Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 2

By July 5, 2017 No Comments

The following is Part 2 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.

Involvement of Military Personnel

Whenever lengthy discussions of the Abu Sayyaf are undertaken, the matter of the possible collusion of some military personnel with the group comes up.  As recently as June of 2016 this was raised again, this time by the mayor of the town of Jolo, the capital town of the province of Sulu.  Mayor Hussein Amin alleged that some military personnel were getting a share of ransom payments being made in exchange for information and, by implication, protection.  Amin, who was formerly a congressman, cited an investigation undertaken by Congress at the time he was a member, during which it was determined that the chief of military intelligence in Sulu at that time had benefited from the ransom paid for the release of a doctor who had been kidnapped in that province.  Amin asked that these allegations of collusion by some military personnel be investigated.[1]

Mayor Amin’s accusation is not without precedent.  As noted in the second article in this series, one of the theories aired about the Abu Sayyaf during its early days was that it was a creation of the Philippine military, intended to disrupt the negotiations which were ongoing at the time between the Philippine government and the MNLF.  In fact, the ASG was constrained to issue a statement in 1994 to categorically deny that it was a creation of the AFP.[2]

There were a number of incidents that seemed to show how the AFP was aiding the ASG. There was, for example, the Tumahubong kidnapping incident in Basilan in March 2000 wherein some 50 students and schoolteachers were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf.  In a book written by journalist Jose Torres, several of the survivors recounted how they as a group, along with their ASG captors, passed by military checkpoints without being stopped or questioned despite the fact that an intensive manhunt had supposedly been launched for them.  Another incident was recounted by one of the female schoolteachers who had been detained in an area near where the top-ranking ASG leaders were staying.  The schoolteacher described how, on several occasions, she overheard Abu Sabaya talking on his cellphone and two-way radio asking what time it was expected that their camp would be attacked the following day.  As a result, the group evacuated the camp before the attacks took place and were therefore able to evade the pursuing government forces.[3]

“ ‘There was no mystery.  The bandits knew exactly when to move and when the military would attack.  They were always informed ahead of time,’ Marissa says.  During the 2000 kidnapping, for instance, the bandits and their hostages left Camp Abdurazzak midnight of April 29.  Bombs rained on the bandits’ lair on April 30, and later that day the military overran the camp.”[4]

Another baffling incident occurred in the course of the Dos Palmas kidnapping incident of 2001, described in the fourth article of this series.  After the kidnap victims – 17 Filipinos and three Americans – were brought to the island of Basilan from the resort island of Dos Palmas in the province of Palawan some 500 kilometers away, the ASG band entered the city of Lamitan and took over a hospital.  The hospital was quickly surrounded by government troops and police personnel, with snipers on rooftops and helicopter gunships flying over.  Unexpectedly, soldiers who were guarding a back gate of the hospital were called for a “briefing” late in the afternoon, and it was through this back gate that the ASG and their hostages escaped.[5]

Sometime within the last three years, the author was asked by the family of a kidnap victim to assist them in assessing how best to secure the victim’s release.  In the course of working with the victim’s family, it came to light that the negotiator on the part of the ASG had indicated that should they come to an agreement on the ransom to be paid, they would want the exchange to be coursed through a particular military unit which the ASG specified, because they had already dealt with that unit in a previous kidnapping case in which the exchange was effected successfully.  While this did not necessarily mean that there was collusion between that military unit and the ASG, the fact that a military unit was identified by the ASG as their desired conduit for payment of ransom was, to say the least, surprising.

On two other occasions within the last 15 years during which the author was likewise requested to assist families secure the release of members who had been kidnapped, the author was advised by Tausug colleagues who assisted him that it was a standard practice for parties through whom ransom payments were coursed to appropriate for themselves a “reasonable” portion of the payment before it reached the ASG.  Could the military unit referred to earlier have benefited from this accepted practice?

