Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 1

By July 3, 2017 No Comments

The following is Part 1 of the sixth and final 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.

This series has attempted to provide readers an understanding of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a Philippine-based group that has terrorized residents and visitors who have ventured not only into the southern parts of the country but even in areas north of their bases, which would ordinarily have been considered to be “safe.”  In April 2017, an ASG band was caught entering an area on the island of Bohol in the central Philippines, over 500 kilometers from its base in Jolo, Sulu, most likely in search of victims to kidnap.[1]  This same month, a large-scale kidnapping plan targeting guests at two Malaysian resort islands off Sabah was discovered.[2]

In late May, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the entire island of Mindanao following the attack by a faction of the ASG led by Isnilon Hapilon, allied with the Maute Group of Lanao del Sur, on the Islamic City of Marawi, the capital of the province of Lanao del Sur.[3]  As of the time of this writing, more than a month from the start of fighting in that city, the battle is still going on between government forces and militants in Marawi.

We have reviewed the historical context within which this group and other Islamic militant groups have arisen, we have discussed their ideology, we have looked at examples of the terroristic activities they have undertaken and have examined how the Group has evolved over the 26 years of its existence.

In this article, the author will provide some of his ideas of elements that need to be considered if the depredations of this group are really to be brought to an end.  Over the last 26 years there has been no lack of declarations on the part of Philippine Presidents and heads of Philippine security agencies vowing to destroy, crush, exterminate the group, but it is still around.  Definitely it is no easy task.

Philippine Government Responses to the Abu Sayyaf

  1. Policy Pronouncements

The policy signals issued by the current Philippine government administration to the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group have initially been confused, to say the least.  On July 8, 2016, a week after having assumed the Presidency of the country, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stated in an assembly of Muslim leaders in his hometown of Davao City that he did not consider the Abu Sayyaf members to be criminals.  He explained that in his view the group was pushed by desperation to undertake the acts that they did because of the absence of proper governance in their areas.  These statements of the President led his spokespersons to scramble and try to contain the outrage that these views were expected to give rise to.  The following day, the President’s Office explained that Mr. Duterte was simply saying that he understood the context within which the Abu Sayyaf situation had arisen but that they were still accountable for their acts.[4]

Two weeks earlier, before he had assumed Office, on June 25, 2016 Mr. Duterte said that he was open to peace talks with the ASG.  “The Abu Sayyaf is not my enemy.  I know it is connected with the issue of Mindanao,” Mr. Duterte told his supporters in Cebu City.[5]

However, on his second month in Office, Mr. Duterte did an about-face, following the beheading of a teenaged resident of Jolo who had been kidnapped by the ASG.  Visibly angry, Mr. Duterte advised reporters during a press conference on August 25, “My orders to the police and the armed forces against enemies of the state:  seek them out in their lairs and destroy them….The Abu Sayyaf, destroy them, period.”[6]

The following month Mr. Duterte reiterated this hard line position and said that there would be no amnesty for Abu Sayyaf members.  In an address before the Press Corps on September 26 at the Office of the President Mr. Duterte said that “…there will be no talks [with the Abu Sayyaf]…There will never be an amnesty for so much killing.”[7]

However, two months later, on November 25 during a visit to wounded soldiers in a military hospital in Zamboanga City, Mr. Duterte announced that he was ready to talk to the Abu Sayyaf, presumably to try to end their campaign of terror.[8]  “I will build a hospital in Basilan, don’t kidnap the workers, allow them to work but if you can really stop it for a while, we can talk,” Mr. Duterte added.[9]

But two months after that latest statement of what seemed to indicate a tone of reconciliation, Mr. Duterte announced that he had instructed the military to bomb Abu Sayyaf groups even if they had hostages with them.  In a speech to businessmen in Davao City on January 14, 2017, Mr. Duterte informed the audience that he had instructed the Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard that “if there are kidnappers and they’re trying to escape, bomb them all….They say ‘hostages’, sorry, collateral damage.”[10]

Subsequent pronouncements indicate that this hardline no-holds-barred approach towards the Abu Sayyaf has been decided upon.

