BALIK-TERRORISM: THE RETURN OF THE ABU SAYYAF
On February 27, 2004, a bomb detonated on SuperFerry 14 after departing Manila, killing 194 people. Although the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) initially dismissed the claim of responsibility by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), evidence emerged that confirmed the group’s immediate claim of responsibility. It was the second most lethal terrorist attack in Asia after the Bali bombing, perpetrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) on October 12, 2002, and the single most deadly terrorist attack in the Philippines. Since then, Philippine security officials arrested several Abu Sayyaf members in metro-Manila who were in the final stages of preparation for bombings. Between October 2004 and January 2005, there were three aborted bombings, including a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy.  On February 14, 2005, the ASG claimed responsibility for three near simultaneous bombings in Manila, Davao, and General Santos that left 11 people dead and 136 wounded.  In May 2005, Philippine officials uncovered a cache of bomb making chemicals in a Manila warehouse. 
In short, the ASG has reentered the arena of terrorism. Although the group is thought to have only 200-300 members, Philippine National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales named the Abu Sayyaf as the “most dangerous” of all rebel groups in the country. “Compared with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army, the Abu Sayyaf is the most dangerous because these terrorists even volunteer to conduct attacks to win the recognition of international terrorist groups, including al-Qaida,” Gonzales said.  This is hyperbole, directed at the U.S. Government, as the primary internal security threat remains the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army. But the ASG and their ties to JI have the potential to cause instability and negative economic impacts.
Why has this brutal kidnap-for-ransom gang reentered the fray and abandoned its 8-9 year reign of deadly, though hardly political, kidnappings? What are the endogenous and exogenous factors in explaining the Abu Sayyaf’s reinvention? What are the implications for both Philippine and regional security? This monograph will provide a brief history of the ASG, before trying to explain the group’s reorientation and their implications for Philippine and regional security.HISTORY
The Founding Years (1988-91).
The origins of the Abu Sayyaf  (literally “bearer of the sword”), formally known as Al-Harakatul al-Islamiya, can be traced to Afghanistan. In the early 1980s, between 300 and 500 Moro fundamentalists arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, to serve with the Mujiheddin fighting the Soviet Afghanistan invasion and occupation. One of them, Ustadz Abdurajak Janjalani, emerged as a leader. Janjalani was the son of a Basilan ulama and became a fiery Islamic orator himself. He attended an Islamic university in Saudi Arabia, graduating in 1981 before studying Islamic jurisprudence at Ummu I-Qura in Mecca for 3 years. He returned to Basilan and Zamboanga to preach in 1984. In 1987 he traveled to Libya and then continued on to join the Mujiheddin and fought the Soviets for several years in Afghanistan. In Peshawar, Janjalani befriended a wealthy Saudi supporter of the Mujiheddin, Osama bin Laden. Janjalani, and later his younger brother, Khaddafy Janjalani, received training in the late 1980s and early 1990s at a training camp near Khost, Afghanistan, that was run by a professor of Islam, Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf, whose belief in the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam found him favor with many wealthy Saudis, including Osama bin Laden. Abdur Rab Rasul Sayaf was also the mentor of an Indonesian jihadi, Riduan Isamudin, better known as Hambali. There is some evidence that the elder Janjalani was a member of the 48-person Executive Council of the Islamic International Brigade, the nucleus of what would become the al Qaeda organization. 
In 1989, Abdurajak Janjalani vowed to pursue “jihad qital”—armed struggle—to create a pure Islamic state in the southern Philippines based on Salafi Wahhabism. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Janjalani traveled between his home in Basilan and the Peshawar-Afghan border region to recruit supporters. Ten leading Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)  officials, who felt sidelined or disagreed with Nur Misuari, joined Janjalani, including Ustadz Wahab Akbar, Amilhussin Jumaani, and Abdul Ashmad. Philippine intelligence officials believe that the ASG’s primary goal at the time was to sabotage the ongoing peace process between the MNLF and the GRP and to discredit the MNLF’s leaders.  When Osama bin Laden wanted to expand his al Qaeda network, established in 1988, he turned to Janjalani to establish a cell in Southeast Asia.  This cell also would be an important base of support for terrorist operations. Despite ties between al Qaeda and the MILF, in the early-1990s they were nascent and, moreover, the MILF indicated little interest in conducting or assisting terrorist operations. It was not until 1999-2000, when the MILF experienced significant battlefield losses, that it founded its Special Operations Group (MILF-SOG) and began to engage in terrorism; before this it remained focused on waging conventional guerrilla warfare.
