Evolution of the Abu Sayyaf Group: Part 2

Posted By April 24, 2017 No Comments

The following is Part 2 of the fifth installment of 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.


Servicemen of the Philippine Army stage themselves to transport bottled water to aircraft assigned to the U.S. Navy and the Republic of the Philippines Air Force

Relations with Jemaah Islamiyah

An important factor in the development of the Abu Sayyaf has been its relationship with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI, Islamic community), an Indonesia-based Islamist group with a presence as well in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, whose end objective is the establishment of a regional Caliphate in southeast Asia.  JI grew out of an earlier militant organization in Indonesia, the Darul Islam, established in the late 1940s and whose avowed aim was to set up an Islamic state in Indonesia.  As noted, JI’s objectives are broader, being regional in focus.

JI was formally established in 1993 in Malaysia but moved back to Indonesia in 1998 after the fall of President Suharto.  JI established a foothold in the southern Philippines in 1994 when Moro Islamic Liberation Front Chairman Salamat Hashim entered into an agreement with the JI leadership to set up JI-run training camps within the MILF Camp Abubakar, a 10,000 hectare complex that was a “self-contained Islamic community with a mosque, a religious school, a prison, a military training academy, an arms factory, a solar power source, sophisticated telecommunications equipment, family housing, markets, fruit nursery, and agricultural crops.”[1]

This training camp, known as Camp Hudaibiyah, was set up along the Maguindanao-Lanao del Sur provincial borders and held training programs (described earlier in this article) for both MILF and JI members.  Trainers were, for the most part, JI members, several of whom had undergone training in the camps in Afghanistan set up by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Abdurajak Janjalani’s mentor.

When Philippine armed forces overran the central complex of Camp Abubakar in mid-2000, the training camp was moved further inland to Mount Kararao in what was known as Camp Jabal Quba.

It was in these training camps that, as mentioned earlier, Khadaffy Janjalani worked out an arrangement for ASG members to undergo training and where their bomb-making and other military skills were honed.  As also mentioned above, JI asked in return that some of their members be allowed to join the ASG in their activities in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi to gain, as it were, field experience, although this also served as a venue for JI to spread their training to ASG forces in the field.

Beyond training, the ASG joined JI and the MILF in some of the terror activities undertaken, as in the Fitmart shopping mall bombing of 2002 and the Davao International Airport and Sasa Port bombings in 2003.  The October 3, 2002 bomb attack outside a Philippine military camp in Zamboanga City that killed one US Special Forces soldier was supposed to have included the participation of two JI members.[2]  With regard to the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombings that took place simultaneously in three cities, two of the operatives who planted the bombs confessed during interrogations following their arrest that they had been trained in bomb making by a JI liaison officer by the name of Rohmat at the 103rd Base Command of the MILF in the hinterlands of the town of Butig in the province of Lanao del Sur.[3]

According to hostages who supposedly escaped from their captors, it appears that the JI conducted trainings in bomb-making, sniper shooting and other combat techniques for ASG forces in Patikul, Sulu, starting late 2002 to mid-2003.[4]  The ICG identifies some of the JI trainers as having been Rahmat, alias Zaki, and Abdullah Zaini, alias Dzakwan, themselves graduates of trainings undertaken at the MILF’s Camp Jabal Quba.[5]

From August 1, 2006 to October 2007, Philippine Armed Forces units supported by the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), launched Operations Ultimatum I and II in Jolo, Sulu.  Target of the operations were Abu Sayyaf and JI leaders on the island, specifically Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Solaiman and Isnilon Hapilon (ASG) and Dulmatin and Umar Patek (JI).[6]  Dulmatin and Umar Patek were involved in the 2002 Bali bombing and carried bounties of USD $10,000,000 and $1,000,000 from the US Rewards for Justice program, respectively.

A 2009 report provided an Armed Forces of the Philippines estimate of “around 30 JI members scattered across Mindanao, the bulk of whom are believed to be in areas under the control of ASG or renegade MILF commands.”[7]

In late 2011, Professor Rohan Gunarathna, a leading terrorism expert and head of the management staff of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, commented that the JI and the ASG “are already so integrated they operate almost as one organization.” Gunarathna further pointed out that, “There are still about a dozen Indonesian and Malaysian terrorists still operating in the Sulu archipelago.  They are planning and preparing terrorist attacks, they are working together with the Abu Sayyaf to conduct terrorist attacks.”[8]

As described earlier, an attack carried out by the Philippine Air Force in February of 2012 that killed Dr. Abu, one of the remaining ASG leaders from the original batch in Sulu, was also targeting top-ranking JI leaders Marwan and Muawiyah who, it was reported, were being sheltered by the forces under Dr. Abu.

