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Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 3

By July 7, 2017 No Comments

The following is Part 3 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.

The Underground Economy

Reference was made earlier to the smuggling of rice, sugar and petroleum products currently going on between Sabah on the one hand, and Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi on the other hand.  While illegal, these activities meet a market need in the region and are part of what is referred to as the informal or underground or shadow economy.

One study undertaken showed that between 1988 and 2009 the number of persons employed in the informal sector declined as a percentage of total persons employed from 56 per cent to 48 per cent in the Philippines as a whole.  However, in the ARMM, in the predominantly Muslim provinces, 83 per cent of all persons employed were to be found in the informal sector, and incomes derived from informal activities contributed more than 50 per cent of total family incomes.[1]  In the ARMM the shadow economy is the REAL economy.

All sorts of activities take place in the underground economy.  Aside from the smuggling of rice, sugar, petroleum and other products, there are unregistered land transfer transactions, informal extension of credit, unauthorized reproduction and sale of CDs and DVDs, forgery and sale of official documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, school diplomas, police clearances and many others.

Many of these activities can be considered to be “low-risk” in the sense that they require relatively little capital to undertake, their impact could be seen to be limited and the penalties are relatively minimal and can be “negotiated.”[2]

However, there is another set of shadow economic activities that are prevalent particularly in the Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi area which are alarming and which are primary contributors to the violence in the region.  These include kidnapping, gun running and the trade in illegal drugs.

These activities are considered “high risk” because the resources required to undertake them are significantly larger than other ventures, the logistical requirements complex and need to be done in a covert and surreptitious manner, and the consequences, if the activities are discovered, could be disastrous to the perpetrators.

On the other hand, the rewards for successful ventures could be enormous and as a consequence entice many to take the risk.  It is said, for example, that the ransom paid for the German couple kidnapped in Palawan in 2014, Victor Okonek and Henrike Dielen, was in excess of US$5 million, which the ASG captors proudly displayed in a video after the pay-off was done.  This prompted the abductors of the two Canadians, one Norwegian and one Filipino in 2015 to demand, as an opening gambit, US$20 million for each of the foreigners.[3]

It is said that the high reward nature of these ventures result in these activities being undertaken either with the active participation, or at the very least protection, of persons in authority in the areas where these are rampant.  Given the fact that these are major crimes under any penal code, it is impossible that these sorts of activities could go on for an extended period of time – the ASG has been in the KFR business for over 20 years – without protection.  As Francisco Lara Jr., Philippine Country Director of International Alert, put it, “local strongmen have used the underground economy to increase their economic power and cement their legitimacy.”[4]

Kidnapping for ransom has been discussed extensively in this series.  Two areas that need to be looked into in greater depth because they contribute to the ability of the ASG to continue to defy campaigns of the government to put an end to their depredations aside from undermining efforts to establish the rule of law in conflict-affected areas are the illicit trade in guns and drugs.   These two industries are mutually reinforcing.  Revenues generated enable perpetrators to arm themselves in an impressive manner, which in turn enables them to resist efforts by the authorities to check their activities.  Furthermore, revenues generated enable perpetrators to corrupt those persons in authority who are supposed to control and stamp out these activities, enabling them to ply their trades unimpeded.

While continuing unabated, the perpetrators of KFR activities are well known, their modes of operation are understood, even their bases of operation have been generally pinpointed.  The same cannot however be said of the illegal trade in guns and drugs.

Efforts should be intensified to study these latter two areas of activity – determine who are the parties involved and who among persons in authority, if any, are providing protection for the perpetrators; map out the sourcing and supply channels; determine the modus operandi followed in undertaking these activities – and pursue perpetrators relentlessly.

