Terrorist Activities of the Abu Sayyaf

By March 14, 2017 No Comments

The towering minarets of the magnifiscent Tulay mosque in the southern Philippine island of Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago. Fog still covers the highest structure now in the island. Jolo Governor Sakur Tan is embarking on a massive tourism program aim at luring investors and visiors to the island, about 950 kms south of Manila. (Photo By Al Jacinto)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


The photo above is of Masjid Tulay (masjid means mosque, Tulay is the name of the area).  It is the biggest mosque in the province and is in the capital town of Jolo.  It was built through donations from the UAE.

The following is the fourth 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.

Over the 26 years that it has been in existence, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has engaged in a wide variety of terroristic activities.  These include bombings, assassinations, extortion, a town raid, and kidnappings several of which have ended brutally.  It is for the latter that the ASG is better known.

Most recently, the ASG has been in the news for beheading a German captive, Jürgen Kantner on February 26, 2017. This comes after the brutal beheading of two Canadians, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel last year.

The author is not aware of a reliable tally or inventory of all the terroristic activities that the ASG has undertaken over this 26-year period.  The intelligence services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) or the Philippine National Police (PNP) are most likely keeping track but these have not been made publicly available. However, there have been some partial tallies published.  Rommel Banlaoi, for example, has quoted data from the AFP that states that during the period of 1991 to 2000, “the ASG…engaged in 378 terrorist activities, which resulted in the death of 288 civilians.  During the same period, the ASG ventured into 640 kidnapping activities involving a total of 2,076 victims.”[1]

Last year, this writer began undertaking a tally of his own, limited, however, to kidnapping cases that involved Abu Sayyaf bands operating in the province of Sulu and covering the period starting in 2011 up to the present.  Hence, it does not purport to be a comprehensive historical listing of Abu Sayyaf activities.  For the period of 2011 to the end of 2016 this writer has listed a total of 69 kidnapping cases involving 135 victims. But these figures are limited to kidnappings conducted in the province of Sulu or, if undertaken elsewhere, where the victims were brought to the province of Sulu.

This article will describe examples of some of the activities undertaken by the ASG to give the reader an idea of the ruthlessness of this group.

Assassinations or Targeted Killings

The first attack publicly acknowledged by the ASG was a grenade attack undertaken on the evening of August 10, 1991.  The target of the attack was the crew of the MV Doulos, a floating bookstore owned by a German Christian group, the Gute Bucher fur Alle (Good Books for All), which had docked at the port of Zamboanga City two weeks earlier.  While ostensibly the mission of the group was simply to sell university books at very low prices, it appeared that there was some proselytizing also being undertaken.  According to the ASG in a statement issued by its Secretary General Abu Abdu Said, the bombing was in retaliation for insults hurled by a crew member of the MV Doulos during a convocation held at a local university, during which this crew member “called Allah a false God, Muhammad a liar, and the Qur’an a man-made book.”[2]

Two crew members and four local residents of Zamboanga City were killed when two grenades were thrown at the ship’s crew members who were performing at a farewell concert for the general public the night before the ship’s departure.  Over 30 others, including several crew members of the MV Doulos, were injured.  Fortunately one of the grenades did not explode, otherwise the casualties would have been greater.

The following year, on May 20, 1992, Fr. Salvatore Carzedda, an Italian missionary belonging to the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missionaries (PIME, its Italian initials), a Catholic religious order, was accosted by two men on a motorcycle as he was driving to his mission home on the outskirts of Zamboanga City around 10 p.m.  He was subsequently shot and killed.[3]

Fr. Carzedda was working with another missionary in the same religious order in running an NGO called Silsilah which fostered—and continues to do so up to this day—inter-religious harmony among people of different faiths, particularly Muslims and Christians.

Abdurajak Janjalani, the founder of the ASG, made reference to the killing of Fr. Carzedda in one of his khutbas or discourses—Hisyu in bunu-un, iban hisyu in di’ bunu-un ha Satru” (Who are to be killed, and who are not to be killed among the Infidels)—referring to it as the performance of a great service to Allah or as a religious obligation.[4]

Around 8:30 p.m. of October 3, 2002, an American soldier was killed in Zamboanga City when a bomb hidden in a motorcycle parked in front of a karaoke bar exploded while the American was relaxing with some Filipino soldiers.  The American was with the 1st Special Forces Group and was fielded in Zamboanga City under the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines to assist the Philippine military in the campaign against the Abu Sayyaf.[5]  One Filipino was also killed while another American soldier and two dozen other persons were injured.