In February of 2015, there were still reports on JI militants in Sulu.  A five-day pursuit of ASG forces in the mountains of Patikul on Jolo island by the Philippine military, which resulted in at least 24 ASG men and two soldiers being killed, yielded the report that three Malaysian JI members were with the ASG forces.  These JI members were supposedly training the ASG on bomb-making.[9]

Clearly, the Jemaah Islamiyah was and apparently continues to be a major force that shaped the ASG into what it is today.

Muslim Converts

It was estimated in the mid-2000s that there were some 200,000 Muslim converts in the Philippines.[10]  What the number is today is unknown but is most likely higher than this estimate.

Filipino Muslims refer to converts as Balik-Islam, that is, “returnees to Islam” (paralleling the Filipino Balikbayan, the overseas Filipino returning to his homeland for a visit, more often than not with the ubiquitous Balikbayan Box, the 4.5 cubic foot box full of goodies for relatives).  Commentators writing in English sometimes refer to the converts as “reverts.”

The view is that man’s original state is that of being a Muslim; however, due to circumstances— having been born into a family of another faith—individuals are brought up adopting other religions.  It is up to the individual to discover during his lifetime his true birthright, which is to realize that man’s true nature lies in “submission to Allah,” Islam.  Moreover, in the case of the Philippines (as discussed in the first article in this series), Islam had already taken a firm hold in portions of what is now the Philippines before this country came into being as a State, and it is more than likely that—were it not for the arrival of the Spaniards and subsequently the Americans—the Philippines (or whatever it would have been called) would today have been a Muslim country.  Thus the nomenclature, Balik-Islam.

A significant portion of the converts live and were brought up outside of Mindanao, in the northern and central provinces of the Philippines (specifically the Luzon and the Visayas regions), with a significant number living in the Metro Manila area.  Hence they have been brought up in Christian environments and ways of life and are indistinguishable from the people on the street unless they opt to adopt clothing reflective of their faith.

In 1995, one convert, Hilarion del Rosario Santos III, set up the Fi-Sabilillah Daawa and Media Foundation after having converted to Islam two years earlier at the age of 22 and adopting the name Ahmed Islam Santos.  (Fi-Sabilillah—in the way or cause of Allah; Daawa—reaching out to others to understand Islam).  The objective of the Foundation was to: “Propagate the true essence of Islam and to correct misconceptions about Islam and Muslims.”[11]  One interesting fact about Santos was that, after converting to Islam, he married a second wife who was the sister of a wife of Khadaffy Janjalani and also a wife of Abu Solaiman.

Santos soon linked up with another convert, Reuben Lavilla, who came to be known as Sheikh Omar Lavilla, a chemical engineer who studied Islamic jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Medina, aside from having been a classmate of Khadaffy Janjalani at the Darul Iman Shafi’ie Academy in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, a school set up by an organization run by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa.

Santos’ Foundation eventually morphed into the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM, sometimes referred to as RSIM—the “I” standing for Islamic; or RSRM—the second “R” standing for Revolutionary).  The RSM instituted a program of teaching its members Arabic, Islamic principles, martial arts, guerilla tactics and bomb-making.  It enabled the ASG to extend its reach outside of Mindanao, and into the Metro Manila area specifically.  The bombing and partial sinking of the Super Ferry 14 in February 2004 that resulted in the death of 116 people was undertaken by an RSM member, Redendo Cain Dellosa.  One of the perpetrators of the bombing of a bus in Makati City the following year as part of the Valentine’s Day triple bombing was an RSM member, Angelo Trinidad.  In fact, Trinidad carried the bomb onto the bus with an ASG companion, left it at the back of the bus and detonated it with his cellphone after getting off.

The RSM was apparently working on other attacks such as the bombing of a popular café in an area frequented by tourists (thereby replicating the Bali bombing), bombing of the US Embassy in Manila, the light rail transit system and other targets.  These were, however, thwarted before they could be undertaken.

Ahmed Santos was arrested in Zamboanga City in October 2005.[12]    Another key member of the RSM, supposedly the second-in-command, Pio Abogne de Vera, was arrested in December 2005, days before a bombing attempt was to be undertaken at a Manila nightclub.[13]  Sheikh Omar Lavilla was arrested in Bahrain (where it turns out he was working as an interpreter in the Philippine Embassy, of all places) and deported back to the Philippines in 2008.[14]

Tyrone “Dawud” Santos, a younger brother of Ahmed Islam Santos, also a convert and a ranking member of the RSM (supposedly its Chief of Military Affairs), was arrested in March 2005 after having been found to be hoarding 600 kilograms of explosives, but was able to post bail the following month.[15]  He remains at large to this day.

