The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), whose name means “Bearer of the Sword” or “Father of the Swordsman” in Arabic, is a small Islamist group composed of several hundred young Muslim radicals fighting for the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic state in the impoverished, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The group has also been trying to expel Christians from Basilan Island, located to the southwest of Mindanao. Many ASG members were recruited directly out of high schools and colleges.
ASG was established in the late 1980s in Basilan Province, which continues to serve, along with the neighboring provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (in the Sulu Archipelago), as ASG’s base of operations. The group is also active in the Zamboanga peninsula, and its members occasionally travel to cities like Manila and Cotobato.
The Abu Sayyaf Group has longstanding ties with a number of Islamic fundamentalist groups worldwide, including al Qaeda. The Manila government believes that ASG is closely allied with Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and with Osama bin Laden. (Yousef provided explosives training for ASG members.) Though ASG is largely self-financing through ransom and extortion, it has received support from Islamic extremists in the Middle East and may also get some financing from regional terrorist organizations.
ASG was established by a group of nine founding fathers, headed by the Islamic preacher Abdurajak Janjalani. Their efforts were financed by key al Qaeda officials. The seed money that brought the organization into existence was supplied by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who laundered the money through an Islamic charity he operated in the Philippines.
Janjalani’s exploits as a mujahideen in Afghanistan, where from 1986 through 1989 he fought in the jihad against the Soviet Union, earned him great popularity in his Philippine homeland. After his 1986 arrival in Afghanistan, Janjalani was recruited into the newly established guerrilla unit led by the Afghan professor Abdul Rasul Abu Sayyaf. Janjalani, a fundamentalist who believed in a “pure” form of Islam, organized a movement where he and his ideological comrades pursued their religious impulses. Janjalani named his nascent movement after Professor Abu Sayyaf, and by 1990, after Soviet forces had finally withdrawn from Afghanistan, the charismatic Janjalani had turned “Abu Sayyaf” into one of the more well-known bywords in Basilan.
Janjalani would further popularize his “pure” form of Islam in Tabuk, a village in Isabela where the Janjalani family lived. The groundwork for Janjalani’s teachings had recently been laid by another preacher, Ustadz Wahab Akbar, upon whose legacy Janjalani built. Akbar was a member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the largest and most popular Muslim group in the Philippines, which sought to create a separate Moro Republic in Mindanao in the early 1970s.
In its earliest days, the Abu Sayyaf Group operated as a faction of MNLF. But in 1991, a number of ASG members, led by Janjalani, split off to pursue a more fundamentalist battle against the Philippine authorities. They deemed MNLF too moderate and conciliatory. Janjalani’s newly independent organization was officially called Al Harakatul al Islamiya, or the Islamic Movement. But for the public, the name remained, simply, Abu Sayyaf Group. Its goal was unambiguous: to establish an Islamic State in Mindanao.
ASG’s methods of advancing its agenda have included bombings, targeted assassinations, and the kidnapping of foreign tourists. The group’s first recorded atrocity was a 1991 attack on a military checkpoint in Sumagdang. That same year, ASG carried grenade attacks on Christian missionaries and Catholic congregations during church services; it abducted Catholic priests, nuns, and teachers; and it ambushed innocent ethnic Chinese. These and subsequent ASG activities give evidence of an organization that openly endorses violence against innocent civilians as a legitimate means of achieving its political ends.
In 1992, ASG bombed targets in Zamboanga City and Davao City. In April 1993, it kidnapped a five-year-old boy and his grandfather, announcing at a press conference that the captives’ release hinged, in part, on the removal of all Catholic symbols in Muslim communities. That same year, ASG kidnapped the Claretian priest Bernardo Blanco.
In 1994 ASG kidnapped an American named Charles Walton, a language scholar who was doing research in Basilan. Later that year, the group bombed a Philippines Airlines plane in midair, killing one passenger.
In January 1995, ASG was implicated in a plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his visit to Manila. Later that year, ASG militants stormed the town of Ipil, killing 54 people. Three years thereafter, an ASG grenade attack on a department store in Zamboanga injured 60.
In December 1998 Abubakar Janjalani was killed in a clash with the Philippine Army. ASG’s leadership vacuum was quickly filled by the deceased kingpin’s younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani. After Abubakar Janjalani’s death, ASG split into three splinter groups and grew increasingly brutal. One particularly profitable venture was its 2000 kidnapping of priests, teachers, and children from a Basilan school, captives whose release earned ASG a $25 million ransom payment from Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi.
Throughout the 1990s, ASG’s activities were mostly local news not widely reported elsewhere in the world. That changed with its April 23, 2000 kidnapping of several foreign tourists and journalists in Sipadan, Malaysia. Thenceforth, the Abu Sayyaf Group’s agenda became more widely known, and ASG was recognized as an organization with global reach.
In February 2004, an ASG operative exploded 3.6 kilograms of TNT on the 1,747-passenger SuperFerry 14 during its trip from Manila to Bacolod and Davao, killing some 132 people.
In 2004, intelligence officials in Manila intercepted explosives that ASG had plotted to use in two additional attempts to bomb passenger ferries departing from Manila. In March of that year, Manila police arrested four ASG members who admitted they were planning to blow up one of the city’s busiest shopping malls. Moreover, Abu Sayyaf Group has, according to Kit Colliers of the Australian National University in Canberra, established “an urban assassination squad called Fisabillilah, or ‘The Path of God.” Colliers has produced a detailed report on Islamic militancy and terrorism in the Philippines for the International Crisis Group.
The Philippine government’s efforts to combat ASG have been costly. More than 300 Filipino soldiers have died in the fight to eliminate the organization, whose central base is almost inaccessible, consisting of nine camps hidden deep in the forests of Basilan’s Mohajid mountain.