The Beginnings of the Abu Sayyaf Group

By January 20, 2017 No Comments


The following is the second in a six-part series written by Victor Taylor, a Philippine national and permanent resident of Canada. His writing is largely informed by his field work and personal experience in being involved in the Muslim areas of the Philippines for the last 50 years. His work provides an insightful first-hand perspective of the development of Islam in the Philippines and the rise of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has its roots in the centuries of struggle of the Moro people against colonial administrations and forces that have intruded into and have taken over what the Moros consider their traditional homeland. In many ways, this is not different from the experience of indigenous peoples elsewhere, whether in Canada, South America or other countries that have been colonized. What distinguishes the struggle of the Moro people from many others, however, is the fact that it continues to this day, five centuries after the arrival of the first colonizers in the 16th century. This writer is of the opinion that this is due in large measure to the warrior culture of the Moros as well as the Islamic faith that underlies the perspective of the Moro people vis-à-vis their environment.

One can thus view the birth and growth of the ASG as being primarily due to internal or domestic influences, namely the history and tradition of struggle against aggression by outsiders. There were, however, at the same time external influences that reinforced and accelerated this process, which will be reviewed throughout this article.

Domestic Origins and Influences

The ASG is most closely associated with its chief founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who was born on the island of Basilan in the southern Philippines around 1959. In fact, Abu Sayyaf was the name he was called by his students and followers.

Janjalani grew up during a period of turmoil among Muslim communities in Mindanao. There was the seven-year Kamlon Campaign that ran from 1948 to 1955 during which the Philippine government pursued a Tausug warrior in Sulu. The individual, Hadji Kamlon, was branded as a pirate and bandit by the government of the Philippines but seen as a folk hero by fellow Tausugs. Next to the Communist movement, Hadji Kamlon was considered the biggest threat to national security at the time and required the commitment of substantial military resources to try and contain him. Although the Kamlon Campaign took place several years before Janjalani was born and on the island of Jolo, south of Basilan, Janjalani’s father belonged to the same Tausug tribe as Kamlon. The exploits of Hadji Kamlon and his reputation among Tausugs were such that it is more than likely that Janjalani grew up hearing tales of this Tausug warrior who, with his 100 men, was able to hold off the air, land and sea offensive launched by the Philippine government.[1]

In 1961, Congressman Ombra Amilbangsa of Sulu filed a bill in the Philippines House of Representatives granting independence to the Province of Sulu. In his explanatory note on the bill, Congressman Amilbangsa noted that “Sulu province practically receives no national aid…the voice of the province of Sulu is seldom heard…the province of Sulu is a forgotten corner of the Republic of the Philippines”. While this bill was not acted upon by Congress, it nevertheless reflected the continuing discontent among Muslims relative to their absorption into the relatively new Philippine Republic.[2]

In March 1968, the Jabidah Massacre took place on the island of Corregidor, across Manila Bay from the city of Manila. During this incident, Muslims who had been recruited and were being trained to infiltrate the State of Sabah in Malaysia and undertake destabilization activities there rebelled against their military trainers and were killed. The exact number of trainees killed has never been determined, but some estimates are that there could have been as many as 60. A large number of the trainees were Tausugs from the province of Sulu.[3]

In May 1968, former Governor Udtog Matalam of the province of Cotabato, set up the Muslim Independence Movement (MIM, later re-named the Mindanao Independence Movement) ostensibly to establish an independent State consisting of the islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. Among the reasons cited in the Constitution and by-laws of the MIM for the demand for independence was “that the systematic extermination of the Muslim youth – like the Corregidor Fiasco [referring to the Jabidah Massacre] – the policy of isolation and dispersal of the Muslim communities have been pursued vigorously by the government to the detriment of the Muslims.”[4]

This declaration of independence by the MIM led to sectarian fighting between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao who set up their respective vigilante groups known as Ilagas (or “rats” on the side of the Christians) and Blackshirts and Barracudas on the side of the Muslims.

In 1969 the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) began to take shape with the training of an initial group of 90 recruits (referred to as the “Batch 90”) that led to the war of secession launched in 1972 by the MNLF against the Philippine government. In 1974, the MNLF issued a manifesto that stated among its premises the following:

“We, the five million oppressed Bangsamoro people, wishing to free ourselves from the terror, oppression and tyranny of Filipino colonialism which has caused us untold sufferings and miseries by criminally usurping our land, by threatening Islam through wholesale destruction and desecration of its places of worship and its Holy Book, and murdering our innocent brothers, sisters and folks in a genocidal campaign of terrifying magnitude…hereby declare…that the Bangsamoro people…[have] established their Bangsamoro Republik…to secure a free and independent state for the Bangsamoro people….”[5]

In 1977, a split occurred within the MNLF with a group headed by Vice-Chairman Hashim Salamat breaking away and eventually organizing the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF launched its own attacks against the Philippine Government until it began its own negotiations with the government in the late 1990s and extending to the present.

