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Abu Sayyaf Group (Philippines, Islamist separatists)

Updated: May 27, 2009
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Abu Sayyaf, whose name means "bearer of the sword" in Arabic, is a militant organization based in the southern Philippines. It seeks a separate Islamic state for the country's Muslim minority. The U.S. State Department designates Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization that boasts of ties to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, as well as the Indonesian network of Jemaah Islamiyah.

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How did Abu Sayyaf form?

In the early 1990s, Abu Sayyaf split from the Moro National Liberation Front, one of the two major Muslim separatist movements in the southern Philippines, which were then trying to come to terms with the central government in Manila. The group's first major attack came in 1991, when an Abu Sayyaf grenade killed two American evangelists.

Who organized Abu Sayyaf?

Its first leader was Abdurajak Janjalani, a Philippine Muslim who fought in the international Islamist brigade in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi businessman living in the Philippines, provided crucial financing and organizational support for Abu Sayyaf in its early years. From 1998 to 2006 the group was led by Khadaffy Janjalani, who took over the leadership position when his older brother Abdurajak was killed.

What is the status of the Abu Sayyaf leadership?

Abu Sayyaf suffered major losses of leadership in 2006 and 2007. In September 2006 Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in a clash with troops on Jolo Island. In January 2007, U.S.-backed Philippine troops killed Abu Sulaiman, a senior Abu Sayyaf commander and Janjalani’s likely successor. Romeo Ricardo, chief of the Philippine National Police Intelligence Group, said that the two leaders were the main contacts (AP) to Middle Eastern donors who provided funding to the group and to Islamic militants in Indonesia. Radullan Sahiron, a one-armed septuagenarian and senior leader in the group, was promoted to the top leadership position in January 2007. However, it was unclear how active a role he would play in Abu Sayyaf’s operations. In a June 2008 article, Zachary Abuza, a leading scholar on terrorism in Southeast Asia, writes that Abu Sayyaf now lacks "any semblance of central leadership" (PDF).

What kinds of terrorist acts does Abu Sayyaf commit?

Historically, Abu Sayyaf has engaged in bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortion. The Philippine government currently in the middle of a military offensive against Abu Sayyaf rebels in the south in efforts to quell the group's attacks against civilians.

Previous Abu Sayyaf attacks include:

  • A May 2001 incident when Abu Sayyaf kidnapped twenty people, including three Americans, at a Philippine resort and demanded ransom payments. Abu Sayyaf beheaded one of the American captives and held the other two Americans-a Christian missionary couple-hostage on Basilan Island in the southern Philippines. In June 2002, U.S.-trained Philippine commandos tried to rescue the couple and a Filipino nurse being held with them. Two of the hostages were killed in the shoot-out, and one, the American missionary Gracia Burnham, was freed;
  • In August 2002, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped six Filipino Jehovah's Witnesses and beheaded two of them.
  • In October 2002, Abu Sayyaf was blamed for a bomb explosion near a Philippine military base, killing one U.S. serviceman.
  • In February 2005, Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for bombings in Manila and two other cities, killing eight and wounding 150.
  • In November 2007, the group is suspected to have detonated a bomb that killed a Philippine congressman and three of his staffers.
  • A plot to assassinate President Gloria Arroyo was discovered and foiled by Philippine security officials in February 2008.
  • In January 2009, three Red Cross officials were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf. Two of the three have since been released.

According to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report (PDF), Abu Sayyaf reoriented its strategy during the leadership of Khadaffy Janjalani. Janjalani deemphasized kidnapping for ransom and instead emphasized developing capabilities for urban bombings. Since March 2004, the Philippine government reportedly has uncovered several Abu Sayyaf plots to carry out bombings in Manila, and the report adds that Jemaah Islamiyah had trained about sixty Abu Sayyaf members in bomb assembling and detonation by mid-2005.  But according to Abuza, Abu Sayyaf is low on funds, and has recently reverted back to kidnapping for ransom.

Does Abu Sayyaf target Americans?

Yes, although most of its victims are Filipinos. In addition to the kidnapping in 2001 in which an American was beheaded, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped an American Bible translator on a southern Philippine island in 1993. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf captured an American Muslim visiting Jolo Island and demanded that the United States release Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, who were jailed for their involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “We have been trying hard to get an American because they may think we are afraid of them,” a spokesman for Abu Sayyaf said. “We want to fight the American people.” Abu Sayyaf has also captured local businesspeople and Philippine schoolchildren, but Western hostages make for larger ransom payments.

Where does Abu Sayyaf operate?

Abu Sayyaf mostly operates in the southern Philippines, specifically in the Sulu Archipelago and the easternmost island of Mindanao. But the group has acted in other parts of the Philippines, and in 2000, its members crossed the Sulu Sea to Malaysia for a kidnapping. Since 2001, Philippine military operations, supported by the United States, have weakened Abu Sayyaf on Basilan Island and in the Sulu islands southwest of Baslian.

How big is Abu Sayyaf?

Estimates vary. Counterterrorism efforts by the Philippine government seem to have pressured the group in recent years: In 2007, the government killed 127 members of Abu Sayyaf and captured an additional thirty-eight. But Abu Sayyaf has been improving ties with regional organizations, like Jemaah Islamiyah and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamic separatist group dating from the 1970s located in the southern Philippines. Thus, even though Abu Sayyaf's armed strength fell from an estimated one thousand in 2002 to between two hundred and four hundred in 2006, the capabilities of the organization may be growing. The 2008 U.S. State Department estimates the group to consist of between two hundered and five hundred members.

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