In 2006, the ASG organized an urban terrorist group in the town of Jolo (referred to as UTG or Abu Sofian) focused on assassinating members of the Philippine military, Philippine police as well as suspected civilian informants.  In the early morning of February 10, the Intelligence Chief of the Philippine National Police in the town of Jolo was shot dead as he was walking from his home to the police camp, just a short distance away.[6]

Three months later on May 21 and 22, four members of the Philippine Marines were killed in the town in broad daylight on separate occasions as they were going about different tasks.  One of the soldiers was jogging outside the military camp, two soldiers were in a public market buying supplies while one soldier was in a hardware store.  The author happened to be in the town of Jolo when these incidents occurred.[7]

A recent targeted killing involved a high-ranking Philippine Army officer, Lt. Col. Cristobal Julian Paolo Perez—nicknamed “Tiny” Perez—on the evening of June 20, 2016.  Lt. Col. Perez was considered the “Enemy No 1” of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, because of his fearsome reputation in running after the ASG when he headed the 18th Infantry Battalion in that province a few years ago.  He had just gone home the previous day to celebrate Father’s Day with his family and was strolling outside his home when two gunmen on a motorcycle drove up and shot him several times in the back and head.  Although no one has claimed responsibility for the killing, it is more than likely that this was perpetrated by the ASG as a retaliation for Lt. Col. Perez’s relentless campaign against the ASG when he was assigned in Basilan.[8]

Bombings or Indiscriminate Attacks

Abu Sayyaf members received training on assembling and detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from a variety of militants.  Zachary Abuza, for example, says that Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, trained some 20 ASG members on bomb-making on the island of Basilan around 1991-1992.  There was the Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, more popularly known as Marwan, who also trained the ASG in bomb-making, and more recently the Moroccan Mohammad Khattab, to name just a few among foreign jihadists who trained the ASG (and members of other militant groups) in bomb-making.  There were also Filipino bomb experts such as Abdul Basit Usman and Mukhlis Yunos who trained ASG members as well as members of other groups.[9]  Groups of ASG members were also sent to train in Jemaah Islamiyah (JI, an Indonesian militant group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, among others) training schools on Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) established camps on mainland Mindanao such as Camp Hudaibiyah, Camp Busrah and Camp Jabal Quba.[10]

As a result, numerous bomb attacks have been attributed to the ASG.  For example, on February 28, 1993, the ASG bombed the Zamboanga International Airport in Zamboanga City, which is Mindanao’s third-busiest airport, injuring 30 people and causing extensive damage.[11]

On June 5, 1994, a car bomb exploded near a shopping center in Zamboanga City, wounding 32 persons.  It was believed this was undertaken by the ASG in retaliation for an offensive undertaken by the Philippine military on the island of Jolo in pursuit of the ASG leader, Abdurajak Janjalani.  The offensive resulted in the killing of around 40 ASG members as well as eight soldiers.[12]

Five days later, several bombs exploded in different locations in Zamboanga City, killing 71 people and wounding scores of others.[13]

In 1994, the ASG was involved peripherally in an international bombing attempt which was called Oplan Bojinka.  This plan—which was thwarted by its discovery by Philippine authorities a few days before it was to be implemented—would have involved the simultaneous bombing of 11 US-flagged aircraft as they flew across the Pacific from Asia to the US and could have resulted in some 4,000 deaths.  The mastermind of this plan was Ramzi Yousef with the assistance of Abdul Hakim Murad (a Kuwaiti), Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (a Pakistani) and Wali Khan Amin Shah (an Afghan), but it appears that certain members of the ASG—in particular Edwin Angeles, Abdurajak Janjalani’s right-hand man (but also a military/police agent) and even Janjalani himself—participated in some of the planning discussions.  Along with Bojinka, plans had also been drawn up to assassinate US President Bill Clinton who was stopping over in Manila for a short visit in November 1994 and Pope John Paul II who was going to visit Manila in January 1995.[14]