  1. Illicit Trade in Guns

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) estimated that in 2010 there were 114,189 illegal firearms (unregistered/unlicensed) in the ARMM.[5]  Next to the National Capital Region, which had three times the population of the ARMM, this was the largest number of illegal firearms among the Philippines’ eighteen administrative regions. For the entire country it was estimated that there were close to 2 million illegal firearms.  Another estimate, though, put the figure of illegal firearms at 4.2 million in 2002.[6]

The proliferation of illegal firearms has been attributed to a number of factors:

  1. Laxity of the regulatory system which emboldens violators of laws and regulations covering gun ownership to defy the law without fear of serious consequences;
  2. Unmonitored overproduction by local manufacturers of firearms resulting in leakages of the excess units into the illicit market;
  3. Under-declaration of gun imports resulting in further leakages of the undeclared firearms into the illicit market;
  4. Corruption on the part of members of the security agencies who sell their firearms and ammunition to dissident groups;
  5. Capture of firearms and ammunition by dissident groups in the battlefield;
  6. Smuggling of firearms and ammunition through surreptitious channels.

With regard to the sale of firearms and ammunition to dissident groups by members of the security agencies, Khadaffy Janjalani himself stated in an interview undertaken a few months before his death in 2006 that the ASG had “no problem buying guns due to the plentiful supply from either gun smugglers, Recom [Philippine National Police Regional Command], or Southcom [Armed Forces of the Philippines Southern Command] soldiers who badly need cash.”[7]

Smuggling routes have been described in some studies.  These are all through the “southern backdoor” of the Philippines, connecting Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.  One such study speaks of the “T3” – the Terrorist Transit Triangle – centering on the Sulawesi Sea also known as the Celebes Sea.  At least four routes have been identified which are used to smuggle firearms and ammunition to and from the Philippines – another study refers to Mindanao as being a source of firearms for the Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia – as well as the movement of terrorist themselves.  These routes run along the following points:

  1. Sandakan or other ports in Sabah through Palawan to northern Mindanao or the Central Philippines;
  2. Zamboanga City through Basilan, Jolo, Tapul island in Sulu, the main island of Tawi-Tawi, Sibutu (southernmost point of Tawi-Tawi) then either to (a) Timbunmata island then Tawau in Sabah, or (b) Ligitan island then Lahad Datu in Sabah, or (c) Nunukan island in Indonesia then back to Sandakan;
  3. General Santos City on the southern end of Mindanao, crossing several islands leading to Tahuna off the northeast tip of Sulawesi island, then to either Manado or Bitung in Indonesia;
  4. General Santos City going through Karkarekelong island in Indonesia on to Ternate ending in central Sulawesi Island.[8]

As noted, these routes run both ways, to and from various points in the Philippines.

Lino Miani notes that these routes are traditional routes:

“The Sulu Arms Market…is not a market in the physical sense, rather it is an economy of guns where firearms and ammunition are the currency of a thriving international trade in violence.  Its 500-year history of competition and conflict is older than most, yet the Sulu Arms Market is quite common in that it is both a source and a destination for smuggled guns…[It] is intertwined with piracy, terrorism, and the traffic of other illicit commodities.  At various points since the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in 1521, European colonialists, Moro (Philippine Muslim) independence groups, Communists, Islamic militants, and criminal gangs all played a major part in the market’s development making it a truly globalized enterprise.”[9]

2. Illicit Trade in Drugs

Since the start of the Duterte administration – actually even before Mr. Duterte assumed the Presidency but immediately after his electoral victory– his declared “war on drugs” has taken center stage among all programs of the government.  It is a war that has been marked principally by killings – 8,000 plus in the ten-month period since Mr. Duterte became president – in fulfillment of Duterte’s promise in his State of the Nation address in July of 2016 that “there will be no let-up in this campaign….We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher have surrendered or put behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish.”[10]

What has not been discussed so much has been the matter of why the issue of illegal drugs is a matter of concern.  To begin with, the Philippines has the reputation of having the highest rate of methamphetamine abuse in East Asia.[11]  The Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB), the government body that sets regulatory policies for this sector, has placed the number of drug users nationwide at 1.8 million based on a 2015 survey undertaken.[12]  President Duterte himself has placed the number of drug users much higher, at a level of 3 to 4 million, and fired the head of the DDB for having contradicted the figures he had presented.[13]

In addition, the Philippines has developed the dubious reputation of being one of the main manufacturers within the region of amphetamine-type substances (ATS), mainly methamphetamine hydrochloride (or shabu, as it is called locally), along with Myanmar and China.[14]

Of greater concern, though, is the matter of the insidious control that the illegal drug industry has taken over government units, what is often referred to as “narco-politics.” This, it seems, has taken root in the ARMM.

