On 27 July, firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte mooted the idea of holding peace talks with the notoriously brutal militants of Abu Sayyaf for the first time since he came to office. During a speech in Jolo – the bustling main town at the heart of the militants’ remote maritime stronghold in the Sulu archipelago – Duterte, referencing his own southern roots, declared: ‘now, you have a president with Moro blood…let’s just talk’. Duterte repeated: ‘let’s talk – or what are we going to do; kill each other?’
Four days later, a powerful bomb hidden in a van exploded at an army road checkpoint on the nearby island of Basilan, killing eleven people instantly and leaving at least seven others wounded. Military spokesperson Col. Edgard Arevalo quickly assigned blame to a local faction of Abu Sayyaf affiliated to the Islamic State. The blast – later revealed to be a suicide attack – was followed by a surge in activity by the group during August, including an attempted piracy attack and renewed clashes with the army.
The recent spike in violence indicates a shift away from signs that Abu Sayyaf had entered a steep decline since last year’s Marawi siege, when its most powerful faction – led by now-deceased militant leader Isnilon Hapilon – was wiped-out in a five-month offensive by government forces which ended last October. In the time since, the group has rarely made headlines beyond its remote island hideouts.
Abu Sayyaf is in the headlines once again. And it may be no coincidence that its re-emergence into the public consciousness comes at a time when Duterte has been focused on finalizing a years-old peace deal with the more moderate Islamist rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, based just across the water on the larger southern island of Mindanao. Do the signs of life in Abu Sayyaf indicate a co-ordinated and resurgent campaign aimed at disrupting the peace process? Or are recent attacks a desperate cry for attention as the once-powerful militant group fades into obscurity and irrelevance?
The decades-old roots of Abu Sayyaf’s violence
The modern-day motivations of Abu Sayyaf can be better interpreted through tracing the group’s long history, dating back to its founding by radical Islamist preacher Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in the early 1990s. Janjalani – unhappy with the stalling separatist struggle for a new Muslim homeland in Mindanao, which at the time was fronted by the moderately-minded Moro National Liberation Front – set-up Abu Sayyaf as a radical splinter group with the aim of fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. The group was initially hierarchical and well-organized, while it fostered close links with Indonesia-based militant group Jemaah Islamiyah and the global Al-Qaeda network.
After Janjalani was killed during a 1998 military raid, the group splintered and during the 2000s ditched its ideological mantra to a large degree, becoming something more akin to a criminal enterprise. The group became motivated more by profit than ideology, and went on to launch a wave of kidnappings and piracy attacks through which it accrued huge wealth. Ransom payments often ran into millions of dollars. The consequences of not paying-up were stark, as Abu Sayyaf gained a gruesome reputation for beheading both western and Filipino hostages within hours of its ransom deadlines not being met. Attacks on vessels in the Sulu Sea led experts to dub Abu Sayyaf-infested waters as the ‘new Somalia’.
By late-2014 the group had a new leader – Isnilon Hapilon – and had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. This signalled a reversion to its early ideological aim of seeking an independent Islamic state in the Philippines’ conflict-plagued south. In its isolated island bases away from the prying eyes of the military the group increased its number of recruits and used funds from piracy operations to purchase weapons and ammunition. In late-May 2017, Hapilon’s powerful Abu Sayyaf faction joined forces with Maute group jihadists on Mindanao and laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in an attempt to forge an Islamic State-style caliphate in Southeast Asia. The militants were finally flushed-out by the army in October of last year having sustained heavy losses. More than 1,000 jihadists were killed.
The declining strength of Abu Sayyaf post-Marawi
Since being routed in the tight urban battlefields of Marawi late last year, the strength and capabilities of Abu Sayyaf have noticeably declined. Hapilon was killed during the final throes of battle, dealing a significant blow to the revived aim of the group to fight for an Islamic caliphate. Two main factions were left behind in the group’s traditional strongholds, loosely led by Furuji Indama in Basilan and Radullan Sahiron in Sulu. Further factionalization has also occurred, with sub-leaders commanding small pockets of fighters which are often structured along clan or family lines. Since the start of this year the group’s remnants have come under sustained attack from the army under Martial Law, which Duterte has extended across the entirety of Mindanao and its outlying islands until the end of 2018.
In the first six months of the year at least 63 Abu Sayyaf members have been killed by the army, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently estimated that only around 100 militants remain in Sulu and just 35 in Basilan. These numbers are hard to verify due to the group’s notoriously shadowy nature and remote areas of operation, however its lack of notable activity until recently backed-up claims that its strength was declining. The year up to July saw few attempted piracy attacks, no mass-casualty bombings and no major attacks on villages – all hallmark tactics of the group in the past. Many small groups of Abu Sayyaf fighters have recently surrendered to the military while the group’s low-profile activities have barely made headlines beyond the remote island provinces where Abu Sayyaf operates.