While the main Bojinka plot was thwarted, there was however one fatality related to it.  As part of the preparations for Bojinka, Yousef did a “test run” on a Philippine Airlines flight from Cebu City in the central Philippines to Tokyo on December 11, 1994.  This test used an explosive one-tenth of the power intended for the 11 US aircraft targeted by Oplan Bojinka.  Nevertheless, the explosion resulted in the death of a Japanese passenger who occupied the seat where Yousef planted the bomb and wounded ten other passengers seated in front of and behind the fatality.[15]  After news spread regarding the bombing of the aircraft, a person called the offices of the Associated Press (AP) and announced that the bombing was the handiwork of the Abu Sayyaf.  It was revealed subsequently that it was Yousef himself who called the AP.[16]

A number of bombing incidents were undertaken by the ASG jointly with other groups.  On April 21, 2002, bombs exploded in the Fitmart shopping mall in General Santos City on Mindanao Island, resulting in the death of 15 persons and the wounding of 69 others.  This was an attack masterminded by an Indonesian member of JI by the name of Zulkifli (not to be confused with the Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan), and participated in by both MILF and ASG members.[17]

A bomb attack considered one of the worst in the world in terms of fatalities was carried out by the Abu Sayyaf on February 27, 2004 when the ASG planted a bomb on a Philippine passenger and cargo vessel, the Super Ferry 14.  The ship at that time was carrying 900 passengers.  The explosion killed 116 persons and injured over 300 others.  This ranks after the World Trade Center Attack (9/11) of 2001, the Bali Bombing of 2002 and the Madrid train attacks of 2004 in terms of the number of persons killed.

The bomb was planted by a Muslim convert, Redendo Cain Dellosa, a member of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), a group composed of Christians who converted to Islam and which is affiliated with the ASG.  The bombing was, however, directed by and co-ordinated with the ASG.  Dellosa checked in as a passenger with a TV set in which 3.6 kilograms of TNT had been placed, which he carried on board as part of his luggage, and then got off the boat.  The bomb exploded some 90 minutes after the ship had departed, resulting in a fire on board and causing the boat to list and partially sink.  It was reported that the vessel was bombed, because the owners refused to provide $1 million demanded by the ASG as protection money.[18]

A set of bomb attacks undertaken on February 14, 2005—dubbed by the press as the Valentine’s Day bombings—showed the ability of the ASG to co-ordinate simultaneous attacks in several locations.  This involved bombs placed in a bus in Metro Manila, another in a bus terminal in Davao City on the island of Mindanao and a third outside a shopping mall in General Santos City also in Mindanao.  The bombs exploded within a span of half-an-hour and resulted in the death of twelve persons and the wounding of 136 others.[19]

In recent months, several IEDs were set off in various towns in the province of Basilan, a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf where intensive military operations have been ongoing against the ASG for several months now.  On December 2, 2016, an IED exploded in the village (Barangay) of Bohe Piang in the town of Albarka, killing two children aged 10 and 8 years and injuring two others aged 5 and 15 years.[20]  On December 18, an IED was set off in Barangay Sabong in Lamitan City, wounding a teenager working on her family’s farm.[21]  On December 23, a Christian church was bombed in Barangay Malakas, Lamitan City.  Fortunately there were no casualties or injuries resulting from this attack.[22]  On December 30, a bomb exploded a few meters from the City Hall of Lamitan City.  Because the explosion occurred in the evening, there were fortunately no casualties or injuries.[23]

On January 29, 2017, an IED went off along a trail in Albarka municipality killing two children aged 2 and 5 years, wounding two other children both aged 4 years and an adult aged 25 years.[24]  On February 4, an IED exploded just as Mayor Dorie Kallahal of Tuburan municipality alighted from his vehicle, injuring his driver and a soldier.  The Mayor was unscathed.  He had gone to the area in Barangay Dugaa along with some soldiers to inspect the area where an IED had been set off a few hours earlier

The Ipil Raid – A Different Form of Terror Attack

On April 3, 1995, the ASG along with elements of the Islamic Command Council (ICC), a breakaway group from the Moro National Liberation Front, raided the city of Ipil in the province of Zamboanga del Sur (now Zamboanga Sibuguay), some 135 kilometres or a three hour drive from Zamboanga City, the main city in the region where the military and police forces have their headquarters.  Numbering around 200 men, the raiders killed over 50 persons, wounded close to 50 others, robbed four banks of approximately PhP1 billion ($25 million USD), burned several buildings in the center of the city, and escaped with 50 hostages used as human shields against pursuing security forces.[26]