Following more than two decades of conflict, the MNLF signed a Final Peace Agreement (FPA) with the Philippine government in 1996, but after a few years, in 2001, the peace was broken and fighting broke out once again between the MNLF and the government.

Over 100,000 persons have been killed and several million displaced as a result of the fighting in Mindanao since the 1970s.[6]

It was within this setting of domestic Islamic militancy, asserting the rights of the Bangsa Moro (the nation of Filipino Muslims) to their homeland, a continuation of centuries of Moro resistance to colonial powers, that Abdurajak Janjalani—and other Filipino Muslim youth—grew up.

External Influences

Islamic militancy was simultaneously gathering steam overseas. Various analysts trace the beginnings of global jihad to the partnership between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad bin Saud in the middle of the 18th century, which subsequently led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the Wahhabi-Salafi strain of Islam as the dominant interpretation of Islam practised in the Kingdom.[7] This is an conservative interpretation of Islam, intolerant of other faiths and views, which advocates a return to the practices of the Salaf, the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Following the oil embargo of 1973, Saudi Arabia’s gross revenues exploded – the World Bank noted a thirteen-fold increase in gross income of Saudi Arabia between 1973 and 1980 — enabling the Kingdom to spread this conservative version of Islam to countries around the world.[8]

In 1979 three shocks shook the Muslim world, particularly Saudi Arabia: the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi dissidents demanding the overthrow of the Saudi royal family; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; and the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. These developments were viewed as major challenges by the Saudi royal family and led them to intensify the promotion of the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam around the world through the provision of funds to build mosques and religious schools around the world. They also sponsored scholarships for young Muslims to undertake religious studies in Saudi Arabia, and sent Saudi religious scholars to spread the teachings of Wahhabi-Salafi Islam, thus strengthening the influence of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world.

The 10-year war in Afghanistan, bounded by the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 and its subsequent withdrawal in 1989, was a major factor in the rise of global Islamic militancy. Afghanistan served as the focus for a worldwide call for Jihad, in great measure due to the teachings of one man, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, popularly dubbed as the Father of Global Jihad.

Azzam was a Palestinian scholar, leading Imam and theologian. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Azzam issued a fatwa—a religious ruling—declaring that the struggle to regain Muslim lands captured by infidels was a personal obligation—fard al-ayn—of all Muslims regardless of where they lived. This view was supported by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. This encouraged the influx of Muslims from around the world to join the struggle of the Afghan Mujahideen. It is said that several hundreds of Filipino Muslims were part of this foreign complement. Among them was Abdurajak Janjalani. Some scholars, however, contest the belief that Janjalani actually fought in Afghanistan, although he may have gotten as far as Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, where a support base for fighters was located.

Abdurajak Janjalani

There are various accounts of Abdurajak Janjalani’s years leading to the establishment of the Abu Sayyaf. It is commonly believed that he studied in Saudi Arabia as a scholar in the early 1980s, honing his Arabic language skills, which he had begun to study while in the Philippines. He then spent three years, from 1981 to 1984, studying Islamic jurisprudence at the newly established Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca. It is likely that these studies adopted the Wahhabi-Salafi outlook on Islam. Janjalani returned to the Philippines in 1984 and spent the next three years teaching Arabic and Islamic studies in madrasahs in his native Basilan and nearby Zamboanga City in Mindanao.

It was also at this time that Janjalani established ties with—if not actually joined—the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which was in a hiatus following the Tripoli Agreement it signed with the Philippine government in 1976, and the subsequent declaration by the MNLF of its reversion to the struggle for independence in 1980.

In 1986, following the ousting of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and the ascension to power of Corazon Aquino under a revolutionary government, negotiations were once again undertaken by the Philippine government and the MNLF. This led to the signing of the Jeddah Accord in January 1987 wherein both parties agreed to resume discussions on the granting of autonomy to the Bangsamoro territory. These talks, however, subsequently collapsed and the MNLF was once again left frustrated.

