Abu Sayyaf

Introductory note: This post, on a terrorist group, follows my last one on the Tamil Tigers. I had several friends that visited Sri Lanka in the past few weeks, which made me curious about the country and the Tigers. While investigating them, I came across several other terrorist groups in the region, with similar claims and tactics which I found it interesting to share.

Like most Arab names, Abu Sayyaf carries a powerful meaning. It means “bearer of the sword”. The name symbolizes de group’s violent ways, inscribed into its name and its purpose and, as always, designed to instil fear.  Abu Sayyaf was borne   in 1991, of a split from the Moro National Liberation Front.

After decades of insurgency and unrest, as several separatist Muslim groups tried to create an independent Islamic State in the southernmost islands of the archipelago, with no results, Abu Sayyaf was the answer for many who thought Manila was not listening. The group brought more radical and violent means to the negotiating table and started its own campaign against the Philippine government and, if necessary, the world.

Abu Sayyaf’s first publicly known attack happened in 1991, when the group killed two American evangelists with a grenade, and by 1995 the organization was operating full scale all over the Philippines. The group kept its focus on the southern islands of Mindanao and Sulu. There are also a few cases of attacks outside this area and even abroad.  All in all they are a very prolific terrorist group and some areas in the Philippines where their presence is felt, are still not recommended for national and foreign tourists.

In their fight for an Iranian-style Islamic State, the group has been involved in bombings, assassinations, extortion and kidnappings for ransom. The last two serve the purpose of financing the groups war effort and they account for a great percentage of the money Abu Sayyaf raises every year. Unlike other more organized terrorists groups, the organization’s logistics platform is quite limited. They have kidnapped hundreds, including several foreign citizens, the latter guaranteeing their much wanted TV coverage (as seen below).

One of the more high profile cases was that of the kidnapping of 20 tourists from the Dos Palmas resort, on May 2001. Among the hostages were two American citizens, which drew international attention to the situation, the group and its objectives. In the following 12 months, 5 of the hostages died, two were killed – one of them, the American Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded by the group. Fighting between Abu Sayyaf and Philippine military was bloody and ended with the death of 22 Philippine soldiers and an unknown number of casualties on the terrorist side.

As for arms, Abu Sayyaf relies on home made bombs, mortars and automatic weapons, while at the same time using the Philippine jungles as cover. Their elusiveness has been one of the key difficulties by each of the governments that sat in Manila, for the past 23 years.

In the past few years, the group has been pushed back by the Philippine Marines (known for training with US military stationed in the region) and its numbers have shrunk. In 2002, at the height of its power, Abu Sayyaf had more than a 1,000 combatants, a number that has been reduced to something between 200 and 400  militants. The group has struggled to fight back and its military arm has lost some of its power. Abu Sayyaf now resorts mostly to kidnappings for ransom as it tries to survive. It currently holds 4 people, including two European birdwatchers hostage.

The Philippine government has been successful in targeting the organization’s leadership, by jailing or killing its most charismatic leaders and thus, splitting Abu Sayyaf into several factions. Despite its decline the group remains active and continues to fight for its goal, even if today the question is more about their survival than about their success.


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