The Challenge of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines

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The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which has for over two decades terrorized a wide section of the island of Mindanao and beyond from its island bases in Sulu and Basilan, has once again been in the news.

Despite the claims of the government that it has only 300-400 men, nonstop military operations against the group have been launched in Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and mainland Mindanao to little avail and the frustration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who on May 23 declared martial law across the entire island of Mindanao, with a population of 23 million people.

The battle for control of Marawi City that triggered the declaration of martial law is just the latest and most dramatic evidence of an upsurge which has defied the government for decades. And while the Maute Group has been the main force in the Marawi fighting, it was actually a government operation against Abu Sayyaf Commander Isnilon Hapilon, believed to be in Marawi, that sparked the fierce battle which is still ongoing.


Since last year, with some 10,000 Philippine Army and Marines soldiers mobilized against them, augmented by Philippine Navy vessels and Philippine Air Force reconnaissance and attack aircraft, the ASG has still managed to pull off surprises. As noted, in Lanao del Sur, ASG chieftain Isnilon Hapilon has linked up with the locally based Maute Group and in Marawi has fought back against government forces which attempted to capture him.

That followed an April 10 incursion of an ASG group into Bohol, a central Visayas tourist destination that saw soldiers and insurgents killed in clashes. It took government forces a little over a month to put an end to the Bohol “invasion” by an ASG band of just 11 fighters.

Although some success has been achieved by the Philippine authorities in their campaign against the ASG with the killing of a number of ranking commanders, events in Marawi and elsewhere suggest there is far to go before ASG and groups affiliated with it are neutralized – notwithstanding President Duterte’s deadline of June 30 to “finish off,” “crush,” “stamp out” the ASG. After all, as Duterte himself noted, the ASG problem is part of the larger issue of unrest in the southern Philippines, a situation which runs back for more than 400 years. Successive colonial administrations – and from the perspective of militant Muslims the Philippine Republic is a colonial administration – have tried and failed to put an end to the unrest.

Duterte asks business help

To the credit of the Duterte administration, it has recognized that military/police operations need to be supplemented by other factors. For this reason, Negosyo para sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu was launched in Malacañang in December last year. Under this initiative, leading Manila businessmen were asked to undertake projects in Sulu in an effort to address the dire social and economic conditions. Pledges covered a mix of projects including coconut processing, feed mill, seaweeds, poultry, infrastructure and support for social services.

But a mix of military action and development projects is insufficient, particularly given the links that have now been established between the insurgents and Islamic State.

Underlying not just recent events but developments over past several decades, a basic question needs to be asked: How deep are the feelings of distrust, if not enmity, between Christians and Muslims as Salafist doctrines have continued to spread?

Mutual Distrust

A 2005 survey by the Human Development Network, part of the United Nations Development Program, attempted to determine to what extent biases existed among Christian Filipinos towards Muslims. The survey found the following:

  • Although only 14 percent of respondents admitted to having had direct dealings with Muslims, more than a third (33-39 percent) exhibited a bias toward Muslims based on their responses to various survey questions;

  • 47 percent expressed the belief that Muslims are likely to be terrorists or extremists;

  • 55 percent expressed the stereotypical view of Muslims as prone to run amok;

  • Over 40 percent would outright choose a person with a Christian name rather than a Muslim name when choosing a worker or employee, and a boarder or tenant.

  • 40 percent would choose to reside in an area distant from a Muslim community even if the rent were higher rather than live in a cheaper area close to a Muslim community.

Generations of Tausug warriors have passed down to their descendants the following saying: “Marayaw pa kaw makabunuh Bisayah, makasud kaw ha sulgah.” (It is better for you to kill a Christian, you will be able to enter heaven). In recent times this has been reinforced by the Salafi-Wahhabi perspective of intolerance which provides a justification for jihad against kuffar (unbelievers), particularly in “Defense of Muslim Lands,” in the words of Abdullah Azzam, mentor of Osama bin Laden and inspiration of Abdurajak Janjalani, founder of the Abu Sayyaf.

Interfaith dialogues have been held since the late 1960s to foster understanding. The Lanao Muslim-Christian Movement for Dialogue, for example, was set up in 1972 in response to attempts by some groups to sow discord between Muslims and Christians in the Lanao area. This eventually led to the establishment of the Bishops-Ulama Forum, later renamed the Bishops-Ulama Conference, established in 1996. Similar groups like the Silsilah Dialogue Movement in Zamboanga City were also established.