Janjalani—who, based on accounts of his students and others who had come in contact with him, was quite charismatic as a teacher and preacher—apparently disagreed with the MNLF’s policy of abandoning the struggle for independence and was quite critical of the MNLF’s actions. In 1987, he was sent by the MNLF as a scholar to Libya, but some MNLF members say he was sent to isolate him because of his vocal criticisms of MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari.

Following his studies in Libya, Janjalani travelled to Pakistan where he may have ended up in Peshawar. Lured by the call of Jihad in Afghanistan where the war was coming to an end, it is rumoured that Janjalani underwent training at one of the camps set up by Ustadz Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf. It was this man from whom Janjalani got his nom de guerre, which also became the name of the group that he eventually established.

Janjalani returned to the Philippines to his home province of Basilan in 1990. He spent six months as an Aleem, a learned person, with one of the main MNLF fighting units in Basilan, guiding and strengthening their faith in Islam.

It is interesting to compare the observations of people who had direct contact with Janjalani or who studied his personal life closely, with those analysts who have based their observations mainly on police and military intelligence reports. What is reported in some studies is that Janjalani met Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and fought beside him in Afghanistan; that bin Laden introduced Janjalani to his brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, who served as the conduit for funding from al-Qaeda to the Abu Sayyaf; and that bin Laden was largely responsible for the establishment of the Abu Sayyaf Group as a cell of al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia.[9]

On the other hand, the commander of the MNLF unit that Janjalani mentored in 1990 to 1991 as a religious teacher observed that “in six months’ time I learned a lot from him as [an] Aleem. During those days, he was a simple teacher with no hidden agenda. Otherwise I would have been the first of his adherents and [would have] become radical but look, my command then was the most disciplined in Basilan….we loved him basically as [a] teacher. You know Ulama’s primary roles are correcting faith and practice.”[10]

It therefore appears that Janjalani was struggling to figure out what role he would play given his appreciation of the situation in which he found himself following his return from his studies and sojourns abroad. This would be consistent with the observations of Julkipli Wadi, a Tausug scholar and professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines, who has closely studied Janjalani’s life. According to Wadi, with the collapse of the peace talks between the MNLF and the Philippine Government in the late 1980s, “Muslim students and out-of-school youth… realized the futility of the peace process. With no one to turn to they rallied around Janjalani. At first, he was hesitant to lead; he was content in teaching Arabic and Islamic studies….Through the prodding of Asmad Abdul, a student leader at the Western Mindanao State University, Janjalani was inspired to lead and adopt his now-notorious nickname. To him, the leadership vacuum in Southwestern Mindanao necessitated the formation of a new group to advance jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in the way of Allah).”[11]

Other Views

There have been other views of how and why the Abu Sayyaf Group came to be. One theory, highlighted by a Philippine senator in a privileged speech on the floor of the Philippine Senate in 2000, was that the Abu Sayyaf was actually a creation of the CIA, set up in the mid-to-late-1980s as part of the covert effort to mobilize foreign fighters to support the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As this theory goes, in underwriting the recruitment, training and mobilization of Filipino Muslim militants to fight in Afghanistan, the CIA sowed the seeds for the subsequent organization of extremist groups once these foreign fighters returned to their home country.[12]

A second theory was that the Abu Sayyaf was set up by a rogue faction within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) intended to derail the peace talks that were revived starting in 1992 between the Philippine Government and the MNLF.[13] This view was reinforced by the fact that a police-military agent, Edwin Angeles, infiltrated the Abu Sayyaf and became Janjalani’s right-hand man. Angeles himself admitted being a government agent when he left the group in 1995.

There is also the view that the Abu Sayyaf was a deliberate creation of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.[14]

The Abu Sayyaf Group Strikes

On April 4, 1991 a grenade attack took place in Zamboanga City in which two American Christian missionaries were killed. While the Abu Sayyaf did not publicly acknowledge this incident – in fact the Abu Sayyaf was still not known as a group at that time — some sources point to this as the first terrorist attack carried out by the group.[15]

Four months later, in August, a public presentation undertaken by the crew of a Christian missionary vessel that had docked at Zamboanga City, the MV Doulos, was bombed, killing two crew members as well as four locals, and wounding over 30 persons. The Abu Sayyaf acknowledged having undertaken the attack, justifying it as a response to insults which the Christian missionaries were supposed to have uttered against Islam, Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an during a convocation held at a local university.[16]

In May 1992, an Italian Catholic missionary, Fr. Salvatorre Carzedda, was assassinated as he was returning to his mission house late one evening.

More assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and other attacks were to follow, and continue to this day.

Part three of this series will discuss the ideology of the ASG.