The Ideology of the Abu Sayyaf Group

By February 28, 2017 No Comments
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The following is the third 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.

Note on the spelling of Mujahideen: there are many variations in the spelling of Arabic terms since they are originally written in Arabic script and are then transliterated into Roman letters.

While the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has engaged in a variety of terroristic activities including bombings and assassinations, it is better known for its kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) activities, some of which have resulted in the brutal and horrifically documented beheadings of victims. The ASG has made huge sums of money from ransom payments resultant of its KFR activities. A news report last year indicated that some $7.3 million in ransom was collected by the ASG during the first six months of 2016, which is a substantial amount of money in an area where 70 to 80 per cent of the people live below the poverty line.[1]

This has led Philippine government officials and other observers to refer to the ASG as criminals and bandits whose sole intent is raising funds through their KFR activities rather than to advance a cause based on an ideology. Whatever the case may be, it can nevertheless be said that when the ASG was first established in the early 1990s, it was based on an ideology expounded by its principal founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani

Ideological Influences

As noted in the second article in this series, Janjalani was sent for studies in Saudi Arabia and Libya during his early-to-late-20s, and ended up in Peshawar, Pakistan at the tail end of the Afghan-Soviet War. As his subsequent discourses show, his religious perspective was clearly influenced by the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam.

Moreover, a dominant influence on his thinking was Abdullah Azzam, the Father of Global Jihad, whom Janjalani refers to liberally in several of his khutbas or lectures, which were delivered in madrasahs (religious schools) in Zamboanga City and Basilan. In fact, several of his discourses echo ideas expounded by Azzam in his fatwa “Defence of the Muslim Lands: The First Obligation after Iman.”[2]

Basic Principles

In an undated public document entitled “In the Name of Allah the Rahman the Raheem” (Allah the Most Gracious the Most Merciful) and addressed “To all the people of Mindanao and those in the Republic of the Philippines”, Janjalani defines the basic goal of the Abu Sayyaf: “the establishment of a purely Islamic government whose ‘nature, meaning, emblem, and objective’ are basic to peace”.[3] This Islamic government would be based on the Qur’an “as the only worthy guide for human life since it is the perfect creation of Allah who cannot err and who knows everything”.[4]

Given the particular conditions obtaining in the Philippines – the oppression felt by Muslims and the injustices perpetrated by the government, experienced over more than 400 years – war or Jihad Fi-Sabil-lillah (Fighting for the Cause of Allah) is necessary to free the Muslim people from these conditions and attain the condition of peace that only an Islamic government can provide.[5] This was elaborated on by Janjalani in a khutba or discourse he delivered entitled “Pagbaugbug sin Qur’an ha Ummat sin Akhir Jaman” (Upholding the Qur’an in Present-Day Muslim Society).[6] We described in the first paper in this series the historical and social conditions which have led many Muslims in the Philippines to feel this sense of oppression and injustice.


The theme of Jihad is re-emphasized by Janjalani in several of his other discourses. One of these is “Al Jihadun Binnafs Fardhu Ainin ala KullilMuslimeen FilAardh: In Jihadun Binnafs Fardhu Ain ha katan Muslim” (Fighting against the Infidels is a personal obligation of all Muslims).   Janjalani bases his exhortation on Abdullah Azzam. “So long as even just a handspan of Muslim land has been occupied by the enemy it can be ruled that jihad is fardhu ain (a personal obligation) until we recover it.”[7]

In this connection Janjalani points out—as Azzam did—that in such a situation it was no longer necessary for a wife to seek permission from her husband, or for children to seek permission from their parents, or for debtors to seek permission from their creditors in order to join the Jihad. Their decision to go on Jihad would be in obedience to the command of Allah, which would take precedence over all other obligations that individuals may have.

In the same discourse, Janjalani discussed Jihad Bil Mal (again, as Azzam did in his Fatwa), which is the mandatory obligation on the wealthy to spend their wealth to support the Jihad to recover Muslim lands or drive out the unbelievers from Muslim territory. It is the Mujahideen who are sacrificing their lives in defense of Islam and Muslims, so the wealthy should not hesitate to sacrifice their material resources to support this effort. If they hesitate to do so or do so half-heartedly Allah will reject them. As Janjalani put it, “even if you are a millionaire but you have forgotten your religion, [remember that] your religion is your worth; if your religion is of no value to you, then you are of no value to Allah, if you are of no value to Allah then you are of no value to mankind.”[8]

The priority of Jihad Fiy Sabilillah is such that if one had to choose between contributing one’s resources to people who are starving and facing death by starvation or to support the Jihad being undertaken by Mujahideen, it is the latter that should be given priority. After all, the Mujahideen are fighting to advance the cause of Allah and defending the community (Ummah) of Muslims, which the former would be unable to do.

