Balik Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf
Authored by Dr. Zachary Abuza. | September 2005
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has re-emerged as one of the more important terrorist groups confronting the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP), the United States, and our allies in Southeast Asia. Founded in 1991 by Abdurrajak Janjalani, a veteran of the Afghan Mujiheddin and colleague of Osama bin Laden, the group quickly rose to prominence as a lethal terrorist organization committed to the establishment of an independent Islamic state. With funds from Saudi charities administered by bin Laden?s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, the ASG grew quickly. The group focused its terrorist, assassination, and kidnapping efforts on sectarian targets. Yet, following the plot led by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to blow up 11 U.S. jetliners and assassinate the Pope, Khalifa?s and the ASG?s roles were uncovered.
Khalifa was unable to return to the Philippines, and while his charities remained open, they were unable to support the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the ASG as they had in the past. The ASG was further weakened by a number of arrests and the death of their founder in December 1998. The group quickly degenerated into a number of violent, though hardly political, kidnappers. The group gained international notoriety in 2000 with high-profile raids on diving resorts in Palawan and Sipidan, Malaysia, which led to the deaths of several tourists, including Americans. The 2000 kidnapping of the Burnhams, along with the group?s previous connections with al Qaeda, were the the cassus belli for the U.S. military to re-engage in the Philippines following the September 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda.Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pledged close support for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, and with that came considerable military assistance and training, beginning in early 2002. U.S. forces provided training and intelligence support for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, while U.S. naval engineers engaged in popular civic action campaign in Basilan.
The ASG struck back in October 2002, detonating a bomb that killed a U.S. Special Forces Officer. Since then, it dramatically cutback on its kidnappings, while at the same time began to engage in a systematic campaign of terrorism. In February 2004, ASG operatives blew up a SuperFerry out of Manila, killing 194 people. On Valentine?s Day, 2005, they executed a triple bombing across three cities. ASG members have engaged in a number of other attacks while several others have been disrupted.
Why the shift back to terrorism? This author contends that it was the confluence of internal and external factors. Internally, there was a change in leadership within the organization. Abu Sabaya and Ghalib Andang, the leaders most responsible for the kidnappings, had been killed and captured, respectively. This allowed Khadaffy Janjalani, the younger brother of the group?s founder, to consolidate his leadership and bring the organization back to its roots. The ASG was also trying to benefit from the ongoing peace process between the GRP and the MILF. The ASG began to search for hardline members of the MILF, who were sure to reject an autonomy agreement with the government.
Other factors were also at work. In 2002, the leaders of al Qaeda?s regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), were reeling from a number of arrests of operatives that had occurred around the region. That year they decided to forge closer ties with the ASG and invited them to begin training with JI within the MILF?s camps in Mindanao. The ASG readily agreed. While the MILF publicly denies the relationship with both the ASG and JI, a number of arrests in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia of key JI suspects confirms that the training of JI recruits in Mindanao has continued. Moreover, in a number of terrorist incidents that have transpired in the past 2 years, it has been all but impossible to differentiate between the groups: JI members provide training to MILF and ASG members in MILF camps. Members of the MILF and ASG engage in joint terrorist operations.
Despite their denials to the contrary, considerable evidence suggests that the MILF continues to coddle JI and ASG members. However, as the MILF is currently engaged in a peace process with the GRP, the Philippine government continues to give them the benefit of the doubt and has resisted pressure from the United States to follow a harsher line against them.
The ASG remains of concern for a number of reasons. The first is their willingness to engage in indiscriminant violence against civilian targets and the increases in their technical capacity. On two occasions now, JI blueprints for larger truck bombs have been discovered. The second is their public call for greater sectarian violence. This is very much in line with JI?s strategy of fomenting sectarian violence in the Malukus and Sulawesi, Indonesia, where a fragile peace is holding. This also ties in with the ASG?s original strategy that they followed in 1991-95. Third, the ASG has taken advantage of the Balik Islam (Christian converts to Islam) networks. Converts have played a role in every major or attempted attack in the past year. The use of converts has extended JI?s reach beyond Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago into Luzon and and the Visayas, greatly broadening the battlefield. Finally, the ASG has been built upon the original charitable and nongovernment organization (NGO) networks established by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa that have remained stubbornly resilient to counterterror operations.