  1. Military Operations

Despite the initially erratic and confusing policy signals from their Commander-in-Chief, the Philippine military has been resolute in its operations and has increased troop deployments to the provinces of Basilan and Sulu, undertaking non-stop operations against the various ASG bands on the main islands of Basilan and Jolo.  In September 2016, the Commanding General of the Philippine Army announced that three battalions of soldiers (approximately 1,500 men) would be deployed to Sulu to augment the 5,000 troops already there.  Another 2,500 troops were operating in Basilan at the time.[11]    The initiation of peace talks with the Communist New People’s Army in other parts of the country allowed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to redeploy troops from those areas to the south.  These troop movements were in addition to Philippine Navy vessels deployed to guard the waters of both provinces as well as Philippine Air Force planes sent on reconnaissance and attack missions when needed.  It was estimated that there were less than 500 ASG fighters in both provinces.[12]

Various news reports indicate that there were as many as 10,000 ground troops pursuing the ASG in both provinces.[13]

The military has been given a deadline of six months from January 2017 to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf.  During a visit to the headquarters of the Western Mindanao Command (WESMINCOM) which has jurisdiction over the Zamboanga-Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi area, Gen. Eduardo Año, Armed Forces Chief of Staff, advised the WESMINCOM staff last January 17, 2017, “As pronounced by our president…we have six months to totally decimate the Abu Sayyaf group and the other terror groups here in Western Mindanao.”[14]  In March, this order was reiterated by the Secretary of National Defense, Delfin Lorenzana, who told the troops in Jolo, Sulu, when he visited on March 7, 2017, that “the Armed Forces, the PNP (Philippine National Police) will sustain the operations against the Abu Sayyaf and we will try to finish them by the deadline,” referring to the six-month timetable set.[15]

It should be noted, as an aside however, that these same pronouncements about “destroying,” “decimating,” and “eliminating” the Abu Sayyaf have been made by all Philippine government administrations over the last 26 years.

  1. Economic Development

Thankfully, the Philippine government has recognized that the ASG problem will not be solved by military operations alone.  In December of 2016, the government launched a program called Negosyo para sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu (Business for Peace in Sulu), wherein it encouraged businessmen from the private sector, mainly based in Manila, to consider investing in ventures in the province of Sulu.  It has been reported that a number of the largest business groups in the Philippines pledged to invest in several areas to include:

  • Construction of a 50 MW coal-fired power plant to service the electric needs on the main island of Jolo;
  • Rehabilitation and upgrading of the telecommunications facilities in the province;
  • Resumption of flights to the main island of Jolo;
  • Establishment of an integrated coconut processing plant;
  • Provision of medical equipment and training of personnel for hospitals in the province;
  • Rebuilding the existing arts and trade school in the town of Jolo;
  • Establishment of a supply chain for a feed mill;
  • Setting up warehouses and drying facilities for seaweeds as well as training programs for seaweed farmers;
  • Setting up a poultry industry and entering into contract growing arrangements;
  • Building of houses for low-income families utilizing sweat equity of the beneficiaries;
  • Construction of school buildings.[16]

Investments are expected to begin in 2017.  These will need to be monitored closely to determine which ones actually materialize.  Moreover, implementation of projects will need to consider the particular characteristics of Tausug culture to make sure that they are implemented appropriately to ensure sustainability of the investments made.

Given the socio-economic conditions in the province, described in the first article of this series, these projects, if implemented properly, should go a long way to addressing one of the primary factors underlying the problem of violence and the absence of law and order in the province, poverty.