A perceptive study undertaken in 2013 has described how this has taken place in two provinces of the ARMM, the provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur.[15]  The study points out that the destitute social conditions in these provinces, the perennial state of conflict and weak governance provide the enabling conditions for an illegal drugs industry to thrive.

The high level of poverty and the turmoil caused by incidents of violence make the supplemental income provided by various tasks related to the industry – whether these be transportation, storage, repacking, distribution or retail selling – welcome.  Thus ready hands to support the industry as well as a market seeking even just temporary respite from the difficulties of life are available.

The bountiful returns from controlling the trade in illegal drugs in an area push traffickers to look for ways to ensure the longevity of their enterprise.  One, of course, is to build up the means to protect one’s turf from competitors as well as government entities mandated to shut down the industry.  These include acquiring firearms and ammunition and setting up a private security force to resist attempts to terminate operations.

Another more subtle approach – which one may take as a complement to the first – is to capture the agencies of the State which have the mandate and authority to put an end to the industry.  This is done by (a) taking over a position of authority in the area, and (b) infiltrating the agencies with police powers over the industry.

The lucrative returns generated by the industry provide the financial resources to win an election – running a campaign, buying votes and bribing electoral officials.  Once in office, one is in a position to influence policies, divert attention away from the industry, buy the support of key individuals and impede punitive operations against the industry, thus ensuring the continued uninterrupted operation of the industry.  Moreover, and particularly if one is in the position of being the Chief Executive of a government unit – Governor or Mayor or even Barangay Chairman –there is the much-coveted Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA), referred to earlier in this article, which is in many cases handled as a personal fund

Once power is consolidated, one has the means to build alliances that will further strengthen one’s position and dissuade competitors from attempting to wrest power.  Moreover, the ability to control the situation allows one to expand to other lucrative areas of operation such as the illegal trade in guns as well as commodities essential to the area – petroleum products, food supplies and whatever is required – without going through normal trading channels which would impose State-mandated charges on importations.

As fortunes grow, so does one’s power, creating a position of near-invincibility, forcing others to consider very carefully any plans to wrest power away from you.

As the afore-cited study put it,

“…gaining control over public office is only the first step in the process.  Gaining access to the trappings of public office is critical precisely because it determines entry into other illegal businesses which are part of the shadow economy of Mindanao….Drug money can be converted into political power, but control over public office represents the real prize, because it ensures the diversification and protection of illicit sources of wealth.”[16]

It is not only the executive units and the police forces that are controlled but even the Courts:

“…the justice system is bound up in drug-related protection rackets.  Public prosecutors delay the prosecution of cases filed by drug enforcers, whereas circuit court judges are bribed to dismiss the drug cases filed in their court.”[17]

In 2006, a cable was supposed to have been issued by the U.S. Embassy in Manila to various departments of the U.S. government – Department of State, Department of Justice, CIA, FBI, National Security Council, U.S. Pacific Command and others – providing information on the trade in illegal drugs and their impact on peace and development efforts in Muslim Mindanao.   Among other things, the cable states “…nearly all of the mayors, including the Vice-Governor of Sulu Province, are suspected to be involved in the narcotics trade.”[18]

It is said that the Abu Sayyaf have either engaged in the trade in illegal drugs as a source of revenue for their activities or have provided protection for traders.  It is also said that the ASG has used drugs to entice young men to join their ranks and that ASG fighters use drugs before battle to make themselves fiercer, but these are anecdotal and need to be validated.[19]

Whether or not the ASG themselves engage in the drug trade or use drugs themselves, the insidious nature of the illegal drug trade undermines the fabric of governance and society and should be addressed in any effort to bring about sustainable peace in the ARMM.  As Cagoco-Guiam and Schoofs clearly summarized it,