Philippine National Police (PNP) intelligence documents suggest that the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef, strongly encouraged the formation of the ASG to serve as his contact and support group in the Philippines. Yousef, who was teaching bomb making at the Khost camp, traveled with Janjalani to the Philippines from December 1991 to May 1992 at bin Laden’s request, where he trained ASG members in bomb making in their camp on Basilan Island.  When Yousef was introduced to Janjalani’s assistant and a leader of the Abu Sayyaf, Edwin Angeles,  it was as an “emissary from bin Laden,” and he was referred to as “the Chemist,” owing to his proficiency in bomb making. Yousef spent a short period of time on Basilan, where he trained approximately 20 Abu Sayyaf militants in the art of bomb making. Though he left the Philippines, Yousef returned in 1994 following the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.
In addition to providing funding to Janjalani, bin Laden also provided expertise to the new organization. Wali Khan Amin Shah, who fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan and who was a close personal friend, was dispatched to recruit, organize, and assist the Abu Sayyaf. Funds from al Qaeda also began to flow, and the ASG began to receive large deliveries of weapons—mainly Libyan models— from Victor Blout, the Tajik arms dealer who was later linked to both the Taliban regime and al Qaeda. Anti-Christian/Islamic State Terrorism (1991-95).
The ASG organization quickly made its mark, establishing a reputation and seen as a small but lethal organization. Abu Sayyaf began its terrorist attacks in the Philippines in 1991. Most of their attacks at this time were directed at Christian churches, missionaries, and non-Muslim communities.  These attacks include the 1991 grenade attack in Zamboanga city that killed two American evangelists; the bombing of the Christian missionary ship, M/V Doulosin Zamboanga, in August 1991; the killing of an Italian priest in Zamboanga on May 20, 1992; the August 10, 1992, bombing of a building in Zamboanga that killed 2 and wounded 40 staffers of a Christian missionary ship; the kidnapping of two Spanish nuns in Sulu on January 17, 1993; the kidnapping of a Spanish priest on March 18, 1993; the kidnapping of an American missionary on Sulu on November 14, 1993; and, the December 26, 1993, bombing of a cathedral in Davao that killed 6 and wounded 132. On June 10, 1994, a series of bombs in Zamboanga, attributed by the AFP to the ASG, killed over 71 people. In one of the most brutal, grisly, and publicly remembered and reviled attacks in modern Philippine terrorism, ASG operatives attacked the western Mindanao town of Ipil on April 4, 1995, killing 53, wounding 48, and then burning and looting 17 commercial buildings. In February 1997, ASG operatives assassinated a Catholic bishop. Between 1991-95, the Abu Sayyaf Group was responsible for 67 terrorist attacks, more than half of which were indiscriminant bombings. All led to the death of some 136 people and hundreds of injuries. Deepening Ties to al Qaeda (1991-95).
Parallel to their development as a terrorist organization, engaged in fomenting sectarian conflict, the ASG deepened their relationship with transnational terrorist organizations. Early on, the Abu Sayyaf was funded through a financial network established by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, who was dispatched to the Philippines in 1991 and established a network of Islamic charities.  Khalifa was officially the regional director for the Saudi-based charity, the Islamic International Relief Organization (IIRO), responsible not just for projects in the Philippines but also in Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan.  As with most of the Islamic charities that have been implicated in terrorist financing, Khalifa’s charities did do some good work, albeit for politically motivated purposes. According to Philippine National Security Advisor Roilo Golez, Khalifa “built up the good will of the community through charity and then turned segments of the population into agents.”  The IIRO’s charitable activities included the construction of an orphanage and dispensary in Cotabato City and dispensaries and pharmacies in Zamboanga. The IIRO funded a floating clinic to serve Muslims in remote villages in western Mindanao. It provided food and clothing to internally displaced people who fled war zones. In addition, IIRO funding went to schools and scholarships. Khalifa established Al Maktum University in Zamboanga using funds from the IIRO. The IIRO asserted that, while it did not always cooperate with the overnment on these projects, it at least had official approval. 
Key Dates in Evolution of the ASG
April 4, 1991 / Grenade attack in Zamboanga City kills two American evangelists
August 1991 / Bombing of Christian missionary ship M/V Doulos
May 20, 1992 / Killing of Italian priest Fr. Salvatorre Carzedda in Zamboanga
August 10, 1992 / Bombing of building in Zamboanga resulting in 2 deaths and 40 other casualties (from Christian missionary ship)
January 17, 1993 / Kidnapping of two Spanish nuns in Sulu
March 18, 1993 / Kidnapping of a Spanish priest
November 14, 1993 / Kidnapping of an American missionary
December 26, 1993 / Bombing of a cathedral in Davao
June 10, 1994 / Bombings in Zamboanga kill 71 people
April 4, 1995 / Attack on Ipil resulting in 53 deaths, 48 wounded, and the destruction of 17 commercial buildings
Table 1. ASG Terrorist Targets, 1991-95.