Over the years the author has had the opportunity of working with various military officers under varying circumstances.  As a general rule the author has found Philippine military officers and personnel to be professional in their outlook, mission-oriented, conscious of the chain of command, unafraid to challenge orders they may find questionable but ultimately dedicated to the welfare of their country.  This was best exemplified by the EDSA Revolution when, at the final moment, when the tipping point came, the military establishment sided with the people against a dictatorship.

The author does not discount that, as in any organization, there may be – and likely are – those within the Armed Forces of the Philippines who break away from the tradition of service to the country to pursue their personal ambitions and greed, but these would be more the exception, and it is incumbent on the military establishment to weed these elements out so that efforts to overcome lawless groups like the Abu Sayyaf are not undermined.

Involvement of Local Government Officials

If there have been accusations of collusion between military officials and the Abu Sayyaf, so too have there been similar accusations centered on local government officials.

One of the cases documented involves the escape of the ASG with their hostages from the hospital in Lamitan, Basilan, in 2001, cited earier.  In a news report filed by Arlyn de la Cruz, a journalist known to have had close ties with key leaders of the ASG during the early 2000s, de la Cruz states that the linkage with the military which resulted in the escape of the ASG band from the hospital was  facilitated by a top ranking local government official of Basilan.  De la Cruz’s account was based on a telephone interview she conducted with Abu Sabaya, one of the commanders of the ASG band involved.  As per Sabaya, it was the local government official who worked it out with the military commanders directing operations that troops be redeployed so that an escape route could be provided for the ASG.  When asked by de la Cruz why he did this, Sabaya is supposed to have replied, “Isn’t it obvious?  Money was the reason.  That official’s greedy.”[6]

De La Cruz also reported in the same article that at the hearings conducted in Lamitan by the Defense Committee of the House of Representatives, Fr. Cirilo Nacorda, Lamitan Parish priest, and local residents “testified that local government officials in the province were protecting the Abu Sayyaf.  Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar was one of those mentioned by some of the witnesses.”[7]

Very recently, the Sulu-based NGO Save Sulu Movement (SSM) issued a statement claiming that local government officials in the province of Sulu were protecting the Abu Sayyaf  in exchange for “a lion’s share of ransom money”.[8]  In its statement the SSM said that it had “repeatedly informed authorities that the reason the ASG (Abu Sayyaf) is still active and even growing is because it is enjoying the protection of local officials.”[9]  The SSM also said that the ASG was being supplied weapons by “local politicians who can easily smuggle firearms or purchase it from the military itself.”[10]

The statement further said that former AFP Chief of Staff Ricardo Visaya had stated that local government officials from governors, vice-governors to Barangay heads were protecting the ASG.  The SSM lamented why, if the authorities were aware of the protection being provided, “no village chief, mayor or governor…had been arrested or charged with ‘actually receiving ransom money in the guise of negotiations.’  ‘If the connivance is no secret to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, what have they done to stop it?’ the group said.”[11]

Last year, reports circulated in Sulu that a Barangay Chairperson was found with P6 million out of a P30 million ransom payment that had been made for the release of a kidnap victim.  The amount apparently had been deducted by the Barangay official before the payment reached the kidnap band.  As cited earlier, it is generally known that it is an accepted practice within the “industry” for persons through whom ransom payments pass to “take a little something” for their efforts at facilitating and delivering the payment.

This author’s own personal experience involved Basilan some ten years ago where the author assisted a Crisis Management Committee working for the release of two hostages.  Having received reports that the group which had kidnapped the victims had been to a particular barangay, police officials went to interview the barangay officials who claimed that the reports were untrue and that the kidnappers and hostages had not been to their area.  Later on, however, it was learned that contrary to the earlier denial, the kidnappers had been in that barangay and that some of the barangay officials were in fact related to the leaders of the kidnap band.

