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The Abu Sayyaf
Group is a terrorist organization which operates within the Philippines,
primarily within the island formations of Mindanao, and reaching out towards
the Sulu archipelago. Abu Sayyaf, when translated into Arabic, means “Father of
the Swordsman”.  This group terrorizes
the areas surrounding the Philippines and is considered to be one of the most
critical security threats in the region. The Abu Sayyaf Group is similar to
many other radical Islamist movements in that their primary objective is to
secure an independent Islamic state within the Southern Philippines (Filler

In order to
truly understand the motivations of this group, it is important to have some
basic knowledge of the historical underpinnings for the organization’s
creation. Its founder, Abubakar Janjalani, received most of his inspiration through
the study of Wahhabi Islam, a conservative branch of the Sunni sect. Janjalani
was aware of the historical, religious and economic conditions that contributed
to the longstanding rejection of state authority in the Philippines by the
Muslim population. Through years of economic and social oppression, the
identity of the Philippine inhabitants became polarized and the oppressed
Muslims forged an alliance based on faith against the ruling Christian
authority (Turner 2003). Since then, the Muslim minority, collectively known as
the “Moro” people, have strived to create an independent state free from their
perceived oppression. Janjalani’s original objective for his creation of the
Abu Sayyaf Group was to seek justice for the maltreatment of Moro’s in the Southern
Philippines. Many Moro’s, along with Janjalani, felt as though their very right
of self-determination was being infringed upon. Janjalani’s overall rhetoric
for independence mirrors that of many other radical Islamic figures, with him
having said that jihad was a noble pursuit that furthered the cause of Allah
and his devout followers (Banlaoi 2006). Prior to his death in 1998, he
released eight radical essays which stipulated that Muslims were not accurately
following the procedures for jihad and that their interpretation of the Quran
was incorrect. He proceeded to illustrate a new interpretation of jihad, which
involved the use of suicide terrorism as the ultimate sacrifice in the service
of Allah. It is notable to mention that his ideology was imparted through
exposure to radical Islamic teachings in Saudi Arabia.

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The objectives
and strategic organization of the Abu Sayyaf Group remains relatively unchanged
since its inception by Janjalani. The ultimate objective of the group is the
formation of an independent Islamic state ruled under Sharia law. Through the
essays left by Janjalani, his followers were able to generate four underlying
principles of his teachings that were eventually used as the foundation of the
groups’ mission. Firstly, Janjalani stressed that Abu Sayyaf should not act in
any way as to splinter Islamic unity. He fervently believed that a united,
global Muslim resistance was the only way for them to succeed and that internal
conflicts between radical groups was inherently counterproductive. It was also
stated that the group would serve as the liaison between the Moro National
Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Niksch 2004).These two
radical political entities were the face of the Moro struggle for independence
and Janjalani wanted to unite the two forces into a centralized entity.  Secondly, another objective was to create a
state that would allow its citizens to be free. Freedom, in the eyes of Abu
Sayyaf, included religious tolerance. This seems highly hypocritical
considering the majority of their verbal and physical attacks have been
directed towards Christian groups. The Abu Sayyaf leadership has gone so far as
to assert its willingness to accept other religions by saying that “the rights
of Christians will be protected for as long as they abide by the laws of the
Islamic state”(Quimpo 1999). Thirdly, the group believes that violent
engagement is a necessary evil as long as oppression on the Muslim population
continues.  The fourth “truth” as labeled
by Janjalani states that “war disturbs peace only for the attainment of the
true and real objective of humanity – the establishment of justice and
righteousness for all under the law of the noble Quran and the purified path.”(Tan,1993,
p.132). Thus far, the Abu Sayyaf Group has yet to achieve their goal of an
independent state. However, their secondary objective of gaining followers to
their cause has been quite successful. Their open challenge to state authority
through acts of terrorism has gained them significant notoriety in the region.
Their willingness to attack and their increasing publicity throughout the world
has only generated more revenue for them, as other radical Islamic groups are
funneling them with resources.