In another discourse, “Duwa Bahagi in Pag Jihad ha Kufr” (Two Types of Jihad Against the Unbelievers) – Janjalani discusses two types of Jihad: Jihad Talab and Jihad Deefa, which is essentially Azzam’s Offensive and Defensive Jihad.[9]

In the former, the Mujahideen seek out the kufr (unbelievers) in their territory. This must be done once or twice a year, but the more times the better. This type of Jihad is known as Fard Kifaya, which means that while it is a responsibility of the community as a whole, once an army is organized to undertake it, the responsibility no longer binds those who do not participate.

Janjalani did not elaborate on this type of Jihad since, according to him, the situation of Muslims in the Philippines is more of the defensive, rather than the offensive, Jihad. But in his Fatwa, Azzam explains the rationale behind offensive Jihad. It is essentially Da’wah (proselytization) with force and used for the collection of Jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslim subjects).[10]

Jihad Deefa, on the other hand, is Fard Ayn, which is an obligation that falls personally on every individual Muslim, since it involves defending the Muslim homeland and expelling the unbelievers who have occupied it. Janjalani (following Azzam) defines four situations where Jihad Deefa is called for: when the unbelievers invade and occupy Muslim territories; when the forces of Muslims and the unbelievers encounter each other; when unbelievers capture and imprison Muslims; or when the Imam (leader) orders the people to go on Jihad.

Justifying Killings and Kidnappings

By definition, Jihad Fi-Sabil-lillah entails violence. In another discourse titled, “Man Yuqtalu,Wa Man La Yuqtalu Minal Adha: Hisyu in Bunu-un iban Hisyu in Di’ Bunu-un ha Satru” (Who to Kill and Who Not to Kill Among the Enemy), Janjalani provides the rationalization for the killings and kidnappings that the Abu Sayyaf has undertaken.[11]

For this, Janjalani adopts the point of view of the Jumhur, which is the majority of Islamic religious scholars. This view states that those who intend to kill Muslims, even if they have not physically harmed anyone and even if they are Muslims themselves, should be targets of killing by the Mujahideen.

Janjalani refers to a book written by Dr. Abdul Wahab Al-Zuhaili wherein it is said that there are four ways by which killings can be undertaken: by word, by physical act, by thought and by the use of one’s wealth. Killing by physical actions is what is normally understood, but by attacking a person or religion through one’s words, through one’s thoughts and through the use of one’s material resources, one can be considered as well as killing that person or adherents of that religion. Hence, persons who engage in these types of activities should be considered targets of pre-emption or retribution by the Mujahideen.

As a general rule, women, children, the mentally unstable, the elderly (defined as being more than 100 years of age), the physically disabled, the sickly, priests, farmers, fishermen and those incapable of harming others should not be killed. However, if any of these engage in any of the four forms of “killings” enumerated earlier, then they can become targets of retribution.

Thus, aside from soldiers, the police or paramilitary unit members who engage in pursuing and physically fighting the Mujahideen, others such as politicians or government officials, persons critical of Islam, the wealthy and priests are rightful targets of killings by the Mujahideen. If they can be killed, so too could they be kidnapped so that their wealth or resources can be taken from them. Janjalani focuses a significant amount of discussion on religious leaders or priests as targets since they are influential in their communities and are seen as the leaders of the unbelievers, who place a lot of faith in them.

Janjalani also tackles the question regarding the good work that has been done by priests and organizations such as the Red Cross in helping Muslims, particularly their children. Janjalani responds to say that the objective of these organizations and individuals is not really to help Muslims but rather to have people look positively upon the Christian religion.

This view was expressed by a high-ranking ASG leader in Basilan to a member of a non-governmental organization (NGO) who was kidnapped in the province in 2008 while that person was in captivity. According to that ASG leader—who has since been arrested and is now in detention in Manila—“we know why you Christians come to Basilan. You extend help to our people here hoping that we will be grateful to you. And eventually you will try to convert us to Christianity.”[12]

That same ASG leader justified the Group’s kidnapping activities by pointing out that Christians had been intruding on Muslim lands for centuries, and exploiting and stealing their resources. Thus, the ransom that they would demand for the release of kidnaped victims was seen as repayment of what had been stolen from them.