It is also common knowledge that barangays where the kidnap gangs are based or which they frequent and where they hide their hostages, often are provided a share of ransom payments collected, both as a gesture of thanks for the assistance provided as well as to ensure that sanctuary and protection will continue to be provided in the future.  More often than not, the leaders of the kidnap bands have blood ties with the leaders and the residents of these villages.

Religious Leaders

By definition, the majority of the population of the ARMM provinces are Muslims – 98 per cent in Sulu, 97 per cent in Tawi-Tawi, 94 per cent in Lanao del Sur, 82 per cent in Maguindanao and 80 per cent in Basilan.    As anyone who is even slightly familiar with the Muslim faith knows, Islam is a religion that touches on every aspect of a person’s life.  From the moment a faithful adherent wakes in the morning to the last moment before retiring in the evening, from the simple greetings of peace that precede all communications to his conduct of business transactions, Islam influences the actions of the faithful.

Hence, Muslim religious leaders carry great weight in the societies they live in, since they serve to counsel and guide the members of the ummah, the community of the faithful, on which actions accord with the will of Allah and which do not.  They are persons of great influence in their communities.

However, in the author’s view, it is puzzling why, in the face of the unrelenting violence and even the barbaric actions undertaken by the ASG – particularly in recent years – the religious leaders of the area have been silent.  One has yet to hear the religious leaders of Sulu or Basilan take a clear and unequivocal position regarding the activities of the Abu Sayyaf in their respective provinces.

True, the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP), an organization that has over 1,000 religious leaders as members, has spoken out.  For example, after Robert Hall, a Canadian kidnap victim, was executed by the ASG in June 2016, the NUCP issued a statement, branding the Abu Sayyaf’s act as “un-Islamic, inhuman, and condemnable.”[12]  But the NUCP, as an umbrella organization, serves to hide the positions of individual members or member organizations.  Organizational statements or positions are not necessarily unanimously supported by its members.

When Jurgen Kantner, a German, was killed by the Abu Sayyaf in February 2017, Muslim legislators likewise issued a statement condemning the act as “not [being] in accordance with Islamic religion or way of life.”[13]  The leadership of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and even of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) condemned this barbarous act.

But, to the author’s knowledge, the religious leaders of Sulu – those closest to the battlefront, as it were, where these and other killings took place, where the bulk of kidnap victims have been held captive over the last six years – have themselves not taken a public stand on the actions of the ASG.

The same observation can be made about the religious leaders of Basilan, the other area where the Abu Sayyaf is deeply entrenched.

Within the last three years, the author was asked to help another family explore options to secure the release of their sibling who had been kidnapped by the ASG.  Thinking that perhaps some of the religious leaders could convince the kidnappers to release their sibling, the family asked for an opportunity to speak to some religious leaders who would be willing to consider this.  Through friends who knew a number of religious leaders, the author conveyed the request of the victim’s family to some ulamas, but unfortunately they all declined to even speak to the family.

What is behind this reluctance to confront the issue of the Abu Sayyaf frontally?  One realizes that this is a sensitive issue that entails security risks for anyone who delves into it.  And the security risks come from both sides of the conflict.  While there is the possibility of retaliation on the part of the ASG against anyone speaking out against them, there is also the possibility of the government security agencies looking with suspicion on parties delving into issues involving the ASG.

In fact, one of the reasons given by one of the ulamas contacted was precisely this:  that they may be misconstrued by the military for involving themselves in matters concerning the ASG.  An unfortunate incident in the past was brought up as an example.  In 2007, the AFP distributed posters of ASG commanders who were being pursued.  One of those included was Yasser Igasan, also known as Tuan Ya, who at one point was considered as the possible successor of Khadaffy Janjalani as Amir of the ASG following Khadaffy’s death in 2006.  Unfortunately, the poster showed the picture of another person, Ustadz Yahya Abdulla, a member of the Sulu Ulama Council for Peace and Development, as being Yasser Igasan, who is also a religious scholar.  While this was an obvious mistake, it created serious problems for Ustadz Abdulla who had to go to the military authorities to clear the matter up lest someone, not knowing him personally but seeing his picture, mistook him for a wanted person and attempted to either capture or, worse, kill him for whatever reward may have been offered for Igasan.