“The combination of fragile state institutions, colluding public officials and protection rackets explains the legal vacuum and sense of impunity that sustain the drug economy in the ARMM.  Narco-politicians reinforce the vicious circle between state fragility and criminal agendas, to the point that it amounts to the ‘criminalization of the state’….The illicit drug market provides these politicians with the resources to usurp power.  Once elected into public office, they have every incentive to ensure that the drug economy, which sustains their political aspirations, remains unchallenged by the state.  Through the control they exert over local government, security forces, and their constituents, narco-politicians are able to subvert the rule of law in order to advance their political and economic interests.”[20]

3. KFR 

Just a short word on Kidnapping-for-Ransom, since so much as been written about this.  As with the illicit trade in guns and drugs, it is said that political warlords are also involved in KFR activities.  In exchange for protection, the warlords receive a share in ransom payments and can also use the kidnap gangs as their “muscles” to intimidate/eliminate opponents and others who may cross their paths.

Another way by which KFR has been utilized, which is to deliver a message, has been described by Eric Gutierrez in his portrayal of the late Governor Ali Dimaporo’s reaction to his removal from power following the EDSA Revolution of 1986 and the overthrow of President Marcos and the assumption to the Presidency of Cory Aquino.  In a section entitled “Political Warlords Invent a New Weapon”, Gutierrez describes the kidnapping of Fr. Michel de Gigord, Catholic chaplain at the Mindanao State University campus in Marawi City, as well as that of 10 Carmelite nuns staying in a convent overlooking Lake Lanao.  Gutierrez analyzes the incidents as follows:

“The June-July kidnappings of 1986 stood out for its symbolic significance.  It occurred simultaneously with the political standoff sparked by the Aquino government’s replacement of Marcos ally Mohammad Ali Dimaporo as governor of Lanao del Sur and president of the Mindanao State University (MSU)….

“The chaplain of the MSU was snatched at the height of the standoff….The kidnapping captured maximum publicity, and the timing, place, and choice of victim were calculated for maximum political effect.  De Gigord was a vocal critic of Dimaporo and an advocate of reform in the university.  He was also a citizen of France, among the first countries that recognized the Aquino government….Worse, De Gigord was kidnapped on the day President Aquino appointed Dimaporo’s replacement as president of the MSU….

“The kidnapping of the 10 nuns was even more symbolic.  Corazon Aquino was deeply religious and widely known to be a Carmelite devotee….Those who kidnapped the nuns were not only after a financial ransom, but clearly aimed to settle a score by targeting Aquino’s most visible ally in Marawi City….

“The kidnapping incidents were clearly intended to embarrass the President….Kidnapping the symbols of the new regime was a way to strike back….Dimaporo denied any involvement in the kidnapping incidents.  He even went out of his way to play a principal role in the negotiations that led to the release of the victims.  Through his actions Dimaporo made it clear that his personal involvement was critical in guaranteeing the safety of the victims….The release of the victims were made in Dimaporo’s residence in Binidayan to deny his rivals Saidamen Pangarungan and Princess Tarhata Lucman any political mileage out of the crisis.”[21]

Radicalization of Outlook

For the most part, the first and second generation leadership of the ASG have all been killed – Abdurajak Janjalani, Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Sabaya, Abu Solaiman, Commander Robot, Commander Global, Mujib Susukan, Hamsiraji Sali, Dr. Abu, to name the most prominent ones.  Only Radulan Sahiron and Isnilon Hapilon remain. The elimination of the top leaders of the ASG was expected to weaken the ASG, leading to its eventual disintegration.

Orders were issued to “wipe out,” “destroy,” and “annihilate” the Abu Sayyaf.[22]  Some security analysts predicted the demise of the Abu Sayyaf.[23]

But as has been seen, the ASG continues to be as virulent as in the past.  Since January 2015 to the present, based on the author’s own monitoring and personal assessment, the ASG beheaded eight kidnap victims, killed one other victim (a child) by choking and throwing her body to the sea and received an estimated PhP385 million (approximately US$7.7 million) in ransom payments (most likely an underestimate).  This does not consider the number of soldiers and police personnel who have been killed in the course of security operations against the ASG in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and mainland Mindanao.