The author warns that, despite the regeneration of the ASG as a bonafide terrorist organization, the primary security threat that is confronting the GRP comes from the Communist Party of the Philippines and their armed wing, the New People?s Army. To that end, the GRP will focus on the ASG and MILF inasmuch as they expect it to garner U.S. materiel support and assistance. The author counsels U.S. Defense Department policymakers regarding the institutional frailties of the GRP and the institutional corruption within the Philippine armed forces. While the author suggests that training continue, he cautions about being drawn into a quagmire. Despite the MILF?s ties to the ASG and JI, he also suggests that the United States should continue to support the peace process and try to wean the MILF off their relationship with terrorist organizations.
The ASG remains a very loose coalition of groups. I question the degree of control that Khadaffy Janjalani has over the ASG groups in Jolo, Basilan, and Tawi Tawi. They have neither the discipline nor the command and control that the MILF has over their troops. It remains to be seen whether Khadaffy Janjalani can consolidate his power. It is also not clear how durable either organization would be with the capture or neutralization of Janjalani.
But the ASG has emerged as a serious security threat to Philippine and arguably regional security. They have forged closer relations with hard-line MILF elements, and have proven themselves to be a reliable partner for JI. There is a critical mass now of senior JI operatives, not just young recruits. Many now see Mindanao as a base of operations, rather than a rear training area.
Any surge in terrorist activities will have a devastating impact on the Philippine economy, already beset by an ongoing, serious fiscal crisis. The government, which is calling on its line ministries to accept a 40 percent budget cut this fiscal year, can ill afford either increased security costs or a loss of foreign investment. Already, there is little foreign direct investment (FDI) because the huge public sector debt, which has more than doubled to RP3.36 trillion (US$60.32 billion) since the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997, is not leaving the government money to invest in infrastructure. The national debt rose by 13.6 percent to RP3.8 trillion between 2003-04 (78.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), one of the highest ratios in the developing world). FDI is 19 percent of GDP, and must be increased to 28 percent, to deal with the country?s surging unemployment that has increased from 12.2 percent in first quarter of 2003 to 13.7 to the same period in 2004. Of the country?s 36.5 million-man labor force, more than five million are unemployed, and countless more are underemployed.
And yet little meaningful government counterterrorism movement or action is in the offing, as it is a very low priority of the public, and hence a poll-driven president. In March 2005 public opinion surveys by both the Social Weather Station and Pulse Asia, the president?s performance approval ratings plummeted. Approval of her performance fell to 36 percent, while disapproval was up to 48 percent.174 The Pulse Asia study found that her public support fell from 55 percent in June 2004 to 38 percent in March 2005.175 Public perception of the country?s direction is plummeting, mainly due to economic issues: 59 percent of Filipinos believe that the country will be worse off in 12 months? time. When asked to list their three most pressing issues, counterterrorism only garnered support from 6 percent of the respondents, while economic issues dominated their concerns: controlling prices (45 percent), poverty reduction (32 percent), national economic recovery (31 percent), low pay (30 percent), and the national deficit (10 percent).176 While peace rated highly (35 percent), disapproval of the government?s peace initiatives rose from 28 to 35 percent.177 These numbers do not bode well for either counterterror efforts or peace initiatives in the Philippines. For a president concerned with her political standing, most efforts will be focused on core economic issues, and not the threat of terrorism.
174 Social Weather Survey, ?Ratings of High Officials Tumble: Net Satisfaction with GMA Falls to ?12,? March 30, 2005, at http://www.sws.org.ph/.
175 Pulse Asia, ?Media Release on Quality of Life, Urgent Concerns and PGMA Performance,? March 30, 2005, p. 2.
176 Ibid., p. 4.
177 Ibid., p. 6.