But is there something deeper than concern for one’s security?  A close friend, a native of Sulu, highly educated and deeply religious, whom the author consulted on this issue opined that there may still be a residue of bias or even resentment among Suluanos against Christians due to historical reasons that have been discussed earlier in this series, despite decades of efforts on the part of Christians to reach out to Muslims, inter-faith dialogues, and despite the veneer of civility that educated Muslims may display toward Christians.  In the deepest recesses of the psyche of some Muslims, perhaps below the levels of conscious thought, at the levels of the subconscious that are the real influences of one’s thoughts and actions, the resentment may still exist, the enmity referred to earlier in this article.

Major efforts were exerted in the past to explore innovative ways by which tenets of Islam could help shape development efforts.  There was, for example, a program some 10 years ago, the Local Government Support Program in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (LGSPA) funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) which aimed at upgrading the quality of governance in the ARMM.  One of the components of the project attempted to harness Islamic teachings for social development and produced guidelines for khutbas, the sermon during the noontime worship on Fridays, covering such topics as leadership in Islam, addressing graft and corruption, eliminating a contaminated political system, addressing social concerns like health and the protection of the environment, preservation of Islamic culture, promotion of law and order, the effects of violence and war in the lives of people, and others.  These guidelines were produced by the Muftis of the five provinces in the ARMM assisted by their Shari’a advisers.[14]

Another interesting project undertaken around the same time, implemented through the assistance of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), was the Philippine Environmental Governance Project (EcoGov), which focused on Islamic principles on environmental preservation and protection.  A major output of the project was the production of a handbook entitled “Al Khalifa (The Steward):  What Every Muslim Needs to Know about His Role in Environmental Governance.”[15]  The handbook laid out the principles of Khalifa or “Man as God’s steward and trustee on earth), Tawheed or “the Concept of Oneness in Islam,” and Akhira or “the Concept of Accountability,” and discussed how these all applied in promoting environmental governance among Muslims.

The guidance of the religious leaders is needed much more today given the inroads that the Islamic State has made among militant groups in the region.  The IS claims that they are:

“…reviving Islam, returning it to its pure form, uniting the Muslim world under truly Islamic rule, and so restoring the dignity and greatness of its people.”[16]

It aims to “re-establish” a global caliphate but in doing so it espouses the intolerance of Jihadi-Salafism.  Comparing the IS with al-Qaeda, Bunzel says that

“In contrast with al-Qaeda, [the IS] is absolutely uncompromising on doctrinal matters, prioritizing the promotion of an unforgiving strain of Salafi thought.”[17]

The IS views even other Muslims who do not agree with its views as being unbelievers.  Moreover, while Abubakar Janjalani emphasized defensive Jihad or Jihad Deefa, defending Muslim homelands from the invasion of the kafir or unbelievers, the IS places equal emphasis on offensive Jihad or Jihad Talab, attacking the kafir in their homelands.  As Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the official spokesman of the IS (until his death in August 2016), urged IS supporters in September 2014:

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be.

“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”[18]

This call of al-Adnani echoed the threat of the ASG’s Abu Solaiman in 2005 following the police raid on the high security prison Camp Bagong Diwa which resulted in the death of a number of ASG commanders,

“To you people [referring to then President Gloria Arroyo and the Phlippine government], you don’t have to bring the war to Mindanao.  We will bring it right into your doorstep.”[19]

Can the Muftis and Ulamas in the concerned areas of Mindanao take the lead in guiding the Muslim faithful in addressing the issue of terrorism posed by the Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups in their respective areas?  In the face of a movement which uses religion to promote hatred and violence, can they remind the Muslim faithful in the Philippines that in fact their religion is a religion of tolerance and peace?  Can they provide the Muslim faithful the resolve to stand up to the many challenges facing them today?  This is a question that only Muslims from the area and their religious leaders can answer.


