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Abu Sayyaf Group - The Heat is On

The death of two of the three remaining hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in what is widely being described as a ‘botched operation’ by the Philippines Army has once again brought this troubled South East Asian nation – already the target of the second phase of the US ‘war against global terror’ – into renewed international focus. The tragedy of the deaths of Martin Burnham, an American Christian missionary, and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap, is that they had suffered enormously in extended captivity over the past year, and that the end came so close to freedom.

Martin Burnham and his wife Gracia (who was injured, but freed in the June 7, 2002, operation), had been abducted with 21 others on May 27, 2001, at the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan. Three of the hostages were released immediately, but six days later, the ASG defied a massive military operation launched against them, to take an indeterminate number of hostages – including nurse Yap – at the Lamitan hospital in Basilan. Another 15 hostages were taken over the succeeding days in a raid at a rubber plantation in Tairan, Lantawan town, Basilan. On June 12, 2001, ASG spokesman Abu Sabaya announced the execution of American hostage Guillermo Sobero as an ‘independence day gift to the Arroyo government.’ Over the following days, at least four hostages were released, raising suspicion of ransom payments by their families. Others were not so lucky, with a succession of brutal executions carried out over the following weeks. Relentless military pressure gradually resulted in several escapes, rescues and releases, eventually bringing down the number to the final three – the Burnhams and nurse Yap.

The ASG is the smallest, but most radical of Islamist separatist orgnanisations operating in the Southern Philippines. Established in the mid-1980s, with the objective of creating a separate ‘pure Islamic Bangsamoro homeland’, a large number of its cadres trained and fought along with the mujahiddeen in Afghanistan. It was in Afghanistan that Ustadz Abdurajak Janjalani – the founder of the ASG – first came in contact with Osama bin Laden. Abdurajak and his younger brother Khaddaffy Janjalani were trained at the camp near Khost in the late 1980s where Ramzi Yousef was training and teaching at that time. Janjalani’s developed close relations with both bin Laden and Yousef, and when bin Laden sought to expand his terror network after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he supported Janjalani to establish a cell in the Philippines. In 1991, Yousef travelled to the Philippines, and over the years, the country emerged as "a major operational hub" of the Al Qaeda, and the ASG as one of its "franchise" operations. Some of the worst terrorist plans in recent times have been hatched in the Philippines, including Ramzi Yousef’s abortive plot to bring down 11 American jetliners in ’48 hours of terror.’ The Philippines Al Qaeda network, which comprehended both the ASG and the largest Islamist extremist grouping in the country, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was painstakingly put together over a period of nine years, commencing 1988, by bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa.

The ASG was immensely effective through the 1990s, initially consolidating its hold the Basilan and Sulu islands, a relatively small area, and later extending its activities to other Island groups in Mindanao, and eventually into the urban centres of the country, such as Manila and Cebu, as well. Its first operation outside the Southern Philippines was the abduction of 21 persons – including 10 foreigners – from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan in April 2000. These and other hostages were subsequently released after payment of substantial ransoms – allegedly totalling an estimated US $ 25 million. It is for its Christian hostages that the ASG ordinarily reserves its most brutal treatment.

By year-end 2001, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in an intensive crackdown ordered by President Gloria Marcapagal-Aroyyo herself, had initiated a total of 196 operations against the ASG. Another thirty armed incidents had been initiated by the ASG against government forces in the year, and three terrorist actions targeted the civilian population. ASG related incidents in the year resulted in 82 killed and 229 wounded government troops. Civilian casualties included 77 dead and 104 injured. There were 249 fatalaties among ASG cadres, with another 67 active members captured.

It was primarily the Al Qaeda linkages, and the increasing use of Philippines as a ‘country of convenience’ by various Islamist terrorist groupings that made it such an urgent priority in America’s ‘global war against terror. Since US special forces landed in the country to train and assist the Philippines government to target the ASG – formally commencing the scheduled six-month ‘Balikatan’ (shoulder to shoulder) Exercise on January 31, 2002, a bloody duel has been in progress. The US Forces do not actually engage in combat, since the Philippine Constitution bans the use of foreign combat troops in the absence of a formal treaty to this effect, but they do accompany Philippine troops on anti-terrorist operations, and are armed and authorized to fire in self-defense.

The US also gave a package of over US $ 100 million worth of sophisticated equipment, including a C-130 transport, eight helicopters, night vision devices, and 30,000 M 16 rifles, to the Philippines Army. A backup of US air reconnaissance resources, heat sensing and electronic monitoring equipment has also been extended to track and locate ASG cadres and camps, and a new measure of efficiency has been brought into the extended counter-terrorism campaign that the Philippines Forces had been engaged in. The result has been much more focused operations that have inflicted over 188 fatalities on the ASG cadres till the end of May, with 48 security men killed as well. 65 civilians have also been killed by the extremists over this period.

While the ASG remains a serious threat, its present reality is, perhaps, not as daunting as may be imagined. The organisation has undergone a continuos decline since its leader-ideologue, Abdurajak Janjalani, was killed in a shootout with the police in December 1998, and his main lieutenant, Edwin Angeles was arrested in January 1999. The ASG is now nominally headed by Abdurajak’s brother Khaddaffy, but has, in fact, split into several autonomous factions. The largest extant faction is headed by Ahmad Salayudi alias Abu Sabaya, and another faction is headed by Galib Andang. The ASG has, moreover, substantially degenerated into a criminal abduction-for-ransom operation, though its fractious leadership continues to maintain an Islamist and political pretence.

Despite a continuous weakening of the group, it was, in essence, the difficulty of terrain across the 1,700 square kilometres mountain jungles of the Basilan Islands, that had undermined the effectiveness of the earlier efforts to track down and neutralise the ASG. The limitations have been substantially overcome with the hi-tech US backup, and a range of other variables have also come into play. The US has, for instance, jacked up rewards for each of the five top leaders of the ASG to US $ 5 million each, as against the $ 20,000 that the Philippines government offered earlier, and information on ASG movements has now increased manifold. ASG cadres and collaborators had also been moving freely across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, but recent improvements in passport and immigration control procedures have resulted in the arrest of at least a hundred international fugitives accused of terrorism ,who were trying to enter the country.

There is now substantial support for the continuance of the Balikatan Exercises beyond the scheduled six months that would end on July 31. The US is also reported to have asked the Philippines government to allow the deployment of the Japan-based USS Kitty Hawk to the Sulu Sea, which would put Basilan within striking distance of the ship’s 70 combat aircraft.

The danger that is currently being addressed is substantially the threat of the ASG. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the MILF, both of which have a history of association with the Al Qaeda, as well as with the ASG, are largely being ignored in the present campaign. The MILF is engaged in peace negotiations with the government, and many of its cadres are surrendering, though ‘rogue elements’ (which in at least one case included the chief MILF peace negotiator) continue to engage in widespread abduction for ransom. While these movements, like the ASG, have all currently assumed a deeply degraded form, they do constitute a core of radicalized and criminalized elements that can be mobilized for a major Islamist jehad under regional conditions that may, again, begin to appear favorable to the success of such an enterprise.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, June 13, 2002.)





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