Community Support

Any intervention in society that aims to succeed over the long term must have the support of the community or its targeted beneficiaries.  Of course there are programs whose sponsors are interested only in short-term outcomes, such as hand-outs given by politicians shortly before a political contest or election is to take place.  In such a case, the sponsors are really not interested what happens to the programs after they have achieved their own objectives, e.g., winning an electoral contest and capturing a political position with all the financial benefits and power that come along with it.  But if one is aiming to bring about radical change in society – the kind of change required for an end to violence and the institution of a condition of long-term peace – the support of the members of that society, the acceptance of the goals and the means by which to achieve them, is essential.

This is a principle accepted even by militants.  Jason Burke, a British journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East, for example, cites the concern expressed in 2005 by the senior leadership of al-Qaeda regarding the brutal methods employed by the “Emir of Al Qaeda for Jihad Organization in the Land of Two Rivers,” Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.[17]  Burke recounts how

“Bin Laden’s deputy, al-Zawahiri, and others within the organization repeatedly wrote to the leader of their Iraqi affiliate to remind him of the importance of maintaining good relations with local communities and encourage him, for the moment at least, to put any battle with the Shia on hold.  Al-Zawahiri invoked his own experience in Egypt and spoke of how ‘popular support is a decisive factor between victory and defeat [for] in [its] absence, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful….Others reminded the Jordanian of what happened in the early 1990s in Algeria, where the militant campaign to create an Islamic state had imploded in a welter of indiscriminate violence directed largely at civilians.  ‘Their enemy did not defeat them…They destroyed themselves with their own hands by their alienation of the population with their lack of reason…oppression, deviance and ruthlessness,’ wrote Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a senior Libyan extremist based in Pakistan who had spent time in Algeria.”[18]

It is believed that the Philippine government accepts this principle as well.  However, the way it is implemented by the government is, in the author’s view, inadequate.  Perhaps it is inevitable because government authorities are to a large extent constrained to working through the government bureaucracy and channels, and therefore any “community consultations” or interactions are, more often than not, consultations with local government officials (Governors, Mayors, Barangay Chairmen) or done through them.  Unfortunately, it is more often the case that these elected officials reflect not the views of the masses of their constituents but rather – if one has to be brutally frank – views that promote their own political ends and favor their political supporters.

Moreover, there is the tendency on the part of governmental and political authorities to try and manage the outcomes of any “consultations” undertaken.  One goes into these discussions with preconceived notions of what the situation is and what the outputs should be at the end.  Rare is the government functionary who is truly open to listening to what other people have to say and who exerts the effort to try and see things from the perspective of their constituents.

Moreover, there is the tendency on the part of people in authority to think that they know what people need and what the solutions are to the problems of society.  And because they are in authority and have access to resources, more often than not it is their pre-identified policies, programs and/or projects which materialize, irrespective of whether they actually address the real needs or  not.

Furthermore – and this applies not just to Philippine governmental authorities but even to donor institutions, whether local or foreign – because of the pressure to show results, to account for funds allocated and to justify requests for new budgetary allocations (often increased from previous years), there is the tendency to “fast-track” project implementation, to show concrete results as quickly as possible, leaving beneficiary communities as passive bystanders and recipients of the largesse of the project sponsors.

The author recalls a project showcased by a Philippine Marines battalion in the municipality of Patikul, one of the main areas of operation of the ASG in Sulu, in 2006.  This was a water supply project built by the soldiers for the community, consisting of water tanks and a three-kilometer long pipeline, bringing the water down from the source to service households along the route.  It was an impressive project, well built, clean, technically well planned, but within a year the Marines asked an NGO to help them get the community to take care of the project.  It had been built for the community, not with the community, and it suffered from neglect by the community and even deliberate efforts to sabotage it.

The same thing was experienced by the US Special Operations Forces that were working in Sulu at the time.  Justin Richmond, a US Army Sergeant who was assigned to Sulu under Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, wrote about two US soldiers who were killed in the village of Kagay, municipality of Indanan in Sulu in September 2009, when an IED which had been planted by the roadside exploded as their Humvee drove by.  Sgt. Richmond wrote in anguish:

“I knew the town of Kagay well.  Our task force had been working in Kagay for months.  We’d extended a road to the area, dropped a deep water well, installed a solar dryer for their coconuts, and built a community hall….