The issue of poverty is undoubtedly a major contributing factor to unrest in an area.  We saw in the first article in this series the shocking levels of poverty in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 2003:  89 per cent of the population in the province of Sulu living below the poverty line, 70 per cent in Tawi-Tawi, and 66 per cent in Basilan.  For the ARMM as a whole, poverty incidence was measured at 64 per cent.[20]

Looking at the statistics since 2003 – these are gathered every three years in what is called the Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) undertaken by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) – there appear to have been reductions in poverty levels in the country as a whole and even in the ARMM as a whole.  But in 2015 – the latest year that the FIES was undertaken – the ARMM was still the poorest region in the country, with an average poverty incidence for the region of 54 per cent.[21]


Poverty Incidence
                                                        2 0 0 3                                                     2 0 1 5
Provinces % Rank* % Rank**
Basilan 66% 75 37% 59
Lanao del Sur 39% 49 72% 81
Maguindanao 56% 72 57% 80
Sulu 89% 77 55% 77
Tawi-Tawi 70% 76 13% ???
*     Out of 77 provinces.

**   Out of 81 provinces.

Source:  Philippine Statistics Authority, Family Income and Expenditure Survey, 2003 data obtained from the Philippine Human Development Report 2005.

As an aside, one wonders how accurate this data is, particularly in troubled regions such as the ARMM.  Given the level of violence that exists in this area, one can ask whether a sufficiently representative sample of the population in each of these violence-wracked provinces is covered by the survey or whether it is limited to centers of population where normally higher levels of income would be earned.  In 2015, for example, Tawi-Tawi was recorded to have an astonishingly low level of poverty, measured by the PSA at 12.7 per cent, an 80 per cent reduction from its level in 2003!  Hence, it is very possible that the regional level of poverty is higher than what is reflected in the official statistics.

In 2015 the official statistics say that the percentage of people living below the poverty line in  Sulu was 55 per cent, significantly down from the 89 per cent recorded in 2003 but still an alarmingly high level.  Every other person was unable to meet his or her basic needs.  In Basilan the official statistics say poverty incidence was 37 per cent, practically half of the 66 per cent recorded in 2003.  Every third person was presumably unable to meet the basic requirements for food, shelter, clothing, education, and health.

Aside from the unbelievable drop in poverty in Tawi-Tawi in 2015, the other startling revelation in 2015 was Lanao del Sur, the base of the Maute Group, an ISIS-affiliated group allied with the ASG.  Poverty incidence practically doubled between 2003 and 2015, from 39 per cent to 72 per cent.[22]  Is it any wonder why the city of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur, has become the battlefield between Islamic State-linked militants and government forces?

It is no surprise, therefore, that this poorest region in the country is also the most troubled, beset by strife.  There are generations of people in Sulu and Basilan who have known nothing but war, fighting and fleeing, being at the mercy of militants and the pursuing government forces.

It is a vicious cycle, poverty breeding discontentment and militancy, leading to fighting that disrupts the normal patterns of life and the ability of people to scrape out a living, which keeps them in a state of poverty.

Needless to say, the economic condition of a people impacts their health.  One proxy indicator of health conditions would be life expectancy.  Whereas for the Philippines as a whole average life expectancy in 2009 was 72 years, for the ARMM provinces average life expectancy was:

Tawi-Tawi       — 54 years

Sulu                 — 57 years

Maguindanao  — 58 years

Lanao del Sur  — 60 years

Basilan            — 63 years[23]

Social conditions, in general, leave much to be desired.  Hence, the initiative taken by the administration of President Duterte to mobilize leading businessmen from Metro Manila to invest in Sulu infrastructure facilities and economic projects is a welcome move.  One would hope that similar initiatives could be taken for Basilan and Tawi-Tawi as well.