Khalifa does not deny contacts to the Abu Sayyaf or its founder, Abdurrajak Janjalani. As director of the Muslim World League (MWL) “Abu Sayyaf [the nom de guerre of Abdurrajak Janjalani] was one of the people whose acquaintance I made. He was a student at the Islamic university, and I met him several times. But that does not mean that I am with him.”  He took pride in that, during a period of fighting in the Basilan, the IIRO provided 3 million Pesos, three times the assistance that the government provided. 
The IIRO was also a key funder of the Markazzo Shabab Al-Islamiyah (MSI), one of the MILF’s most important front organizations that was engaged in da’wah and recruitment activities. Based in Lanao del, many ASG members passed through the Islamic academy.
Yet, the IIRO quickly caught the interest of the Philippine police and military intelligence: “The IIRO which claims to be a relief institution is being utilized by foreign extremists as a pipeline through which funding for the local extremists are being coursed through (sic),” a Philippine intelligence report noted.  An Abu Sayyaf defector acknowledged that “The IIRO was behind the construction of mosques, school buildings, and other livelihood projects,” but only “in areas penetrated, highly influenced, and controlled by the rebel group, Abu Sayyaf.”  For example, in Tawi Tawi, the director of the IIRO branch office was Abdul Asmad, thought to be the Abu Sayyaf’s intelligence chief before he was killed on June 10, 1994. Many IIRO projects were located in Campo Muslim, a poor Muslim community in Cotabato city. This was seen as part of the attempt to help the MILF and ASG broaden their base of support from the countryside into urban areas. Scholarships, likewise, were given to students to become Islamic scholars. One Abu Sayyaf defector said the IIRO was used by bin Laden and Khalifa to distribute funds for the purchase of arms and other logistical requirements of the Abu Sayyaf and MILF: “Only 10 to 30 percent of the foreign funding goes to the legitimate relief and livelihood projects and the rest goes to terrorist operations.” 
While the ASG had limited capabilities to perpetrate terrorism, it played a supporting role in Ramzi Yousef’s Bojinka plan, a plot to blow up 11 U.S. jetliners simultaneously over the Pacific, and to kill the Pope.  Although Yousef conducted a trial of his bomb plot on December 10, 2004, by detonating one of his small nitroglycerine bombs aboard a Philippines Airlines flight en route from Cebu to Tokyo, he publicly claimed responsibility on behalf of the Al-Harakat Al-Islamiyya (AHAI). This was an aggrandizement. Abu Sayyaf members played important supporting, though not leadership, roles in the cell. Yousef and his assistant, Wali Khan Amin Shah, were willing to train them but did not trust them or think them capable enough to carry out serious terrorist acts, but instead used his own men, all flown in from the Middle East. Members of the ASG provided logistical services and assisted Yousef and Wali Khan in exfiltrating the country. Philippine National Police (PNP) investigations found that Abdul Hakim Murad, the third member of the Bojinka cell, was in regular contact with a top ASG commander, Abu Abdullah Aziz. The Group Degenerates (1995-2001).
With the breakup of the Ramzi Yousef cell, the ASG began a steady decline. The Yousef-bin Laden connection was the major source of their funding, and without a steady supply of al Qaeda money, the group atrophied. Although the U.S. Government designated the ASG a foreign terrorist organization in October 1997, the group had all but abandoned terrorism. The ASG declined further following the death of Abdurrajak Janjalani in a shootout with police on December 18, 1998, which effectively split the group into factions which then degenerated into criminal kidnap-for-ransom gangs. Their commitment to establishing an Islamic state was reduced, and became secondary at best. Hector Janjalani, Abdurajak’s brother, was captured by the Philippine government and arrested for masterminding a string of bombings in Manila in December 2000.  Despite this public appearance of adherence to the jihad way, the group was engaged almost completely in perpetrating very high-profile kidnappings:
• In March 2000, the ASG kidnapped 55 people, mainly school children, teachers, and a priest in Basilan;
• In April 2000, it kidnapped 20 foreigners and a Filipino from a dive resort on the Malaysian island of Sipidan; and,
• In May 2001, the ASG kidnapped 30 tourists, including two Americans, from the Dos Palmas resort on Palawan.