While no attacks have been attributed to the RSM for some time, as recently as 2014 there were indications that the group was still around and plotting to undertake new ones.  In October 2014, police authorities arrested three individuals linked to the RSM, one of whom was carrying a hand grenade at the time of the arrest.[16]

Thus, the RSM, which has served as a “force multiplier” or “force extender,” to be more precise, of the ASG appears to still be around and may be capable of continuing the terror campaign of the ASG in the capital area of the Philippines.  As Abu Solaiman taunted the Philippine government in 2005, “you don’t have to bring the war to Mindanao.  We will bring it right to your doorstep.”[17]

(Readers interested in learning more about this phenomenon of the militant Balik-Islam are directed to the International Crisis Group’s excellent report on “Philippines Terrorism: The Role of Militant Islamic Converts,” Asia Report No. 110, December 19, 2005) which can be accessed at

The Abu Sayyaf Today

Where do things stand today as far as the ASG is concerned?

In July of 2014, a video was posted on YouTube showing Isnilon Hapilon pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the Islamic State.  Hapilon was and continues to be the highest ranking ASG leader in Basilan and the last man remaining from the second generation of leaders of the ASG in the provinc— Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Sabaya, Abu Solaiman, Hamsiraji Sali and Isnilon Hapilon.  Isnilon, his face clearly shown in the video, is seen making the pledge with other individuals, their faces covered to hide their identities.  Three weeks earlier, another video was aired showing a prison area crowded with individuals also pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.  This was most likely Camp Bagong Diwa—supposedly a high security prison where Abu Sayyaf detainees are kept and where a riot broke out nine years earlier resulting in the killing of a number of ASG leaders such as, Commanders Robot and Global and Kosova—the persons making the pledge were most likely ASG members as well as possibly members of other militant groups under detention.[18]

In January 2016, another video was aired showing four “battalions”[19] of militants in the Philippines pledging loyalty to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.  The four battalions were the Al-Harakatul Al-Islamiyah (the formal name of the ASG, the name meaning “Islamic Movement”) under Isnilon Hapilon; the Ansar Al-Shariah under Abu Anas al-Muhajir, a Malaysian whose real name was Mohammad Najib Hussein; the Ma’rakah Al-Ansar under a certain Abu Ammar, supposedly from Sulu;[20] the Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (AKP) under Abu Sharifah who is actually Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, a former member of the MILF’s Special Operations Group (SOG).[21]  AKP operates in the Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato area on mainland Mindanao.

Aside from these four groups, other militant groups in Mindanao have likewise pledged allegiance to ISIS.  These include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group from the MILF, based in Maguindanao province, the Maute Group, based in Lanao del Sur, Jund al Tawhid, supposedly based in Sulu and the Jamaat al-Tawhid wal Jihad Philippines.

The following month, ISIS itself released a video through its Al-Furat Media recognizing and accepting the pledges of allegiance of the Philippine militant groups under Hapilon.[22]

Four months later, in June, ISIS released another video calling on its followers in Southeast Asia to go and fight in the Philippines.  Specifically, the person in the video said, “If you cannot go to [Syria], join up and go to the Philippines.” The video urged its viewers to unite under the leadership of Abu Abdullah al-Filipini (the name now adopted by Isnilon Hapilon).[23]

Unfortunately, up to this point, Philippine authorities seemed to be in denial that there was a problem.  Or they may have been cautious and did not want to alarm the public nor make it appear that the security authorities had been unable to control the situation. “Philippine military officials dismissed the latest video as propaganda…‘People should not be bothered by this,’ Reuters quoted Philippine military spokesman Restituto Padilla.”[24]

It was only after the Administration of the new President, Rodrigo Duterte, that the Philippine government began to take public recognition of the problem.  In August, Duterte declared that the country should be ready to address the threat of ISIS as he expected the problem to worsen in three to seven years if not confronted.[25]  In turn, the Philippine Secretary of National Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, revealed in January of 2017 that intelligence reports had confirmed that the leadership of ISIS had made direct contact with Isnilon Hapilon the previous month, instructing him to find an area in Mindanao in which a caliphate could be established.[26]  In an interview the following month, Mr. Lorenzana stated that the links between ISIS and local militant groups were very strong and that substantial amounts of funds were being funneled to these groups from the Middle East.[27]

But as far as the Abu Sayyaf is concerned, it appears that this tie-up with ISIS is limited to the ASG forces in Basilan.  The Abu Sayyaf in Sulu appears to still be made up of bands operating independently of each other, with the focus of activities still being on kidnapping for ransom.  Analysts often point to Radulan Sahiron as being the head of the ASG in the province but it is the author’s view that there is no command and control structure or mechanism operating among these various bands.  While some of the Sulu ASG leaders may recognize Radulan as being the most senior among them in terms of age, his affiliation with the ASG and his links with the original leadership of the Abu Sayyaf— Radulan took Abdurajak Janjalani’s widow as his wife as a sign of his respect for and loyalty to the Group’s founder—they operate independently of him and of each other, co-ordinating only when necessity dictates, as previously pointed out.