The list of committed projects for Sulu under this program covers the range of infrastructure (power, telecommunications, transportation), livelihood (coconuts, seaweeds, poultry) and social services (medical facilities, education, housing), an impressive and balanced list.  These are all welcome and badly needed, of course, but the overwhelming desire of the people that the author has met and talked with over the years has been for kabuhianan, the means to sustain one’s life, livelihood.

In promoting livelihood activities, the logical starting place would be the existing resources of the area and the traditional livelihood undertakings of the people in the area, but looking at how productivity could be increased, quality improved as well as backward and forward linkages.  Thus the inclusion of an integrated coconut processing plant as well as storage and drying facilities for seaweeds and training for seaweed farmers are good moves.  One would hope that investors could be found to help the coffee, fruit and fisheries industries, all traditional areas that Suluanos are engaged in.

The inclusion of a poultry project is interesting.  In fact, ground-breaking has already taken place on the site in Patikul.  There had been efforts in the past to set up commercial poultries in the province but these all somehow failed, people say due to disease, likely due to the lack of proper management and technical processes.  Hopefully this time, with the close supervision of the investor/proponent, Bounty Fresh, this project will succeed and will lead to replication elsewhere in the province.

With regard to coconuts, aside from the integrated processing plant, perhaps one could encourage farmers to do inter-cropping – coffee, cacao, bananas, pineapples, chili peppers, etc. – to produce supplementary income streams.

With regard to fisheries – which has not been included in the list of committed projects – perhaps the construction of a cold storage facility could be considered so that fishermen are not at the mercy of traders and market vendors because they have to sell off their catch immediately.  In fact, the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture has talked precisely about setting up one or more cold storage facilities in the region which could also serve as a regional food terminal.

The point is that one should begin by developing and upgrading what is already there, introducing improvements in processes along the production cycle, establishing facilities which are needed, enabling farmers and fishermen to generate greater margins from their produce.

For these production activities to flourish, some “support” interventions are needed:

  1. Reliable power supply. This would be essential for some of the facilities such as the oil mills, fruit processing plants, cold storage plants, etc.[24]  This is included as one of the project commitments for Sulu.
  2. Assistance in organization of production units, whether in the form of associations, cooperatives or whatever is appropriate. Getting farmers and fishermen to pool their resources and work together on higher-value-added production activities should improve their income levels.
  3. Assistance in management of production and related activities (e.g., accounting, management of financial resources, logistical arrangements such as central storage and transportation of produce, etc.).
  4. Assistance in establishing marketing tie-ups.

The latter is essential if people are to earn a fair return on their labor and investments and the ventures are to be sustained over the long term.  What is happening now is that while some cooperatives currently exist in these provinces, for the most part farmers and fishermen work on their own and dispose of their products either to traders or vendors in the local retail markets.  If tie-ups can be established with large buyers outside the province, farmers/fishermen can look forward to long-term sale contracts with prices negotiated which would provide them higher margins than they are currently earning.

Historically, the people of the region have engaged in trading activities with neighboring areas to include present-day Malaysia, Indonesia and even Singapore.  These trading activities run back for centuries.  Historically trade was done on a barter basis, exchanges of goods, and there was an attempt during the martial law period in the Philippines – starting in the early 1970s – to revive this.  It still goes on but on a very limited basis today and while it is still referred to as “barter trade,” it really is no different from standard goods-for-cash trade and only moves one way, no exports from the Philippines, just imports from Sabah in Malaysia to the Philippines.

While there currently are problems with the Abu Sayyaf abducting sailors on the high seas between the Philippines and Malaysia and a fair amount of smuggling of rice, sugar and petroleum products goes on, the matter of trade with the Philippines’ southern neighbors could be re-examined.

One innovation that could be considered would be to pursue livelihood projects within the framework of the Islamic faith.  This in fact is currently being undertaken in a support program that the author is involved in with an