Options for Unbelievers

In another one of his discourses, “Harb Adda’wa: Ha Di’ Pa Mabunu’ in Satru’ Subay Sila Pasampayan Da’wa” (Sending the Word of Allah before Launching an Attack on the Enemy), Janjalani addresses the question as to whether Mujahideen should provide the satruh (enemy) the opportunity to convert to or accept Islam before attacking them.[13] After presenting different points of view, Janjalani opines that the view of Imam Malik, one of the most highly regarded scholars of Islam, should be adopted. Essentially, unbelievers—particularly those who reside in Muslim territory—should be given three choices:

  1. To accept Islam as their faith;
  2. To continue with their own religious beliefs but to pay the Jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims); or
  3. To be considered an enemy of Islam and suffer the consequences should they refuse either of the first two options.

Interestingly, in 2008, 10 years after Janjalani’s death, two prominent Abu Sayyaf leaders in the province of Basilan circulated a Demand Letter within the Christian community in the province offering them these three same choices. These two Abu Sayyaf leaders – Puruji Indama and Nurhassan Jamiri – continue to operate and lead their forces in the province of Basilan.

MNLF Negotiations with the Philippine Government

But what about the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which at that time (1970s-early 1990s) was leading the struggle against the Philippine government? Wouldn’t their negotiations with the Philippine government address the grievances of the Bangsamoro?

As noted earlier in this series, Janjalani had serious objections to the negotiations being undertaken by the MNLF with the Philippine government. These negotiations were marked by the signing of major agreements such as the Tripoli Agreement of December 1976 and the Final Peace Agreement of September 1996, in addition to minor agreements such as the Jeddah Accord of January 1987, and a Ceasefire Agreement in November 1993 resulting from talks held in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, all of which resulted in the MNLF giving up its call for independence and accepting instead an offer of autonomy for the Muslim areas in Mindanao.

In his discourse “Mu’ahada, Muhadana atawa Mufada: Pagsulut ha antara sin Mujahideen iban Satru” (Peace between the Mujahideen and the Enemy) Janjalani pointed out that the negotiations being held by the MNLF with the government were leading to confusion as to what the real objective of the organization was: whether independence or autonomy; whether an Islamic system of governance would be set up or not.[14]

Echoing Abdullah Azzam,[15] Janjalani pointed out a number of conditions that must be met before any negotiations were to be undertaken or any agreements were to be reached. These conditions were:

  1. To begin with, Janjalani states that if the state of Jihad which has been declared is Fard Ayn – meaning that it is a personal obligation that falls on all Muslims (as distinguished from Fard Kifaya, which is an obligation that falls on the community of Muslims and can be fulfilled by some members of the community, relieving the rest of the obligation) – then any peace agreement entered into is from the outset null and void;
  1. Any agreement entered into cannot allow the enemy or the unbelievers to remain on any part of the Muslim territory;
  1. To be valid, any agreement must give total control over the territory to Muslims, and the system of governance must be Islamic;
  1. The agreement must not provide a timetable or a gradual turnover of governance to Muslims. An Islamic system of governance must be implemented immediately;
  1. Any agreement entered into must not contain provisions that are contrary to Sharia law. For example, nothing in the agreement must allow practices such as the selling of liquor within the Muslim territory, or allowing women to wear clothes contrary to Islamic culture;
  1. The agreement must not allow the unbelievers to exercise their religious practices in Muslim territory.

Janjalani pointed out that in the discussions between the MNLF and the Philippine government, and in the agreements signed, none of these conditions were mentioned or even referred to. He pointed to Afghanistan as the model to be followed. In that case, the Soviets withdrew completely, not leaving a single soldier or civilian behind. An Islamic system of government was established without any participation whatsoever on the part of the Soviets. The Soviets did not dictate or have any say in the process by which the new system of government was established. The Soviets recognized the new government and Afghanistan as an independent state, and made clear their intent to achieve peace with the Afghans. Moreover, the Afghan Mujahideen ensured that the Russians were sincere and fulfilled their commitments.

Thus, in the case of the Philippines, Janjalani pointed out that any negotiations with the Philippine government must ensure the following:

  1. The Philippine military must withdraw completely from Mindanao, to include all those who may have sided or co-operated with them, unless they agree to follow the Islamic system of government that would be set up;
  1. The withdrawal must be unconditional;
  1. An Islamic system of government must be set up without any input from the Philippine government;
  1. The Philippine government must recognize the new government to be set up by the Philippine Mujahideen and must express its desire to make peace with this state;
  1. The Philippine Mujahideen must ensure that the Philippine government is sincere, that it truly wants to make peace, and does not have an intention to subsequently betray or violate the agreement entered into.