Moreover, the ASG Basilan faction under Isnilon Hapilon, the designated Emir of Islamic State-allied groups in the Philippines, along with the Lanao del Sur-based Maute Group, has been responsible for the take-over of the Islamic City of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur, which led President Duterte to declare martial law over the entire island of Mindanao on May 23, 2017.

What accounts for this ability of the ASG to defy the onslaught of forces ranged against it, not just the security forces of the Philippines but even those of other countries who have joined to assist the Philippines in attempting to overcome this problem?

This series has attempted to show the complexity that underlies the Abu Sayyaf phenomenon in the Philippines.  One needs to appreciate the historical context, sociological and cultural elements, domestic and international influences, ideological underpinnings, variations in outlook and motivations among the various bands and persons who are considered to be part of the ASG network to understand what the ASG is about and how to address the challenges that this group poses.

One can “neutralize” all the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups in the southern Philippines, but as long as the conditions that have given rise to the feelings of injustice and oppression among Filipino Muslims, as long as the vestiges of resentment and hatred between Muslims and Christians lie deep within the psyche of individuals, so long as institutions of governance are weak or virtually non-existent and are exploited by a few warlord families, so long as the State is unable to provide security and justice to citizens and so long as groups like the Islamic State are able to entice undiscerning Muslims to support their struggle, groups like the Abu Sayyaf will rise.

As noted in the second and fifth articles in this series, in the Philippine context there are at least two factors that are contributing to the continuing militancy in the south.  On the one hand, it has been pointed out by some observers that the Salafi-Wahhabi brand of Islam has spread within the Muslim community and that it is Salafi-Wahhabi doctrines that are being taught in many of the madaris (religious schools).  The other development is the very effective use by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) of social media to spread its messages around the globe.

On the first point, the observation has been made that Salafi-Wahhabi doctrines had been introduced to Philippine Muslim communities as far back as fifty years ago, when efforts were stepped up to send Filipino Muslim scholars to the Middle East to take up Islamic studies in institutions of religious learning there.  This was intensified in the 1970s when the fortunes of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia skyrocketed with the phenomenal increase in oil prices following the oil embargo at that time.  From a gross national income of US$9 billion in 1972 (before the oil embargo of 1973), Saudi Arabia’s gross national income shot up 1.700% to US$165 billion in 1980 and continued to grow since then.This enabled the Kingdom to build mosques and madrasahs around the world, send Saudi religious scholars throughout the world to preach the version of Islam which the Kingdom had adopted, intensify the sponsorship of scholars from various countries to study in Saudi institutions of learning and undertake other activities which spread the Wahhabi doctrines of Islam.  It will be recalled that the ancestor of the ruling family of the Kingdom, Muhammad ibn Saud, entered into a partnership with the preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the mid-eighteenth century, whereby Abd al-Wahhab provided the religious foundation, the ideology, as it were, upon which the political rule of the Saud family would be based.

While this writer has no pretensions of being a scholar on Islam, the danger posed by Wahhabi-Salafi doctrines is that they result in an attitude of intolerance not just towards non-Muslims but even towards other Muslims who may hold other views.  This intolerance could eventually – but not necessarily – lead to the use of violence to impose one’s belief on others.  Some observers have pointed to Wahhabism as being the ideological foundation of Islamist terrorism.[25]

So the base of a radical Islamic outlook would appear to have long been in place in the Philippines already.  It is upon this base that the Islamic State appears to be spreading its influence, working through the adherents who have pledged allegiance to it.

