Not long ago, the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group was dismissed as all but dead, thanks to a much-heralded joint effort against terrorism by the U.S. and the Philippine military. Now there is fear that the Abu Sayyaf may be coming back.
The group is blamed for a spate of kidnappings in recent months, including that of a Sri Lankan peace worker on southern Basilan Island earlier this month. In 2008, Abu Sayyaf raised more than $1.5 million through ransoms, and its ranks rose to 400 members from 383 in 2007, a confidential government report noted. Also, new leaders are rising to take the place of those captured by U.S.-backed troops.
The rebirth of Abu Sayyaf raises renewed fears of terrorism. So far, Abu Sayyaf has focused on raising money through kidnappings, but it is likely to pursue high-profile assaults to reassert its stature as a terror group, the report noted. Abu Sayyaf has also allowed foreign militants, mostly members of the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, to make the region their home.
“As long as they are there, they can provide safe haven for Jemaah Islamiyah where they can train the next generation of bombers and terrorists. That’s why they’re a threat,” said Col. William Coultrup, who heads the U.S. counterterrorism forces on the island of Mindanao.
Abu Sayyaf, which means “father of the swordsman” in Arabic, was founded in 1991 in Basilan province and supported by Asian and Middle Eastern radical groups. It came to the attention of the U.S. in 2001, when three Americans were among 20 people taken from a tony Philippine resort.
Abu Sayyaf was also thought to be sheltering Indonesian members of Jemaah Islamiyah, including Umar Patek and Dulmatin. The two are suspected of masterminding the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in 2002 and then fleeing to Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Mindanao to evade a crackdown on terror in Indonesia.
The Philippine military did not have the funds for a full-out assault against Abu Sayyaf, so American troops came in with weapons, combat training and surveillance. They helped rein in a brief but brutal era of mass kidnappings, bombings and beheadings by the militants. Washington has poured millions of dollars into the Philippines in military assistance and civic projects.
Amid its problems in Iraq, Washington hailed the success against Abu Sayyaf, and life and commerce bounced back on Basilan. But in 2004, Abu Sayyaf and Indonesian militants were blamed for a bombing that ignited an inferno in a ferry near Manila Bay, killing 116 people. Abu Sayyaf also espoused a more violent “jihad,” or holy war, in Mindanao, where more than 120,000 people have died in decades-long Muslim separatist unrest.
Last year, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped at least 12 people in Jolo Island, Basilan and three other southern provinces, including a TV news team, according to the government report. Several captives have been ransomed off since, but 10, including three Red Cross workers taken on Jan. 15, remain in Abu Sayyaf’s hands. Snatched from a car at gunpoint on Sulu province’s Jolo Island after inspecting a jail water project, the missing Red Cross workers - two Europeans and a Filipina - are being held in the lush jungle.
On Feb. 13, Sri Lankan peace activist Umar Jaleel was snatched from his Basilan residence.
Abu Sayyaf’s comeback is led by a new generation of leaders, said Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, who heads a Jolo anti-terrorism task force.
“All the Abu Sayyaf’s ideologues are dead; the ones left behind are bandits,” Gen. Sabban said. “The support they’re counting on from other countries has vanished. Now, everybody’s on his own, trying to raise money through kidnappings. They say they’re fighting for a cause? No way.”
Out of the 24 original leaders and militants whose faces were on a wanted poster widely distributed across the sprawling archipelago, only nine remain at large. The rest are dead or in jail, their faces marked off one by one. Abu Sayyaf’s oldest, ailing commander, one-armed Radulan Sahiron, is missing, and vanished after a Dec. 7 clash that killed his cherished white horse, said Gen. Sabban.
Among the new leaders is the colorful Albader Parad, who was just a scrawny foot soldier with an M203 grenade launcher dangling from his small frame nine years ago. Parad was involved in a 2000 mass kidnapping from the Sipadan resort in nearby Malaysia that netted 10 Europeans and 11 other people. When the kidnappers allowed a group of journalists to visit the hostages, Parad swiped the watch of an Associated Press reporter.
A military dossier seen by the AP described Parad as coming from a poor family in which most relatives belonged to the Abu Sayyaf or had links to it. He has amassed 20 million pesos (more than $400,000) from a string of early 2000 abductions, some of which was invested by relatives in passenger transport and coconut farmlands, according to the military dossier.
“We want the military to pull out. If not, we won’t talk to anyone,” Parad said in a video aired in early February by the ABS-CBN news network, boldly showing his face to the camera while a bunch of masked gunmen stood behind him in the woods near Jolo’s Indanan township.
Behind the scenes, there are widespread reports that Parad is privately seeking money to free the hostages.
Parad was one of the earliest new Abu Sayyaf commanders to emerge, but he has plenty of violent company at the top. There are at least three others, according to the government security threats report and a military official.
The report said two new commanders now lead their own factions - Nurhassan Jamiri from Basilan and Sulaiman Pattah from Jolo, both predominantly Muslim provinces in the country’s most destitute region.
Jamiri, who is in his 20s, has been linked to kidnappings and the beheading of 10 marines during a 2007 clash. Pattah, a one-armed militant, gained notoriety for reportedly helping lead last year’s kidnapping of popular TV news anchor Ces Drilon and her two crewmen in Jolo.
Another new commander is Furuji Indama, marine Lt. Col. Leonard Vincent Teodoro told the AP. He helps lead the same faction as Jamiri and has been blamed for kidnappings and other terrorist attacks in Basilan, said Gen. Teodoro, who has overseen assaults against the two.
Even the government concedes that the battle against one of Southeast Asia’s most violent groups is far from over.
“I think they’ve morphed into something else, just like … criminal gangs,” Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro told the AP.