The Abu Sayyaf is a terrorist group operating in the southern Philippines. Its name means "Bearer of the Sword". The Abu Sayyaf appeared in the early 1990's, after the signing of the ARMM treaty with the government, and the subsequent disbanding of the majority of the MNLF organization.
Although they initially claimed to only make war on the government and its military, they shocked the nation with the 1995 Ipil massacre in Zamboanga del Norte, where they killed 54 civilians and razed the town. They have also claimed responsibility for several bombings in and around Zamboanga, Jolo, and Sulu.
They first made world-wide
headlines in the Sipadan hostage crisis, when they kidnapped 21 hostages (20 Europeans and Malaysians, 1 Filipino) on April 23, 2000 from a resort in Malaysia, bringing them over to their base of operations in Basilan. This ended almost a year later, with the release of American Jeffrey Schilling (captured in a raid a few months later). A hefty ransom (said to have totaled nearly $20 million, nearly a million per hostage) was paid to have most of the foreign hostages released, with the deal brokered by the Malaysian and Libyan governments.
They are currently being led by Khadafy Janjalani, younger brother of founder Abdurajak Janjalani. Other leaders of the group include their official spokesperson Abu Sabaya, Galib Andang (alias Commander Robot) and Mujib Susukan. Although initially they claimed to be a Muslim religious group calling for jihad on enemies of Islam, they have been disowned by most Muslim groups in the country. These days, they seem to have dropped any pretense at posing as religious or political rebels, and the consensus seems to be that they are merely a gang of bandits in it for the money. Their numbers are estimated to range from 350-500 men, although membership swelled last year to nearly 5,000 after the Sipadan crisis.
Most of the ransom money from last year's incident was reportedly used to buy weapons, ammunition and equipment (rumored to have been brokered through the same Libyan contacts that provided the ransom money). There were also allegations that the local negotiator, Robert Aventajado, as well as then-President Estrada, took a cut of the ransom money in exchange for letting the leaders escape.
On Sunday, May 27, 2001, they attacked the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan and captured 20 hostages, three Americans and 17 Filipinos. On Monday, May 28, they took five fishermen captive and commandeered their boats - two of the fishermen later escaped and reported the presence of the Americans among the hostages. It is feared that they are trying to reach Sulu and Basilan with their hostages, where civilians friendly to their cause could help hide them and their prisoners.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered Tuesday that no negotiation will be undertaken with the terrorists, and no ransom will be paid. The military is currently running all operations under a news blackout, and the press is being kept away from the area, to prevent repeats of several incidents last year where journalists, both local and foreign, were also taken hostage, had their equipment confiscated, and were shaken down for cash.
A P100 million reward (about $2 million) has also been placed on the heads of the Abu Sayyaf leadership, in stark contrast to last year's drawn out hostage negotiations and massive payoff.
Abu Sayyaf spokesperson Abu Sabaya announced on local radio that the hostages had been divided into two groups of 10 each, and that they had been taken separately to Sulu and Basilan. Military attempts to pinpoint their location have been hampered by the terrain; the the Palawan, Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi and Sulu island groups consist of over a thousand islands and small islets capable of hiding a group of less than 50 men and their equipment.
In June 2001, the Philippine Army sprung a trap, catching the bulk of the Abu Sayyaf force in the town of Lamitan, Basilan. While the terrorists barricaded themselves in the town hospital, Army units surrounded the town, resulting in a stalemate that lasted for several hours. Unfortunately, as soon as darkness fell, the Abu Sayyaf managed to escape with most of the captives, and only two Filipino hostages were left behind to be rescued by Army units.
By late August, most of the Abu had been run to ground, and almost all hostages rescued (two Filipino resort workers had been beheaded). The Army units responsible for the escape at Lamitan came under fire from several civilian watchdog groups, claiming that officers had been bribed by the Abu Sayyaf to let the terrorists escape. Although these allegations have not yet been proven, it is known that Abu Sabaya and Galib Andang had been sighted at numerous locations on and off the island of Basilan, leading experts to believe they had at least some collusion with the military personnel manning the blockade.
The Abu Sayaff is well-funded, for such a small group. Military experts were surprised to find out that they were equipped with night-vision goggles, advanced communications gear, and even satellite phones (which may have been taken from French journalists last year). They are armed with mostly assault rifles, although key installations have been equipped with mortars, RPGs and other light support weapons.
Rumors have them linked to Osama Bin Laden, or other international terrorist groups.
It is also telling that the US has now offered the government direct assistance in tracking down the kidnappers, unlike last year when only the European countries involved (as well as Libya and Malaysia) took an active interest in helping free the captives (although the US did lend a hand in providing satellite surveillance). Indeed, the lukewarm reaction to Schilling's kidnapping led to rumors that he was either a CIA agent or an Abu Sayyaf member.
In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, and the American offensive on Osama Bin Laden, the government is champing at the bit at the chance to freeze some of the Abu Sayyaf's assets, most of which are in off-shore bank accounts.
Update: In the waning months of 2001, a large part of Bush's "war on terrorism"
seems to be sending troops into Mindanao, ostensibly to hold "exercises" alongside the local troops (Balikatan 2002). This is perhaps spurred by reports that the Abu Sayyaf has links to Osama Bin Laden, although most locals believe these links were merely played up by local military as part of a ploy to get more American aid, in the form of training, night-fighting equipment, and financial packages.
By February 2002, almost all local opposition factions, including leftists, Muslims, several senators and congressmen, and several
legal experts have expressed protest at this new incursion of foreign troops,
nearly ten years after the US withdrew its military forces after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991.
Several rebel groups, including the MILF, have vowed to open fire on any American troops straying into their territory. They are claiming that the "Abu Sayyaf" casualties claimed by American-accompanied operations are actually MILF civilians, and not part of the bandit group.
Facts checked with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, online version at http://www.inquirer.net/.