In its mission to gain more support for its cause, the Islamic State has deftly and effectively utilized advances in communication technology to deliver certain key messages.  These messages have been summarized by Samuel as follows:

  1. The establishment of a Caliphate as prophesied by the Prophet Mohammed. Islam is supposed to have developed over time as follows:
    • The era of the Prophet, which represented the purest form of the practice of Islam;
    • The period of the Caliphs who followed the Prophet;
    • The period from the Umayyad Dynasty to the Ottoman Empire;
    • The period of the various post-colonial Muslim states of the 20th century;
    • The resurrection of the Caliphate, harking back to the period of the Prophet.
  2. The battle to end all battles will take place in Sham (present-day Syria) and will be undertaken by the Army of Mahdi carrying black banners to liberate Jerusalem and resurrect the Caliphate.
  3. All Muslims should join this final battle, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to establish and spread the domain of the final Caliphate.
  4. All Muslims should join this final battle to help their brothers who are being oppressed by the Shia-dominated regimes in Syria and Iraq.
  5. Joining this final battle will atone for past misdeeds and un-Islamic actions.[26]

To these messages we may add the more recent message addressed to Muslims in this region (referred to in the fifth article in this series) to go to the Philippines and join the struggle there instead of going to Syria or Iraq.

Whether these messages resonate with Filipino Muslims remains to be seen but, as noted, a number of groups have openly pledged their support to IS and its self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Samuel points to an interesting study undertaken by U.S. Army Colonel John Venhaus that looked at why young people joined al-Qaeda, based upon interviews and personal histories of over 2,000 foreign fighters.  Venhaus identified four categories of motivations:

  1. “Revenge seekers,” who proclaimed wanting to exact retribution for some perceived wrong or injustice suffered in the past. (There is a group in Sulu associated with the ASG referred to as “Anak Ilu” or orphans – of MNLF fighters or other Abu Sayyaf – wanting to get revenge for the death of their parents.);
  2. “Status seekers,” looking for some form of recognition;
  3. “Identity seekers,” needing to join a group that would give them a sense of identity;
  4. “Thrill seekers,” looking for adventure.[27]

This latter category is characteristic of Tausug males.  As the anthropologist Thomas Kiefer observed,

“Risk taking in Tausug culture is encouraged, and the prudent lose the opportunity to demonstrate to their fellows valued virtues of character:  bravado, honor, masculinity, and even magnanimity.  Outlaws, criminals, well-known thieves and the ever-present seekers after revenge are admired as persons of strong character who have demonstrated their willingness to seek dangerous situations, or to accept them voluntarily when luck has made them inevitable.  Long epic songs glorify heroes who have excelled in these virtues.”[28]

Often, discussions on radicalization focus on radicalization of the youth.  Certainly that is an important focus given the fact that it is young people who are recruited into the ranks of extremist groups.  It is the younger generation that ISIS has been targeting with its army of social media practitioners.  Maria Ressa, for example, pointed out that in a study done in early 2015, a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts were being used by IS.  Moreover, around 200,000 pieces of social media were being created every day.[29]

Furthermore, as anyone who has seen any of the videos produced and disseminated by IS will attest, these are not crude slapdash affairs but well-crafted and skillfully produced works.  Ressa has embedded in her article a video of a Canadian jihadi who described his background in Canada – being like any ordinary young Canadian male, playing hockey, going to the cottage in the summertime, fishing, hunting, while all the time snippets of these outdoor events are shown in the video as he speaks.  He describes himself as a good person, someone who had a regular job, friends, family, and not an anarchist as others might think.  He briefly describes why he joined IS.  Then the video shows him in battle, apparently with the use of a drone following his movements as he runs across a field with his gun, until an explosion turns him into a martyr for the faith.

Balker describes the social media appeal of ISIS in this way:

“The ISIS propaganda wing, al-Hayat, continues to produce slick videos that mimic Hollywood action films and music videos and are obviously targeted to young Westerners.  The videos often include music with lyrics translated to English and a number of European languages.  More recent videos feature English-speaking jihadists.  Notes Sam Heuston, a professor of English and film studies at The Citadel who has written about extremist video propaganda, ‘It’s actually surprising how contemporary and hip-looking some of these things are, especially considering the fact that the messages that they are promoting are essentially medieval.’”[30]

But given the observation that salafi views have been influencing Filipino Muslims for several decades now – more than half a century, it would appear – it would be essential to determine to what extent whole communities have been influenced.  To what extent is intolerance in matters of faith being handed down from generation to generation?  Because if the younger generations are being brought up wit