What Is Abu Sayyaf?

What Is Abu Sayyaf?

What Is Abu Sayyaf?


6 min read



Name: Abu Sayyaf Group or Abu Sayyaf (Arabic, 'father of the sword').

Location: Philippines, primarily the south.

Dates: 1991 – Present.

Members and supporters: Estimates suggest between 200 – 500 core members and around 2,000 supporters.

Ideology: Founded in 1991 as separatist militant movement, that says that jihad is the only way to attain real peace, justice, and righteousness, and the Quran and sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet and his companions) are guiding authorities for a future new society. The group states that Islam is systematically being destroyed by "Filipino colonialism."

Goal: The creation of an independent Islamic state encompassing Mindanao in the southern Philippines, an area where Moro Muslims, a minority ethnic group in the Philippines, make up the majority of the local population; also parts of Southern Thailand, the island of Borneo, and the Sulu Archipelago.

Attacks and tactics: Over 500 killed between 2000–2014. Often conducts kidnappings for ransom, but also conducts violent attacks and bombings.

What is Abu Sayyaf?

What is Abu Sayyaf?

A spike in attacks on regional mayors, as well as kidnappings of foreign tourists, and recent clashes on the central tourist island of Bohol, have drawn attention to jihadi group Abu Sayyaf, but what are its motivations, ideology and background? 

Abu Sayyaf is also known as al-Harakat al-Islamiya (The Islamic Movement). The group was formed in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, a Libyan-trained Islamic preacher from Basilan, an island province in the southern Philippines within the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Estimates vary of the number of members, but there are thought to be between 200–500 core members, mostly recruited from educational institutions, and up to 2,000 supporters.

Abdurazal Janjalani was a former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighter who had volunteered to fight in Afghanistan, but broke away from the group to form Abu Sayyaf in 1991 after disagreements with the MNLF leadership. The MNLF, a separatist group formed in 1972, had the early aim of creating an autonomous Muslim state in the southern Philippines. The MNLF sent Janjalani to Saudi Arabia and Libya in the 1970s to learn Arabic and deepen his knowledge of Islam. His next destination was Afghanistan. It seems to be these experiences that drove his desire to transform the southern Philippines into an Islamic state.

In 1988, Janjalani reportedly met Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and may even have fought alongside him in Afghanistan. He came back to the Philippines in the late 1980s and taught in a madrasa in Basilan where he delivered sermons calling for armed resistance against the government.

In 1990, exploiting divisions in the MNLF over negotiations with the government, Janjalani brought together some old MNLF comrades, fellow Afghan veterans, and children of MNLF fighters killed by the army to form Abu Sayyaf. The goal was the establishment of an Islamic state in the southern Philippines, for the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a part of the southern Mindanao Island which is over 90 per cent Muslim.

The stated goal of Abu Sayyaf when it was formed was the creation of a wholly independent Islamic state for western Mindanao, the Sulu Archipelago, the island of Borneo and areas of southern Thailand, for the Filipino minority known as the Moros. Janjalani's ideas appear to have developed when he was a student in the Middle East in the 1970s. At that time, he is reported to have wanted to set up an independent Islamic state in Mindanao that would implement Sharia law. His ideology is also thought to have been inspired by the Chairman of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, who had declared that Islam was systematically being destroyed by "Filipino colonialism." And, like the Chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Sheikh Salamat Hashim, Janjalani, viewed jihad as the only way to attain real peace, justice, and righteousness, and the Quran and sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet and his companions) as guiding authorities for a future new society.

Abu Sayyaf's goal is an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.

The MILF is a splinter group of the MNLF, formed in 1978 when they began negotiations with the government, and whose goal for an independent Islamic state became watered down to more of an autonomous region. It is the peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippines government that continues its progress through Parliament today.

But while Salamat accepted the diversity in contemporary Islamic governance, Janjalani was critical of all Muslim governments, which he regarded as having deviated from the real teachings of Islam. Janjalani also declared that Abu Sayyaf would not hesitate to execute those who stood in the way of the struggle, including the non-Muslim communities adjoining the Muslim zones.

A peace agreement with the MNLF in 1996 to create the ARMM failed to bring an end to the fighting, and in December 1998, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani was killed in a shootout with the police. Following his death, the group split, with Janjalani's elder brother Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani becoming the head of one faction, based on the island of Basilan, while a commander named Galib Andang led the other. But the split left the group substantially weakened, and its militant activities degenerated into banditry for its financial survival, particularly kidnappings for ransom.

The United States first declared Abu Sayyaf as a foreign terrorist organisation in 1997, and in 2001 the United Nations followed suit. In November 2001, the United States government declared the Philippines and Southeast Asia the "Second Front in the War on Terror", and linked the ASG to al-Qaeda. In 2002, Abu Sayyaf attempted a comeback with the kidnapping of a group of European and Filipino tourists in a Malaysian resort, earning millions from the ransom money European governments paid, while in February 2004 the group bombed SuperFerry 14 in Manila Bay, killing at least 116 people.

Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani was listed by the UN in December 2004 as being associated with al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden for "participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of" the Abu Sayyaf Group. But after he was killed in 2006 in a military operation conducted by the Philippines authorities, the group lost much of its claim to be an Islamist movement. It continued its kidnapping operations, targeting Filipinos, Muslims and foreigners.

Abu Sayyaf swore allegiance to ISIS in July 2014, and has stepped up its attacks.

However, in a video released by Abu Sayyaf on 23 July 2014, a senior leader of the group, Isnilon Hapilon, swore allegiance to ISIS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This led to concerns that ISIS was beginning to infiltrate south east Asia, with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), another Islamist group that split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) over the peace agreement with the government, also swearing allegiance to ISIS. ISIS has not publicly accepted either declaration and armed forces in the Philippines maintain that ISIS does not operate in the country.

Additionally, the botched anti-terrorism operation by the Philippine police forces in January 2015, which resulted in the deaths of 44 police officers, during an operation that was primarily aimed at capturing a number of known militants from the BIFF, is seen as a defining moment for the stability of the region. The violence between government forces and the BIFF in the months following the operation left over 120,000 people displaced in the region.

As the the peace agreement between the government and the MILF to create a new law (the Bangsamoro Basic Law) for Muslim Mindanao made its slow progress in 2014 and 2015, Abu Sayyaf stepped up its attacks. After a spate of ship hijackings in the southern Philippines, there has been continued kidnappings of sailors. Due to these increased attacks, the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Philippine governments agreed in May 2016 to jointly patrol the waters. In June this year, President Rodrigo Duterte took office in the Philippines and promised a firm hand when dealing with Abu Sayyaf. He gave orders to eliminate the group and assigned troops to do so.

So, what to do with Abu Sayyaf? The concern among many now is over increased hostage taking and ransom demands. Abu Sayyaf has prompted fears of the maritime region becoming a "new Somalia," disrupting trade within the region. Perhaps a combination of the recently-elected president's strategy and international agreements to work together will prevent further hijackings and generate a hopeful outcome. However for now, reports of kidnappings continue to surface.

This article was originally published on 21 October, 2015, and was last updated on 17 May, 2016.

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