Abu Sayyaf remains a threat to Philippines

Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad during a hand-over ceremony in Jolo, Sulu. A Norwegian and three Indonesian seamen held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf Group are turned over by the Moro National Liberation Front to the government envoy on September 18, 2016. Source: WikiMedia Commons.

Philippines based militant group Abu Sayyaf released another Indonesian hostage on September 22. The hostage, an Indonesian fisherman named Herman Maggak, was held in captivity in the neighboring Sabah waters by the militants. During his captivity, there were three attempts by the Philippines army to rescue him. All three of the attempts ended up in gun battles between the army and the militants, without rescue of the captive. After his eventual release, the hostage returned home with three other Indonesians who were previously released by the militants two weeks prior, along with another Norwegian hostagen named Kjartan Sekkingstad.

Since 2007 the Abu Sayyaf Group is known more its “for profit” hostage taking , rather than extremist ideology.

The Norwegian hostage had been in captivity in Sulu for about a year. He was kidnapped while vacationing in the Samal Island on September 21, 2015.

Abu Sayyaf is still holding five other Indonesians as captives. Two militants involved in abduction of the Malaysian and Indonesian sailors have been killed in a military raid recently.

More about Money than Ideology

Abu Sayyaf group has earned millions of dollars from ransoms over the years. Although its leadership have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), since 2007 the group is known more for its “for profit” hostage taking , rather than extremist ideology.

Kjartan Sekkingstad, the Norwegian hostage, was reportedly released after ransom payments by the Phillippines government which was accidentally revealed by the Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte.

It is customary for the regional governments to deny paying ransoms to Abu Sayyaf. The Indonesian government also publicly declined paying ransom for the release of the three hostages. The Indonesians, however, did not rule out the possibility that some other “third party” may have fulfilled the militant group’s demands.

Earlier in the year in May, ten Indonesian boat crew members were released by the jihadist group possibly in exchange for ransom, however, the Indonesian negotiators claimed that the release of the hostages was done purely through negotiations.

A Brief History of Abu Sayyaf

Abu Sayyaf in Arabic means “Father of the Swordsman. The militant group was established in 1990s by its charismatic Basilan-based leader Abdurajak Janjalani. The Abu Sayyaf militants are usually Filipino Muslims hailing from the Sulu archipelago and from the southern Mindanao region. There are reports of foreign jihadists within Abu Sayyaf’s ranks as well.

Mostly based in Western Mindanao, Abu Sayyaf’s operations are carried out in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi in the Sulu archipelago.

Abu Sayyaf in Arabic means “Father of the Swordsman”. Abu Sayyaf in Arabic means “Father of the Swordsman”

Abu Sayyaf is a breakaway group from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), with the goal to establish an independent Islamic State in Mindanao. There are about 400 fighters associated with the Abu Sayyaf group, making it one of the smallest militant organizations of the world, yet quite deadly.

Funding from the group initially came from various global jihadists, including Al Qaeda and Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah.

Abu Sayyaf’s founder Abdurajak Janjalani was a vateran of the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980’s. He came to know Osama Bin Laden either during the Afghan war or during his student days in the Middle-East. After Janjalani was killed by the Philippines army, the group broke up into two splinter groups, one led by Janjalani’s brother Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani and the other was led by Galib Andang. Both the leaders of the breakaway groups were killed in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

According to The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) there have been 340 terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Abu Sayyaf group starting from the 1990s up to December 2014. In 2004 Abu Sayyaf carried out a bombing in a ferry in Manila Bay which killed 116 people.

Regional governments still struggling to contain Abu Sayyaf

The Philippines and Indonesian governments have been trying to find the effective solutions to tackle Abu Sayyaf group for sometime now. The attention of the governments increased after the Sipadan attack which grabbed considerable international attention.

Benigno Aquino III, the predecessor of the current Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, suggested the implementation of martial law in the Mindanao province to tackle Abu Sayyaf. However, the plan was later scrapped as it would be seen as an opportunity for the jihadist to gain sympathy.

Maintaining a no-ransom policy, intensifying the security in the Southern Philippines by involving all regional stakeholders including the ASEAN, and improving the welfare of the Mindano province’s people will be key to stem the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and terrorism.

The model adopted by NATO to tackle the Somalian piracy problem is a model that can be explored by the regional governments to contain Abu Sayyaf. Operation Ocean Shield, the NATO counter piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa, which has deterred and disrupted pirate attacks, while protecting vessels and helping to increase the general level of security in the region since 2008, is one of the best examples of international coalition working together to tackle piracy. ASEAN countries, in addition to Chinese and U.S. participation can formulate an effective shield against Abu Sayyaf following the NATO’s methodology used against Al-Shabab of Somalia.

The model adopted by NATO to tackle the Somalian piracy problem carried out by Al-Shabab is another model that can be explored by the regional governments to contain Abu Sayyaf.

Earlier in 2016, Malaysian, Indonesia, and Philippines agreed to enact a trilateral agreement to address threats in their regional waters, increased cooperation between the three countries on maritime security, and tackle piracy and hostage-taking in the region. Enhanced co-operation among the regional intelligence community, military and civil society engagement is likely to follow that agreement. This agreement is indeed a good start, because without strong coordination and cooperation among the ASEAN members, the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings and hostage taking is unlikely to be contained.


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About Yasmeen Rasidi 3 Articles

Yasmeen Rasidi is a Staff Writer for The GeoStrategists. She focuses on the Asia Pacific and the Middle East region. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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