Abu Sayyaf displays signs of renewed life
The suicide bombing at an army checkpoint on the outskirts Lamitan city, Basilan province, on 31 July thrust the group firmly back into the spotlight. The attack – which left 11 people dead including four civilians, six soldiers and the suspected bomber – took the authorities by surprise. Abu Sayyaf was thought to no-longer possess the capability to pull-off such an attack. Unconfirmed media reports suggested a Moroccan national with links to the Islamic state was the perpetrator, raising worrying questions as to the extent of the link between Abu Sayyaf and the wider global jihadi movement, which was thought to have been severed after the defeat of Hapilon’s faction in Marawi. The suicide attack was just the first in a number of high-profile incidents linked to the group over the next month.
On 10 August, a group of around ten heavily-armed Abu Sayyaf militants boarded a Malaysian-owned tugboat off the island of Tawi-Tawi, close to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Authorities suspected the incident to be an attempted hostage-taking or kidnapping-for-ransom, however the crew managed to escape abduction by locking themselves in a secure room onboard the ship before Malaysian troops intervened, causing the militants to flee. Despite the ultimate failure of the operation, the attempted piracy attack demonstrates the willingness of Abu Sayyaf to once again launch ambitious assaults on the high seas. Towards the end of August, clashes with the military also intensified in the group’s island lairs. Several militants were killed, yet fierce battles on 23 August between more than 40 militants and an army battalion left 22 government soldiers wounded, many having sustained gunshot wounds and shrapnel-blast injuries. On 31 August, unidentified gunmen onboard a boat – identified by police as likely Abu Sayyaf members – raided a small coastal town in Zamboanga del Norte, killing four civilians and a government militiaman before taking two people hostage and fleeing back out to sea. The attack serves as just the latest indication that Abu Sayyaf may be trying to reboot their past violent campaign.
Is the threat from Abu Sayyaf really rising?
Do these incidents represent a growing threat from a resurgent Abu Sayyaf? Or are they simply last acts of resistance from a group which is becoming increasingly desperate to gain attention and remind itself of past glories when it was considered the most radical and brutal jihadi group in Southeast Asia?
Despite the spate of attacks, it is clear that Abu Sayyaf remains severely restricted in its reach. It is no longer able to dominate the waters surrounding its maritime strongholds as it once could. Joint naval patrols carried-out on a regular basis by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea have put paid to that. Launching piracy operations on the scale it once did, would now be far more difficult. An atmosphere of increased vigilance by countries in the region has also hampered the movement of jihadi fighters in the remote maritime borderlands between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, which served as a vital transit point for terrorists in the build-up to last year’s assault on Marawi city.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military has permanently deployed 10 battalions to Basilan and Sulu, and continues to launch co-ordinated ground and air assaults on Abu Sayyaf hideouts, aided by President Duterte’s decision to keep Martial Law in place until the end of 2018. In August, the army also set up a new outpost on the remote island of Panguan, located between Tawi-Tawi and the Malaysian state of Sabah, in what senior military spokesman Gen. Custodio Parcon described as an attempt to prevent the area from once again becoming a ‘safe haven’ from which militants could launch attacks. The lawless security environment which allowed Abu Sayyaf to flourish before Marawi now ceases to exist.
Forecast: Abu Sayyaf looking to disrupt Duterte’s peace process
It is no coincidence that the rise in Abu Sayyaf activity in recent months came just as President Duterte finalized a long-in-the-making peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, aimed at establishing a new autonomous region in Muslim-majority areas of the region – including the island provinces which have long been home to Abu Sayyaf. The deal is expected to deal a huge blow to the recruitment efforts of jihadi groups such as Abu Sayyaf, that have long sought to lure Muslim recruits who felt marginalized and disenfranchised in the Philippines’ impoverished and war-afflicted south. The extremists are now attempting to push back and disrupt the peace process for their own survival.
Bombings such as the one perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, and two similar attacks carried-out in August by another radical group – the ISIS-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters – in Sultan Kudarat, now represent the biggest threat going forward. These radical groups may not have the manpower and resources to take the fight to the army in a conventional sense, so will now likely revert to guerrilla tactics such as suicide bombings, kidnappings and ambushes targeting government troops.
In this sense, Abu Sayyaf are attempting a comeback of sorts. Yet under the strain of Martial Law and with Duterte in the mood to crack-down after the Basilan bombing – which prompted him to order his troops to ‘destroy and kill’ the jihadists – Abu Sayyaf will struggle to resurrect its past reign of terror.
A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.