Family Ties and New Recruits: Abu Sayyaf Proves Hard to Dislodge in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte addresses soldiers of Joint Task Force Sulu in 2017. (Image: PCOO)

Shortly before midday on 24 August, a bomb ripped through two military trucks parked outside a shopping area in Jolo, the capital of the southern Philippines’ island province of Sulu. As security officials responded to the blast, a suicide bomber detonated her device having been prevented from entering the cordoned-off area. The first explosion, initially reported to have been caused by an IED strapped to a motorbike, was later confirmed as another suicide bombing. The double blasts left 14 people dead and at least 75 injured.

The Philippine armed forces quickly blamed Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group aligned with the Islamic State, which has been responsible for at least five suicide attacks involving eight bombers since July 2018. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf had been dealt a major blow when its leader, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed after laying siege to the city of Marawi with fighters from another extremist group, the Mautes, for five months. It was hoped the militants’ defeat in Marawi might turn the tide on years of rising jihadism in the region.

Yet since then, despite a peace deal signed by Manila and moderate Moro Muslim rebels, intensified army operations targeting local Islamic State affiliates and sustained counter-terrorism support from the United States, the threat from Abu Sayyaf is alive and evolving rapidly. However, headline-grabbing tactics aside, its six-year-old pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State now matters little. As in most of its 30-year history, Abu Sayyaf’s violence is best explained by local dynamics, family ties and its ability to attract new recruits.

US-supported military offensives

In spite of recent Abu Sayyaf attacks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims it has made a degree of progress in stemming the tide of militancy. Martial law in Mindanao, imposed after the outbreak of the Marawi siege in mid-2017, was lifted on 31 December last year, while the army has persisted with regular patrols, ground offensives and aerial attacks on militant hideouts throughout 2020. In October, the AFP’s public affairs chief Capt. Jonathan Zata said 55 Abu Sayyaf members were killed from January-September, while another 78 surrendered. He revealed that 97 firearms, seven IEDs and nine camps were also seized.

Inroads were also made against other Islamist groups. The Mautes lost 24 fighters in clashes with the AFP, while 15 surrendered and five were arrested. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters lost 28 men over the same period, while 134 surrendered and 20 were detained. Abu Sayyaf suffered its biggest loss in mid-August, when notorious sub-leader Idang Susukan was arrested by police officers in Davao city, where he had reportedly travelled to seek medical attention for injuries to his left arm sustained in an earlier battle. Susukan was involved in lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom activities, making his arrest a significant setback.

Yet these markers of progress are tempered by the overall picture. In August, a US Department of Defense update on Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P), its counter-terrorism campaign in the country, said that ‘‘efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference.’’ Estimates from OPE-P indicate that since 2017, Islamic State-aligned groups in the region have maintained a fighting force of 300–500, remaining ‘‘about the same size and strength for the last few years.’’ This grim assessment comes despite annual US funding of $100m for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. The report cited ‘‘COVID-19 restrictions’’ and ‘‘force rotations’’ as having an additional negative impact on assistance in 2020, along with relatively unchanged ‘‘economic, social and political conditions.’’

Abu Sayyaf suicide bombing spree

A prevalent feature of post-Marawi militancy has been suicide bombings – a phenomenon unseen before in the Philippines. Five separate attacks have taken place in the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf operate, and were carried-out by radicalized Egyptian, Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, as well as at least one Filipino. The deadliest incident targeted the Our Lady of Mount Carmel cathedral, just across the street from the latest attack in Jolo, in January 2019, leaving 22 people dead and 81 wounded.

The aftermath of the double suicide blasts on a cathedral in Jolo, January 2019. (Image: PCOO)

Abu Sayyaf have also persisted with lower-level criminal-type activities, kidnapping Indonesian fishermen for ransom off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state, ten minutes by boat from militant bases on Tawi-Tawi island. At least 39 Indonesian seafarers have been abducted by the group since 2016, when foreign sailors started to avoid the area after several Westerners were beheaded by Abu Sayyaf in absence of a ransom. An Indonesian captive, among five seized from a ship in January, died last month amid a shootout in Sulu.