“And yet, for all that effort,  no one in Kagay had informed the SF team or the Seabees that people were placing a powerful bomb on that dirt road.  Not a single dollar spent was enough to engender the trust, love or compassion of that community, not even enough to let our guys know that a bomb was waiting for them….”[19]

Every serious community development practitioner knows that a critical phase of any planned social intervention is the “social preparation” phase.  This is the initial phase of the intervention when the program facilitators work with the community to try and draw from them their perspectives on their situation and what they believe are the specific interventions needed.  It is during this phase that the community, through open dialogue, begins to understand the underlying causes of their current situation and, if handled properly, begins to realize that much of the power to address their situation lies within their hands.  This can lead to very surprising results.

The author was involved some 10 years ago with a group that worked with several communities in the province of Sulu to address the dire situation of potable water supply.  At that time, national government data showed that only 27 per cent of the population of the province had access to clean water.  However, based on actual surveys undertaken by the project team, it was discovered that of the close to 200 water sources tested for potability, 92 per cent were contaminated with fecal coliform.[20]  The project team thus worked very closely with one community to explore with them their appreciation of the water supply situation.

The community shared how they identified and developed their existing water sources.  With the help of the project team, they learned how certain daily activities that they took for granted impacted the quality of their water and the health of their family members.  They also learned how to make certain devices that would enable them to identify potential sources of water and even how to analyze the quality of their water.

As a result of their interaction with the project team and their newfound knowledge and skills, the community became more confident, open and vocal.  It came to a point where the chief executive of the municipality, who had initially enthusiastically encouraged and supported the project, became wary because the community had begun to question practices that had previously been accepted unquestioningly. He felt that his authority was being challenged by his constituents.

To gain community support, one must be willing to work with the community on its terms and to help the community discover their strengths.  In dealing with the community with openness, one generally will find a greater responsiveness on the part of the community and a willingness to establish a relationship of mutual support.  It is a relationship based on mutual respect.

This, then, should be a key approach taken by any effort to address the problem of violence, the seeming absence of law and order, in the areas where the ASG operate:  interacting with the affected communities, exerting efforts to understand the situation from their perspective, and working jointly with them to address the situation.

Muslim-Christian Enmity

But as these interactions are being undertaken, a very basic and uncomfortable question should be raised and confronted:  does there still exist a deep-seated enmity, perhaps below the level of consciousness, visceral, instinctive, but real nevertheless between Christians and Muslims, which colours relationships and makes it difficult to achieve a real understanding between adherents of the two faiths?

The historian Rudy Rodil, born and raised in Mindanao, lived for a few years in Jolo, has worked closely with Muslims and Lumads, raised this question in 2010.  In an article he wrote for MindaNews, a leading news service based in Davao City, which was published on August 3 of that year, he asked why there was vehement opposition to the use of the term “Muslim Mindanao” in the deliberations of the Regional Consultative Commission which drafted the Organic Act for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or to the creation of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development, or to the Philippine Government-Moro Islamic Liberation Front Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain .  Rodil concluded that:

“…one highlight of the relationship between Moros and the Pinoys [shorthand for Filipinos] from the North is mutual rejection, many times this is called prejudice, the seed had been sown and nurtured over many years.  Now, we are harvesting the whirlwind.”[21]

The seed that had been sown was the experience of Muslims of the southern Philippines fighting the Spanish, American and Philippine Republic colonizers, all eager to subjugate the Moros to their rule, over a period of over 400 years; wars of subjugation that pitted Christian Filipino soldiers against Muslim warriors.  From the perspective of the Filipino Christians the enemy was the Moro; from the perspective of the Muslims the enemy was the Christian Filipino, the Bisaya (as Tausugs, the natives of Sulu, would say, not referring to the inhabitants of the Visayas region but using the term generically to refer to Christian Filipinos). This was discussed in detail in the first article in this series.