The tactics used
by the Abu Sayyaf Group are in line with that of other Islamic groups such as
Al-Qaeda. What differentiates them from other groups is their resource
limitation. Abu Sayyaf, compared to other terrorist organizations, is very
small. Their numbers range from the low hundreds to approximately a thousand.
Comparing this to groups such as Al-Qaeda, it is clear that the operational
capability of Abu Sayyaf is significantly limited. Additionally, apart from
internal financing, there is little room for expansion without significant
external contributions. Thus, the group’s primary strategic mentality is that
of acquiring resources. This is what leads them to conduct brutal attacks on
civilians and is also why they engage in terrorist activities that are uncommon
in their Middle Eastern counterparts. Historically, Abu Sayyaf has engaged in
bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortions. Their primary targets
included Filipino Christians throughout the Sulu Islands. An example of an
attack they orchestrated is the April 2000 kidnapping of tourists on a
Malaysian resort. The objective of this attack was to target foreigners, in the
hopes of successfully extracting ransom payments. That very same year, they
seized three French journalists, demanding ransom. The hostages were released
after payment of the ransom, which is estimated to have been around 10 to 25
million dollars(CRS 2002). This goes to show how their tactics are heavily
dependent on the extent of their financial need.  Philippine officials state that the ransom in
that case was used to recruit new members, as well as upgrade equipment, such
as speedboats. Those boats were then used to attack another resort, where once
again, hostages were acquired. In this case though, 20 hostages were taken,
including 3 Americans. They were kept there for more than a year, and due to a
lack of progress, Abu Sayyed executed an American hostage, Guillermo Sobero.
The beheading of Sobero prompted international entities to act, and an
additional barrage of ransom payments were sent to the group. Additional
attacks include 1) the abduction of six Filipino Jehovah’s Witnesses in August
2002, with two being beheaded, 2) an explosive attack on a Philippine military
base in October 2002, resulting in the death of a U.S. soldier, 3) an attack in
the capital city of Manila in February 2005, resulting in 8 deaths, 4) a
neutralized plot in 2008 to assassinate then president Gloria Arroyo (Council
2009). It seems as though Abu Sayyaf utilizes a cycle of strategies to achieve
their goals. When they are low on resources, they use kidnappings to generate revenue.
Once they have some funds, they use it to orchestrate brutal attacks on the
Filipino population. Based on a Congressional Research Service report, Abu
Sayyaf seems to have reoriented its strategy, de-emphasizing kidnapping as a
form of attack. Instead, they have begun to look into more devastating attacks
on civilian and military targets to increase the amount of collateral damage.
This reemergence of violent, high profile attacks highlights a shift in view of
the upper leadership within Abu Sayyaf, aligning themselves closer to the
original vision of Janjalani (Atkinson 2012).

In order for an entity
to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, it
needs to satisfy three conditions, outlined within section 219 of the Immigration
and Naturalization Act. These conditions are: 1) the organization must be a
foreign organization, 2) the organization engages in terrorist activity, or
retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism,
and 3) the terrorist activity or
terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals
or the national security of the United States(USCIS).  In the case of Abu Sayyaf, it clearly
satisfies the first condition due to its operating area of the Philippines. The
second condition is also clearly valid, based on the nature of the group’s
operations.  The third condition is not
as clearly defined. There have been instances in the past where US nationals
were kidnapped or executed, but there is an underlying security threat to the
United States and its influence in Southeast Asia. Overall, the Abu Sayyaf
group is known to be responsible for approximately 288 civilian casualties
resulting from their terrorist activities. The group is able to latch onto the
minds of disillusioned youth and persuade them to join the cause. Some join
because of the ideological connection to the Moro people, while others are
enticed by the wealth generated by extortions. This multi-faceted recruitment
strategy threatens to increase the number of terrorists within the group and
directly increases the power of Abu Sayyaf in the region. This trend directly
affects U.S. interests in the region, as the U.S. has a prominent presence in
Southeast Asia (Banlaoi 2006). It is also known that the group has expanded
their operations to include illegal arms trading and munitions have been
intercepted, some of which originated within Al-Qaeda. Crucial information
regarding the training of Abu Sayyaf members was highlighted by the escape of
some hostages who described Middle Eastern training instructors as the backbone
of Abu Sayyaf’s operational readiness. This fact alone is highly concerning to
the United States, which is already engaged in a war against terrorism,
primarily in the Middle East. To open up another front and dedicate additional
resources to combat a resurgence in Southeast Asian extremism would be an
unnecessary burden. Additionally, Abu Sayyaf’s ties to other large regional groups
such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda represent a significant threat that the
United States cannot afford to ignore. Documented evidence suggests that the
group has had significant training in explosives, from assembly to target
selection and detonation. The extent to which collaboration between regional
groups occurs is shocking. Abu Sayyaf has used its influx of funding from
foreign groups to finance its own stockpile of advanced weapons. These transactions
were discovered when government forces seized equipment such as night vision
goggles, thermal imaging devices, sniper scopes, and satellite and radio
communication devices. (Ugarte 2008). These newfound partnerships with other
radical entities facilitate the group’s ability to expand their operations and
capabilities, and significantly raises the threat of this group to U.S
interests in the region.