Such activities, of both a criminal and terrorist nature, have rebounded under Abu Sayyaf’s current leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who commands a faction in the mountains around Patikul, on Sulu’s north coast. Reported to have narrowly avoided death at the hands of the military on several occasions, his leadership has been characterized by a mix of maritime banditry and headline-grabbing suicide attacks part-inspired by the Islamic State and its radical ideology. The tactic is more of a side effect than representing firm links.

Family connections and new recruits

For decades, blood ties and close family relationships within Abu Sayyaf have made the group particularly resistant to infiltration. In its current incarnation, the Ajang-Ajang faction led by Hatib also contains many of his relatives, notably his nephew Mundi Sawadjaan, who is a bomb-maker considered likely by the AFP to have constructed the devices detonated by the Jolo bombers. Abu Sayyaf is insular, splintered and non-hierarchical below its senior leadership, making connections difficult to track. Its members and supporters are loyal in part due to benefiting from the economic rewards of hostage-taking and the illegal drug trade. Hideouts on outlying islands and in Jolo’s densely-forested interior are often out of the authorities’ reach.  

Suicide pacts among families have become a defining feature of Abu Sayyaf’s latest spate of terror attacks. The January 2019 cathedral attack was perpetrated by a married Indonesian husband and wife, while the two female suspects behind the latest outrage were found to be the widows of two deceased Abu Sayyaf fighters. Philippine Army chief Lieut.-Gen. Cirilito Sobejana identified one as the wife of Norman Lasuca – the first known Filipino suicide bomber – and the second as widow of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Talha Jumsah. In a raid on 10 October, another Indonesian woman, Rezky Fantasya Rullie, was arrested in Sulu alongside two other women on suspicion of plotting a suicide attack. All three were married to Abu Sayyaf fighters. AFP soldiers reportedly seized IED components and a vest rigged with pipe bombs from their residence.

Although several of the bombers came from abroad, local recruitment enables Abu Sayyaf to replenish its ranks after battlefield losses. Estimates of its strength have remained consistent for years, supporting the narrative that a sizeable recruitment pool exists in Sulu, where young men have limited alternative options to make a living. Sulu, among the most impoverished areas of the Philippines, has a long history of conflict and was the only province to reject a peace deal between the government and moderate Moro insurgents in a referendum last year. Awash with firearms, Abu Sayyaf has drawn on local support in Sulu to fight for independence since 1990, in a region that sat at the heart of an Islamic sultanate prior to the colonial era. Many still wish for the revival of self-governance in the future, and accept militancy as a means to an end. The Islamic State, through social media, has only ever latched onto what has always been a local struggle.

Maute allies in Lanao del Sur

Remnants of Abu Sayyaf’s co-conspirators in Marawi, the Maute Group, remain functional across the Sulu Sea in Lanao del Sur province, on Mindanao’s largest island. Although its resources are stretched thin, the AFP last month identified Faharudin Hadji Satar, also known as Abu Bakar, as the new leader of the Maute Group. Its recruitment drive is reported to be ongoing in the Lanao municipalities of Balindong, Madalum and Piagapo, where displaced residents of Marawi city have received text messages enticing them to join.  

Three years after the Islamist siege ended, much of Marawi is still to be rebuilt. (Image: PIA)

The more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signatory of a peace agreement with Manila and highly influential in Lanao, has pledged to work with the AFP to combat extremism and persuade the Mautes to disarm. It is hoped that the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leads, will eventually bring prosperity and displace the decades-old narrative that oppressed Muslims in the south can only find hope and livelihood opportunities by joining armed groups.

The Bangsamoro region, supported by most Moro Muslims, offers a chance for renewal, but the activities of Abu Sayyaf demonstrate how hard it is to get all factions on side. Abu Sayyaf retains a firm stranglehold in Sulu, as the Mautes look to entice decommissioned moderate rebels and capitalize on Moro frustrations over the slow rebuilding of Marawi, where 120,000 residents are still displaced three years after the siege ended. Abu Sayyaf and the Mautes failed in that past mission, but remain a thorn in the side of Mindanao.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.