Only under such conditions should any discussions be entered into with the Philippine government. It is for the reasons presented above that Janjalani rejected the discussions undertaken and the agreements entered into by the MNLF with the government, and stated that the objective must always be to set up an Islamic system of government in Mindanao.

Preparation for Battle

In Chapter Seven of Jihad Fiy Sabilillah titled,“Ma Yajibu Alal Mujahideen Halal Qitaal: Unu in Wajib Hinangun sin Mujahideen ha Wakto Pagkaluhan” (What Mujahideen should do at the Time of Battle), Janjalani advises his followers what mind-set they should carry into battle, and how they should strengthen themselves spiritually to meet the enemy.

Taking off from Imam Nawawi, Janjalani outlines six points that Muhajideen must keep in mind in going to battle:

  1. Be firm in our principles at the time of encounter with the enemy;
  2.  We should keep connected with Allah through Zikr (a devotional practice of uttering and repeating phrases of praise to Allah);
  3. Remain steadfast in obedience to Allah and His Messenger (the Prophet Muhammad);
  4. Stay away from laziness, argumentation and waiting for others to do your tasks;
  5. We should persist and persevere in everything needed for battle, and whatever comes needs to be faced with patience and endurance;
  6. Stay away from anything forbidden spiritually, arrogance and betrayal.

With these as their outlook for battle, Allah shall ensure the success of the Mujahideen.

To Surrender or Fight to the Death

In Chapter Nine of Jihad Fiy Sabilillah titled, “Unu in Labi Afdal, in Sumurender atawa Magpasabil na” (Which is Better, to Surrender or Die in the Way of Allah), Janjalani tackles the issue of surrendering in battle. He recognizes that there will often be situations when the Mujahideen will be greatly outnumbered in battle, not just in terms of the number of men that the Mujahideen will be facing but also in terms of the quality and strength of their weaponry.

After citing historical cases where the Mujahideen have, in the past, prevailed over overwhelming forces, Janjalani exhorts his followers to erase from their minds the possibility of surrendering to the enemy, as surrendering denigrates the nobleness of their act of Jihad. It is better that they die as martyrs (Shaheed) in the way of Allah rather than surrender and submit to the enemy—the unbelievers.

If they are captured, for example, because they were wounded and were unable to resist being taken alive, they should not attempt to commit suicide, as this is forbidden under Islam. While under captivity they should not bow their heads to the unbelievers and should make every attempt to escape and resume their struggle in the way of Allah.

Suicide Bombing

In Chapter Six of Jihad Fiy Sabilillah, Janjalani touches on suicide bombing. He cites the examples of the woman who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi through the use of a bomb hidden under her dress; a Lebanese woman by the name of Sarah Muhaydali who detonated a car bomb; as well as the practice in Iraq where members of a suicide squad draw lots for the honour to undertake a suicide-bombing mission.

Janjalani explains that Islamic scholars have emphasized that while suicide is haram (forbidden) in Islam, suicide bombing is not a sin, rather it is considered to be a contribution to the practice of Jihad. In fact, some scholars are supposed to have declared that before the actual moment of detonation of the bomb, Allah separates the soul of the suicide bomber from his or her body and no pain is felt.

Janjalani argues the case for Filipino Muslims to partake in suicide-bombing missions in the same way that Lebanese, Palestinians or Iraqis do. He exhorts his followers: “If there are any among us who wish to volunteer, the door is open, we shall not prevent you, it is not a sin. [Suicide bombing] is an act most feared by the unbelievers.”[16]

Does the Abu Sayyaf still have an Ideology?

What has been described above is the ideological foundation of the Abu Sayyaf Group, as expounded by the group’s principal founder and ideologue, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. Clearly, during the early years of the ASG, the group’s activities were guided by Janjalani’s thinking.

However, Janjalani was killed in an encounter with the police in Basilan in December 1998, following which the ASG appeared to begin to disintegrate and lose its ideological bearings. Zachary Abuza, in fact, says that the redirection of the ASG’s activities started even earlier, in 1995, when al-Qaeda’s funding for the group came to a halt.[17] As a result, the ASG began concentrating on KFR activities to raise the funds needed to support the group.

Much has transpired since then. Where does the ASG stand now? What drives the organization today? And where does it appear to be headed? These are questions that will be tackled in subsequent articles in this series.