A number of theories have been advanced as to the motivations behind the attack.  Certainly, the augmentation of the financial resources of the ASG and the ICC was one reason for the raid.  However there have been speculations that the attack was intended to disrupt the negotiations that had been revived between the MNLF and the government, which eventually led to the signing in September of the following year of a Final Peace Agreement.  These speculations even went further to claim that elements of the Philippine military opposed to the peace negotiations planned the attack and provided the raiders with weapons, ammunition and other logistical requirements to undertake the attack.[27]

Fortunately, since that time the ASG has not attempted any similar large-scale attacks on a center of population, focusing instead on targeted killings, bombings and .


Some writers have pointed to a 1992 kidnapping of a businesswoman from the Davao area as the first foray of the ASG into the area of kidnap-for-ransom activities (KFR), even claiming that the victim was kept in the house of Janjalani in Barangay Tabuk in the city of Isabela in Basilan province.[28]

There were numerous other kidnapping incidents in Basilan and nearby Sulu province during the 1990s, but some analysts have cautioned that while authorities have blamed the Abu Sayyaf for most if not all of these incidents, many of them were in fact perpetrated by other groups.  For example, Eric Gutierrez states that “it is important to attribute the 1992 to 1994 kidnappings not to the Abu Sayyaf but to Jillang’s KFR group.”[29]  The Jillang Gutierrez refers to is a rogue MNLF commander, Julhani Jillang, who, with his 30 armed followers ventured into his own KFR activities.  In some cases, though, he handed over his hapless victims to the ASG who then negotiated the ransom arrangements for their release.

The latter was not unusual, because in many cases aspects of a kidnapping incident have been “outsourced.” Thus, for example, there are some individuals or groups that serve as “spotters” who identify potential kidnapping victims, determine their “value,” take note of their routines and then pass on the information to the ASG or abductors.  The actual abduction of a victim could likewise be undertaken by a group other than the ASG, who then transport the victim to Basilan or Sulu, depending on which ASG band they are in touch with.  The ASG then takes over the custody or “safekeeping” of the victim and then goes through the process of contacting family members for the purpose of negotiating the release.  These arrangements are resorted to particularly when victims are drawn from outside the traditional lairs of the ASG, Basilan or Sulu. This process became known to the writer as a result of his discussions with several kidnap victims as well as with military and police officers over the years.

Thus, for example, several of the kidnappings undertaken in the Zamboanga Sibugay area were actually effected by what is referred to as the Waning Abdusalam Group, a group under a rogue MILF commander.  Abdusalam would turn over his victims to the ASG in Basilan.  On the other side of the Zamboanga peninsula, in Zamboanga del Norte, abductions have been undertaken by Julmin Muloc, also referred to as “Kumander Red Eye.” Muloc’s victims would turn up in Sulu. In the recent spate of kidnappings of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors, the abductions have been undertaken by the Muktadir brothers: Nikson, Gadafi, Murphy, Gulam and Ali (also known as Braun).  Victims of the Muktadir brothers would be handed over to Alhabsi Misaya, one of the more notorious ASG commanders in Sulu.

The ASG’s kidnapping activities generated international concern when the group staged an audacious abduction of tourists and staff from the Malaysian island resort of Sipadan in April of 2000.  In this incident a total of 21 persons were taken hostage: three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, one Lebanese, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos.  The victims were brought by speedboat to the island of Jolo in Sulu province.  The kidnapping was staged by a group headed by Ghalib Andang, who popularly went by the name, Commander Robot.[30]

The Malaysian and Libyan governments intervened to obtain the release of the hostages.  It was generally believed that ransom was paid by these governments, the Malaysian government for their nationals and the Filipinos and Libya for the remaining hostages.  It is estimated that $20 to $30 million was paid to the kidnappers.  The hostages were released in batches, with the last hostages—except for one Filipino who stayed behind and served as a cook for Andang’s group— obtaining their freedom in September 2000.