As will be recalled from the first article, the prejudice from the viewpoint of Christians was documented in a survey undertaken in 2005 by the Human Development Network, part of the United Nations Development Programme, which attempted to determine to what extent biases existed among Christian Filipinos towards Muslims in the country.  In summary, the survey found that very significant portions of the survey respondents exhibited biases towards Muslims, considering them likely to be terrorists or extremists and not wanting to work with or reside close to them.

On the other hand, because of the experience of Moros fighting colonizers, generations of Tausug warriors have passed down to their descendants the following saying:  “Marayaw pa kaw makabunuh Bisayah, makasud kaw ha sulgah” (It is better for you to kill a Christian, you will be able to enter heaven).  In recent times this has been reinforced by the Salafi-Wahhabi perspective of intolerance which provides a justification for jihad against kuffar (unbelievers), particularly in “Defense of Muslim Lands”, in the words of Abdullah Azzam, called the Father of Global Jihad, the mentor of Osama bin Laden and from whom Abdurajak Janjalani borrowed extensively in his khutbas on Jihad.  That precisely, from the perspective of Moros, is what they are doing, defending their homeland from the encroachment of Christian settlers.

True, there are many Muslims and Christians who no longer harbor this enmity, but are there sufficient numbers that carry this hatred within themselves to still make this an issue which stands in the way of reconciliation and openness which would lead to acceptance and a willingness to live side-by-side?  Do Filipino Christians feel an instinctive distrust of Muslims not only because of the history of war but particularly because of the seemingly senseless acts of violence that have taken place in recent years – the bombing of the Davao City night market in September of last year, the barbarous beheading of 8 kidnap victims over the past two years?  Do Muslims feel like second-class citizens in this predominantly Christian nation, causing deep-seated resentment?

These are questions that Filipinos, Muslims and Christians, need to ask themselves and answer truthfully if the condition of violence that currently prevails in a number of the ARMM provinces is to be addressed.


It has long been recognized that governance is a key issue in the Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) area.  In fairness, governance is an issue in most local government administrative units in the Philippines and even at the national level but that lies beyond the scope of this series on the ASG.

In 2006, the author was commissioned by a consortium of NGOs to undertake an analysis of the security situation in the province of Sulu.  The consortium was concerned that the situation of unceasing violence in the province would negate their efforts to assist in development programs in the province.

One of the areas that the study looked into was the kind of governance exercised by local leaders.  The study undertook a survey in all 18 municipalities that made up the province at the time to determine people’s perceptions regarding the security situation and the role of governance in contributing to the situation.  Among the key findings of the survey were the following:

  1. The majority of respondents (82 per cent) expressed the view that the province was not peaceful.
  2. This view was consistent with the response from 72 per cent of the respondents that the prevailing situation in the province at the time was chaotic compared to the situation 10 or 20 years previously.
  3. When asked what was needed to bring about peace in the province, two key factors were highlighted by respondents: improved security conditions and good governance, both of which garnered the most number of responses from the survey respondents.
  4. When asked how they would characterize their elected officials, the majority of responses were negative. Among the responses provided were the following:
  • Politicians are liars
  • They had a government of thieves
  • Many of their political leaders were corrupt
  • Many ran for office because of the IRA (Internal Revenue Allotment, the share of local governments in national tax revenues, which it was generally believed was being pocketed by local government officials)
  • Leaders were more concerned with their personal interest
  • The government was not just
  • The government was oppressive
  • Politicians are the ones who create chaos in communities[22]

Admittedly, these views are not unique to Sulu.  People in other provinces – and even in other countries – share the same views of their political leadership.  But clearly in Sulu some 10 years ago the view was that good governance was an essential ingredient to bringing about peace in the province.  The author is of the view that while there have been some changes over the years – for example, a younger generation of leaders has taken over positions held by their elders in some cases —  little has changed in Sulu over the last 11 years. Governance is still a major area that needs radical improvement if the security situation is to be improved and socio-economic conditions are to be upgraded.  The same situation would apply to Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.