The use by some of these Sulu groups of the ISIS flag and orange t-shirts on their hostages when videos are made, trying to echo the ISIS images of hostages before execution, is more a part of the negotiating tactics adopted when demanding ransom payments, rather than an indication of affiliation with ISIS.

There are therefore several factors that need to be kept in mind in assessing the Abu Sayyaf situation today:

  1. The Abu Sayyaf problem is now more complex than what it previously was.  Beyond the Abu Sayyaf forces in Sulu and Basilan, one now needs to take into consideration the alliances with other groups – both domestic as well as from outside the country – that have resulted from the linkage with the Islamic State.
  2. These linkages bring to fore one important factor recently pointed out by Sidney Jones, founder and director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC):  that the ASG has been able to overcome the clan and ethnic ties that used to undermine the efforts at unification of the various bands that made up the Abu Sayyaf previously.[28]  This obviously strengthens the potency of the Group.

The author maintains though that this factor applies more to the Basilan ASG forces rather than those in Sulu.  As pointed out earlier, there appears to have been greater cohesiveness over the years among the ASG forces in Basilan as contrasted with those in Sulu where the ASG bands have operated more independently of each other.

  1. The encouragement by the Islamic State for jihadists from the region to go to the Philippines rather than the Middle East and join the alliance there will obviously complicate matters further for the Philippine government
  2. The approach to the ASG needs to consider the different circumstances that prevail in Basilan as compared with Sulu and now will likewise need to take into account the other domestic and foreign jihadist groups that have established links with the ASG under the banner of the Islamic State.  The situation is complex and requires the crafting of approaches appropriate to the dynamics that exist in each area.

In the final article in this series, the author will present some ideas of what sorts of approaches could be considered in addressing the Abu Sayyaf situation.


In the course of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines/Balikatan Exercise, which formally began in 2002 but for which the groundwork was laid in 2001, it was determined by US military advisors under the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) that a capability that needed to be developed by the units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was precision targeting.  As described in the evaluation undertaken of the JSOTF-P program:

Numerous interviewees described the continued use of tactics, such as launching massive barrages of artillery fire in the general direction of massed enemy forces, with limited ability to avoid civilian casualties, and dumb bombs dropped from planes that often, because of the age of the ordnance, failed to detonate.  The AFP understood the negative effects of indiscriminate fires, but they lacked the proper equipment and training to deliver more precise-firepower.  Many munitions and platforms were old and sometimes barely functional.[29]

Col. William Coultrup, JSOTF-P Commander from 2008 to 2010, focused on two areas to develop the capability for precision targeting:  (1) the use of fuzed or smart bombs by the Philippine Air Force, and (2) precision-guided artillery.  It was argued that the use of such precision-guided munitions would allow the AFP to launch attacks against targets previously inaccessible to them and minimize, if not totally eliminate, collateral damage to the civilian population.

Close to two years after he started his efforts in this direction, Coultrup was able to obtain funding for these initiatives under the FY2010 budget:

FY2010 assistance for the Philippines provided a precision guided missile capability to assist Philippine armed forces’ CT efforts in southern regions to combat the activities of the Jimaah Islamijah and Abu Sayyuf Group ($18.4million) , and weapons and equipment to build the Philippines’ Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Battalion’s CT capacity ($9.3 million).[30]

Training and equipping in these two areas began shortly before Col. Coultrop ended his assignment as JSOTF-P Commander in 2010.  The necessary equipment was received in July 2010, work started on modifying the Philippine Air Force’s OV10 aircraft to be able to deliver the new payload (Enhanced Paveway II precision-guided munitions), training, initial test drops, testing of software was undertaken for the next year-and-a-half, with the final testing done in January 2012.  The following month, on February 2, 2012, the system was used in an actual operation targeting Marwan and Muawiyah of JI and Dr Abu of ASG and, as described above, was operationally successful, even though the JI personalities were no longer in the target area at the time of the attack.

In fact, the operation was so successful that it was reported that the JI were expelled by the ASG from Jolo because it was believed that their presence was drawing lethal fire against the ASG.[31]