This mass kidnapping was repeated the following year when, in May 2001, the ASG kidnapped 20 guests and staff from the Philippine island resort of Dos Palmas in the province of Palawan on the southwestern side of the country.  The victims this time were mainly Filipinos but included three US citizens.  The ASG band involved in this incident was headed by Khadafi Janjalani— Abdurajak Janjalani’s younger brother who took over leadership of the group after Abdurajak’s death—Aldam Tilao, who adopted the name Abu Sabaya and Jainal Antel Sali, also known as Abu Sulaiman.  The victims were brought to Basilan province.

This particular incident was more complex than the Sipadan kidnapping of the previous year.  To begin with, the inclusion of three US citizens among the kidnapping victims brought the US government into the picture.  To make matters worse, one of the American hostages, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded by the captors less than three weeks after the abduction.  This triggered the involvement of the US military in the Zamboanga-Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi area to assist the Philippine military in the pursuit of the ASG under Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines as the US government termed it or Operation Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) as the Philippine Government called the program, using US Special Forces troops under Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P).[31]

Moreover, in the course of holding the hostages and evading pursuit by the Philippine military and police forces, the ASG abducted additional victims on the island of Basilan and killed several of them.  These consisted of hospital staff, plantation workers and residents of a village the group had passed through.  One report says that “at least 100 hostages were taken and around 20 murdered in just over a year until the final assault and freeing of Gracia Burnham.”[32]

Most of the original hostages were released as individual ransom payments were received, but the last two Americans, Martin and Gracia Burnham, were held by the ASG until the 13th month of their captivity when the Philippine military executed a rescue attempt.  In the course of this rescue attempt, Martin Burnham was killed along with a new hostage who had been taken several months back as the ASG escaped the pursuing military forces, while Gracia Burnham was wounded.  Gracia survived and was airlifted back to the United States.[33]

Kidnappings continued over the next decade-and-a-half and up to the present.  One particular recent case that shocked Canada and the world was the kidnapping of two Canadians, one Norwegian and one Filipino in September of 2015 at a marina on Samal Island in the Davao Gulf.  The victims were brought by their abductors to Jolo Island, over 500 kilometres away where an incredible demand of $20 million USD was declared as the ransom for each of the foreign victims.[34]  When the ransom payments were not made, the ASG beheaded the two Canadians, John Ridsdel in April of 2016 and Robert Hall two months later.  The Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad, was released in September after the ASG accepted a significantly reduced level of payment, following an earlier release during the last week of June of the Filipino hostage, Marites Flor.[35]

The author has made a tally of kidnapping incidents involving the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, which have occurred over the period of 2011 to 2016.  These are incidents that have either taken place in the province of Sulu or, if they occurred outside the province, the victims were brought to Sulu and were held by an ASG band there.  Thus, this tally does not include kidnapping incidents undertaken by ASG bands in Basilan or elsewhere, but over the last six years the greater number of such incidents involved the Sulu-based ASG.

During this six-year period there were 69 such KFR incidents that resulted in 135 persons being held hostage.  Over half of the victims were Filipinos (74 persons) and 50 per cent of the kidnapping incidents occurred in the province of Sulu.  A quarter of the victims were Sulu residents.

It should be noted that in 2016, the ASG began attacking vessels plying the waters between Sulu and Sabah, resulting in a large number of boat crew members being taken hostage.  Out of a total of 19 KFR incidents in 2016, 11 involved crew members being abducted from their vessels.  As a result, the second largest number of KFR victims between 2011 and 2016 were Indonesians, 27 in number, all kidnapped in 2016 and constituting 20 per cent of all KFR victims over the last six years.  The third largest number of victims were Malaysians, numbering 15, nine of whom were boat crew members abducted while on the high seas.  The rest of the Malaysians were abducted in Sabah itself, from vacation resorts or fish farms.  The Malaysians made up 11 per cent of all victims over the six-year period.

Included in this number are the two Canadians, John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, who, as discussed above, were kidnapped in late 2015 and beheaded by their captors in April and June, respectively, of the following year.  Four other victims were executed by the ASG: two Filipinos, one Malaysian and one German. The German, Jurgen Kantner, a civilian sailor, was beheaded in February of 2017.  His wife and sailing partner was killed when their abductors boarded their yacht in early November 2016 as they sailed through the waters of Tawi-Tawi province.

In the next article in this series, we shall take a look at how the ASG has evolved over the last 26 years with particular focus on its current status.