In 2000-01 they were responsible for 16 deaths and 140 hostage-takings, but no acts of political-religious terrorism.  They were a well-armed criminal gang, but not an ideologically motivated political-religious organization. The label “terrorism” was applied to them by both the U.S. and Philippine governments, but that had more to do with their brutality than their political agenda. The demands for US$1 million in ransom per hostage led many to consider the Abu Sayyaf as nothing more than a criminal menace, rather than a secessionist insurgency with legitimate grievances.  As Philippine National Security Advisor Roilo Golez said, “We have no evidence that Abu Sayyaf has gotten financing from bin Laden recently. Otherwise, they would not have to resort to kidnapping.”  One Abu Sayyaf defector said that he quit the movement because “. . . the group lost its original reason for being. The activities were not for Islam but for personal gratification. We abducted people not any more for the cause of Islam, but for money.”  As a Filipino Muslim journalist who had spent a week with the ASG told me, the links had been cut: “Before they were tied to bin Laden, but now no. They [ASG] are independent. They get money from kidnappings. They are an independent cell.”  He continued, “How they are linked to Osama bin Laden now is a spiritual link [because of a] shared interpretation of jihad.” Though the ASG continually has demanded the freedom of Ramzi Yousef and the blind Egyptian sheikh, Abdulrahman Omar, links to al Qaeda and international terrorism were at that time dormant, if not severed.
Estimates of the ASG’s size varied. From the mid 1990s to 2000, they were estimated to have 600 members. Philippine intelligence officials estimated that the ASG was able to use the ransom payments from 2000 to expand to roughly 1,000 men, as well as to acquire new equipment, radios, boats, and guns. The U.S. military estimated at the time of their intervention that the ASG had 1,200 men,  though there was not a lot of evidence to support this number.Post-9/11 and the Global War on Terror (2001-03).
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were engaged heavily in combat operations against the ASG in 2000-01, but these were hampered by mountainous and jungle terrain, poorly equipped troops, lack of clear national command and operational level guidance, and rampant corruption. In one well-reported incident, ASG members were encircled in a church compound in Lamitan town on Basilan Island in June 2001. Yet, inexplicably the AFP troops pulled out of position, allowing the ASG to slip out of the cordon. A senate investigation implicated not just local commanders, but senior members of the Department of National Defense. 
Past links to al Qaeda and the kidnapping of Americans, including two American missionaries held at the time, led the U.S. Government, on September 24, 2001, to put the Abu Sayyaf Group on the first list of 27 individuals and organizations whose assets were frozen by the United States because of links to the al Qaeda network. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s enthusiastic support of the Bush administration’s global war on terror led to a heightened degree of military cooperation. The approach to the ASG was cited as a prime model of how the Bush administration’s National Strategy to Combat Terrorism would be applied.  The U.S. military used the ASG as the impetus to restore ties damaged by the Philippine government’s closure of the U.S. naval base in Subic Bay in 1991. In FYs 2002-04, the U.S. Government provided the Philippine military with US$284.86 million in aid. 
From January to July 2002, some 1,300 U.S. troops, including 160 Special Operations personnel, were in the Philippines engaged in a joint training operation, Exercise Balikatan.  On October 2, 2002, the ASG conducted a bombing in Zamboanga, which killed three people, including a U.S. special forces soldier; this was a joint operation with two Indonesian members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, and was supported by a Jordanian resident of the Philippines who was linked to the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas. It was overseen by Khadaffy Janjalani. This attack explicitly targeted U.S. forces and signaled a shift in the group’s tactics. This was the group’s first bombing since 1994.
The 2002 Balikatan exercise was, by all counts, successful and led to the degrading of the ASG. By September 2002, the ASG was estimated to have had only 200-400 fighters. Since then, the AFP have continued operations against the Abu Sayyaf, although not at the feverish pitch as in the first half of 2002.
In many ways, the successful operations against the ASG hardened the group’s resolve to return to their roots as a separatist organization. Counterterror operations resulted in the capture and death of key leaders, who had directed the organization away from a Salafist-based notion of global jihad towards the purely criminal activity of kidnapping, while concerted combat operations against them since 2000 gave them considerable combat experience. 
AFP-U.S. bilateral training and joint military operations have continued in the Philippines. A small number of U.S. advisors continue to train and provide field intelligence to their Philippine counterparts, as well as provide roughly US$86 million annually in military assistance, but the AFP’s operations against the ASG have been hampered by the terrain, dilapidated equipment,  and endemic corruption.  For example, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, a top JI operative who was arrested in January 2002, walked out of his jail cell in Camp Crame along with a senior ASG operative in July 2003. Then in April 2004, ASG inmates led an escape of 53 prisoners from a Basilan jail; 10 remain at large.