and photographers; including clothes, wristwatches, shoes and jewelry. There are numerous reports, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s (before the start of US assistance in crackdowns against the group) that government and police officials routinely took cuts out of ransoms when captives were released in exchange for keeping Abu Sayyaf members and hideouts secret and safe.

When Abdurajak Janjalani was killed by Abu Sayyaf in 1998 his youngest brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, took control of the group. It took Khadaffy several years to return the group to its Islamist ideology, which was sidelined after his brother's death and the group became widely viewed as a collection of violent thugs whose main goal was personal profit.

Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in September 2006 by government troops on Jolo Island; in January 2007, the AFP killed Abu Sulaiman, Janjalani's likely successor. These two leaders are believed to have been the main points of contact with Middle Eastern donors, including Iran and Syria, in addition to al-Qaida. 

Abu Sayyaf was known to have had contact with Osama bin Laden, and viewed him as world leader of their cause. Ramzi Yousef visited the southern island of Basilan in early 1992 to meet Abu Sayyaf leaders and give lessons in bomb-making. Yousef later said that Abu Sayyaf's poorly educated rank and file could not cope with the complexities of the kind of bomb-making in which he excelled. This was not surprising, nor was the speedy return of the group's members to brigandry during a leadership vacuum.

Originally a national independence group, Abdurajak Janjilani's leadership gave Abu Sayyaf cohesion and access to al-Qaida funding and training. However, Abu Sayyaf members always had their own modus operandi and it is argued, their own agenda. They tended to operate in small bands of three or four and often created diversions before striking the primary target to distract law enforcement and first responders.

Although al-Qaida, using the Algerian model, also executes coordinated attacks meant to confuse the police, their attacks are generally simultaneous and all strike intentional, not diversionary targets. Abu Sayyaf bands were usually heavily armed, enjoyed the element of surprise, and were not averse to disguises and posing as noncombatants to gain proximity to victims.

Operating in a small and self-contained geographic area, the infusion of US anti-terrorist aid since 2002 has more readily dispatched this group than others more connected to the Islamist ideology and in wider areas where it is possible to cross borders and regroup.

Abu Sayyaf mainly operated from Basilan in Mindanao and in the neighboring provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago. It also operated in the Zamboanga Peninsula, and members had occasionally traveled to Manila and other parts of the country.

The operation that took them farthest afield was a single attack on a resort in Malaysia. By 2003, the Philippine military had heightened its offensives against the group, particularly in western Mindanao, which may have prompted Abu Sayyaf's relocation of operations to mainland Mindanao. US military training and equipage has helped the AFP to turn the tide against Abu Sayyaf since August 2006.

In June 2008, Zachary Abuza, a leading scholar on terrorism in Southeast Asia, wrote that Abu Sayyaf now lacked "any semblance of central leadership.” Current estimates of the group's strength vary from 200 to 1,000 members and it is widely believed to have disintegrated into a loose collection of violent criminals. Their only 2008 reported activities include two kidnappings for ransom and a failed and amateurish attempt to assassinate Philippine President Gloria Arroyo.

It is clear from daily events that the war on terror has had limited success, but in an isolated region, a poorly managed and uneducated group with a low level of ideological motivation to the causus belli is more likely to be quashed through US-supported law enforcement measures, than the large-scale military-style operations that characterize the majority of war on terror efforts.

Although the US can claim success in stamping out the threat of Abu Sayyaf as an Islamic terrorist group, and elements of this model may have the intended effect in other similar situations, the US military cannot claim to have developed a replicable model that will be as effective in the Middle East or Central Asia, for instance.

In the wake of the September bombing attempt on the US Embassy in San'a, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi made a statement providing the likely framework for a universally applicable strategy. He said Yemen needed more American help to battle al-Qaida, but that this aid should be focused on developing the economy and educational system to achieve long-term success in the impoverished country.

"I think it's high time now that after the billions of dollars that have been spent on combating terrorism, for people to sit and ask: 'Have we achieved the objectives?'" Qirbi said. "Could we have spent that money better on different ways of combating terrorism?"

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