In conversations that the author has had with both civilians and military officers over the years, the issue of governance has often been raised as being a serious problem in the BaSulTa area.  The problem is characterized by the chronic absence of mayors from their areas of jurisdiction.  In fact, the common joke in the region has been that while all cities and municipalities in the country are supposed to have one mayor, Zamboanga City (which is the premier city in the region) has 30, the duly elected Mayor of Zamboanga and the mayors of the various municipalities of Sulu and Basilan who have homes in Zamboanga and spend much of their time there.

In fact, one of the first orders issued by then Governor Abdusakur Tan of Sulu when he regained the position of governor of the province in 2007 was for all mayors of the 19 municipalities of the province to seek clearance from the Office of the Governor if they intended to travel outside of the province.  It was this order which purportedly led to an altercation (read:  fistfight) between the governor and one of the mayors when they bumped into each other at the airport in Manila in 2008, during which the governor demanded to know why the mayor had left the province without seeking his permission.[23]

This issue of governance was lamented as well by Sgt. Justin Richmond (referred to earlier) as he searched for answers as to why his two comrades-in-arms had been killed.  As he and his colleagues reviewed the notes of their interactions with people in Sulu, Richmond says:

“A clear pattern emerged.  Governance:  the warlord families were manipulating every election cycle with violence, bribes and vote stealing, creating a corrupt, impregnable oligopoly.”[24]

Richmond recounts that they wanted to verify their interpretation of their data and went to consult the Chancellor of the Mindanao State University in Jolo.  After presenting their data to the Chancellor, they asked him:

“We spent all that time and money in Kagay, and yet not a single resident or local leader reported the IED that killed our buddies.  How is that possible?

“The chancellor looked at me in genuine disbelief, shook his head and gave a reply that haunts me to this day.  ‘Do you think this is about buying loyalty?  It’s not.  It’s never been.  My people cannot break the stranglehold the warlord families hold on this island.  You tell your commander this:  keep your roads and schools.  If you can give us a free and fair election, we can do the rest.”[25]

Last year, the then soon-to-be-appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya,  adverted to the issue of governance when, having been asked about the possibility of imposing martial law in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu to address the Abu Sayyaf problem, he replied,

“As far as I am concerned, that is an option.  There seems to be a failure in local governance [in the two provinces].  We have seen for months that the Abu Sayyaf kept on bringing their victims to Jolo.”[26]

Consider, for example, the fact that, except for a period of six years (from 2001-2007), the Governorship of the Province of Sulu has been occupied by members of one family from 1996 to the present.  The position of mayor in the town of Talipao has been in the hands of one family since time immemorial.  Likewise in Patikul; except for a three-year period from 2004-2007, the position of mayor in this municipality has been in the hands one family from 1995 to the present.  If one looks at the other municipalities in the province – Panglima Estino, Luuk, Pata, Panglima Tahil, etc. – the same situation exists.

The same goes for Basilan.  From 1998-2016, the Governorship of the province was in the hands of one family.  Simultaneously, from 2007 to the present, the position of mayor of the capital city of Isabela was also in the hands of the same family as the governor.  In the case of another major city, the city of Lamitan, the position of Mayor has been in the hands of one family from 2004 to the present.

Again, this is a situation that is not unique to Sulu or Basilan.  One finds this same pattern of dynastic control of political positions all over the country.  One need look no further than the current President’s home city of Davao to see that this is, in a sense, par for the course.  But then, these other provinces, cities and municipalities do not have the violence, the virtual absence of law and order and the dire social conditions that one finds in the BaSulTa area.

How does one then fix the system of governance in this area, if it is agreed that this is in fact a major stumbling block to bringing about peace to the region?  Is it just a matter of having “free and fair elections” as the chancellor suggested?  Or is it more complex than that?

Would instituting a system of autonomy for the Bangsamoro as