Due to Abu
Sayyaf and its partners, Southeast Asia is rapidly gaining prominence as a
piracy hotspot. Additionally, the group’s ability to effectively exploit the
media to further their worldwide recognition is crucial to their ultimate goal.
As expressed by Bernhard Debatin in his book on terrorism and media attention,
“the terrorist outrages have been planned and timed so as to exploit the media
to its absolute limits and to attract maximum publicity. Terrorists show no
hesitation or lack of skill in exploiting the benefits of democracy”(Debatin,2003,
p.164). As we discussed early in the course on the rationality of terrorism, it
is evident in the strategic decisions made by the leadership within Abu Sayyaf
that terrorism is a very effective weapon that can be used for strategic
leverage. In this case, the group performs acts of violence to create panic and
fear, which allows them to directly increase their psychological control over
the Filipino population, and by extension, the United States.

To effectively
combat the Abu Sayyaf Group, many revisions need to be made as to how the
Philippine government responds to such threats. Increased collaboration between
the U.S. and Philippine officials have had significant impact on the capability
of both forces to neutralize potential threats. In order to shrink the
influence of Abu Sayyaf, it is crucial that the United States continue to
support Philippine forces with military equipment and expertise. The primary
reason why the Philippine forces have been failing in the past is because Abu
Sayyaf is being trained by Islamic extremists from the Middle East who have
developed significant experience through engagement with US forces. This
knowledge trickles down the ranks of Abu Sayyaf, to the point where they are
more effective in combat against Philippine forces. Better training of
Philippine serviceman by U.S. forces should negate Abu Sayyaf’s previous combat
advantage. However, an emphasis on pure battlefield tactics alone will not turn
the tide of the engagement. The Philippine Armed Forces are also at an
equipment disadvantage. As mentioned earlier, Abu Sayyaf has access to more
advanced technologies through their affiliation to Al-Qaeda. The United States
should support the Philippine government by providing them with equipment that
is at least on par with what the terrorists have. Since 9/11, the U.S. has
increased its military aid to the Philippines and it is clear that the aid is
extremely beneficial in combating maritime terrorism in the region (Rosenthal
2008).  Another important consideration
for effectively countering Abu Sayyaf’s actions is in gaining the trust and
confidence of the local Philippine population. Since most of Abu Sayyaf’s
recruitment initiatives target youth in the Philippines, it is an area that
should be targeted by a U.S. social campaign. U.S. sentiment in the Philippines
is not high, and dates back to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines.
Additionally, the U.S. military conducted numerous military campaigns to
suppress militant activity in the islands the Philippines which resulted in significant
civilian casualties (CRS 2002). Zachary Abuza, in his piece on Abu Sayyaf,
highlighted an effective strategy of engaging the Philippine population in
neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf threat by mentioning that “Monetary rewards have
been effective in engaging the public to participate in counterinsurgency
efforts by providing intelligence tips… information
provided by Philippine citizens was used by the AFP to locate and kill Khadafi
Janjalani, one of the most wanted ASG leaders… Filipinos involved were rewarded
$5 million by the U.S. government”(Abuza, 2003, p.22). Since the Abu Sayyaf
Group recruits individuals who primarily come from economically troubled families,
it is imperative that increased effort should be made to help communities. By
denying the group from recruiting additional members, its strength would be
significantly handicapped and their operational efficiency would be decreased.  In terms of actual combat revisions, more
emphasis should be placed on intelligence gathering prior to engagements. This
would result in a decrease in friendly casualties and would better prepare the
Philippine Armed forces in any maritime engagement. Additionally, the lessons
learned by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq should be adequately passed on
to the Philippine government to increase their ability in performing
counterinsurgency operations.  Another
factor that could potentially affect the efficacy of an overarching counterinsurgency
program would be the level of corruption within the Philippine government. How
the United States could affect this is unknown, but if corruption is decreased,
the overall effort would be more successful. Apart from making an effort in
Southeast Asia, the U.S. could also seek to educate its own citizens on the
risks associated with travel to the region. By educating tourists, there is
less of a likelihood that they would end up within the grasp of Abu Sayyaf

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