The Abu Sayyaf Group and the Counter-Terror Response

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The Abu Sayyaf Group and the Counter-terror Response


The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) emerged in the 1990s and operate as a violent splinter group in the southern Philippines (San Juan 2006, 391). In 1997, the U.S. State Department declared the group a terrorist organisation. However, since 1998 the ASG increasingly carry out criminal acts motivated by financial gain rather than religious ideologies (Council on Foreign Relations 2009; Crowley 2005, 8-12). While the Philippine government and U.S. have made some progress combating terrorism with military operations, other counter-terror measures have met with limited success (Niksch 2002). The following essay will provide a critical analysis of the ASG including geopolitical context and identity; origins, structure, tactics and motivations; and lastly current and future developments in counter-terror measures.

Religious objectives of the Abu Sayyaf

The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) or “bearer of the sword” in Arabic is one of three major Islamic-based insurgent organisations operating in the Southern Philippines, specifically the rugged terrain of the Sulu archipelago and the island of Mindanao (Council on Foreign Relations 2009; Liss 2007; Crowley 2005, 5; Manalo 2004, 31; Liss 2007). The other two groups are the Moro National Liberation Front (MLNF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) (Gersham ND, 1). Both the ASG and the MILF emerged as splinter groups from the MLNF in 1991 and 1984 respectively. Although the ASG is the smallest of these groups, it is considered to be the most radical (Gersham 2001, 1; Manalo 2004, 31; Schwarz and Morgado-Schwarz 2002; Liss 2007).

The religious objective of the ASG is to create an Islamic state in the Sulu and Mindanao independent of the central Philippine government (Manalo 2004, 31). While Muslims comprise only 5 percent of the population, the overwhelming majority of the Philippine population is Christian (Crowley 2005, 6; Bale 2003, 4; Gersham 2001, 1). Muslims are concentrated in the five provinces of western Mindanao, and remain the most impoverished in the whole country (San Juan 2006, 400; Bale 2003, 4; Gersham 2001, 1). It is these grievances which the ASG is apparently trying to address through violence, and which have led the ASG to perform terrorist acts (Manalo 2004 2004, 31).

The ASG also perceive its national objective as “tied to a global effort to assert the dominance of Islam through armed struggle” (Manalo 2004, 37). As a result, the former leader, Abdurajak Janjalani, had cultivated strong links to radicals in Afghanistan, including bin Laden and Khalifa (Manalo 2004, 37). In addition, the group has expanded into other parts of the Philippines and penetrated neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia (Council on Foreign Relations 2009). For example, in 2000 and 20001, Abu Sayyaf attacked resorts located in Malaysia and the Philippine island of Palawan, and kidnapped foreign nationals.

Background to Muslim Insurgency

The emergence of the ASG in the early 1990s as a violent splinter group reflects the complicated history of the Philippines, which entails the struggle of Muslims or the Moro people for justice and national self-determination (San Juan 2006, 391).

The concerns of the Moro people are derived from three major historical sources. First, the Spanish conquest of Luzon and the Visayas; American colonisation of the Philippines and its subsequent attitudes towards the Moro people; and policies created by an independent Philippine government following World War II (Bale 2003, 8).

These historical conflicts, especially those between America and the Moro people, explain why the ASG has survived, and on occasion thrived, despite state opposition (Manalo 2004, 40). According to Manalo (2004, 40) “the Abu Sayyaf can be seen as part of a broader movement of Muslim people spanning several centuries, which refuses to acknowledge the authority of the Philippine state, whether independent or...
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