But despite these efforts of Muslims and Christians enough people still appear to harbor distrust or even hatred which are elevated by outrages such as the bombing of the Davao City night market last year and the barbarous beheading of eight kidnap victims over the past two years.

Distrust Rooted in History

The seeds of this distrust are rooted in history. There has been the experience of Muslims of the southern Philippines fighting the Spanish, American and Philippine Republic colonizers, all eager to subjugate the Moros over more than 400 years, wars pitting Christian Filipino soldiers against Muslim warriors. From the perspective of the Filipino Christians the enemy was the Moro, who would launch piratical raids against coastal communities in the Visayas and as far north as Ilocos Sur in Luzon, pillaging and capturing inhabitants to be used or sold as slaves.

From the Muslim perspective, the enemy was the Christian Filipino, the Bisaya (a Tausug term generically referring to Christian Filipinos) – soldiers used by the Spanish and American colonial powers in their wars against the Moros. They were as well the settlers from Luzon and the Visayas, taking over lands in Mindanao and transforming the Moros (and the Lumads, the non-Muslim indigenous) into minorities.


Feeding discontent too is the low level of governance. This is a problem throughout the Philippines, but has additional impact in long troubled Muslim areas. A survey undertaken in 2006 of all 18 municipalities of Sulu province found extraordinarily low levels of confidence in government. Politicians were described as being liars and thieves, created dissension and government generally was oppressive. Peace could only come from better security and improved standards of governance.

The problem is characterized by the chronic absence of mayors from their areas of jurisdiction. There is a joke that while all cities and municipalities in the country are supposed to have one mayor, Zamboanga City is fortunate to have 30 – the duly elected Mayor of Zamboanga and the mayors of the various municipalities of Sulu, Basilan and towns in the Zamboanga Peninsula who have homes in Zamboanga City and spend much of their time there.

Last year, the soon-to-be-appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya, reverted to the issue of governance when, having been asked about the possibility of imposing martial law in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu to address the Abu Sayyaf problem, he replied, “As far as I am concerned, that is an option. There seems to be a failure in local governance.”


Political Dynasties

Even the US military forces, operating in Basilan and Sulu against the Abu Sayyaf from 2002 to 2014, were faced with the problem. Struggling for answers as to why US forces who had spent huge amounts of time and money trying to improve conditions in Sulu had been targeted for killing by IEDs one US non-commissioned officer came to the conclusion: “A clear pattern emerged. Governance: the warlord families were manipulating every election cycle with violence, bribes and vote stealing, creating a corrupt, impregnable oligopoly.”

The key elective positions, governors and mayors, have been controlled by specific families. Admittedly, this is a situation that is not unique to Sulu or Basilan. One finds this same pattern of dynastic control of political positions all over the country. One need look no further than President Duterte’s city of Davao to see that this is par for the course. But then, these other provinces, cities and municipalities do not have the level of violence, the virtual absence of law and order and the dire social conditions that one finds in the Muslim areas.

Fixing the Governance Problem

How does one then fix the system of governance in this area, if it is agreed that this is truly a major stumbling block to bringing about peace to the region? Is it just a matter of having “free and fair elections” as some people have suggested? Or is it more complex than that?

Would instituting a system of autonomy for the Bangsamoro, as has been negotiated with the MILF address the issue? Would setting up Duterte’s federal system of government be the key?

Unfortunately, there are no quick and easy answers for this. But some factors that could be considered in the process of designing an appropriate system could be:

  • Undertaking thorough and grassroots-based consultations to draw from people their thoughts on an acceptable system of governance.

  • Providing mechanisms to prevent the rise of dynastic rule or, looking at it from another perspective, opening the system so that truly meritorious individuals have a fighting chance of assuming the reins of governance.

  • Involving the participation of traditional leaders as well as religious leaders.

  • Incorporating a system of “Shura” or frequent consultations of leaders with their constituents.

  • Instituting a system to ensure that local government leaders remain in their areas of jurisdiction to ensure that they are available to attend to their responsibilities.

  • Strengthening controls over the Internal Revenue Allotment, national revenues allocated to local governments, which unfortunately have been treated in many instances as personal funds by the local government officials.

  • Strengthening the system of accountability whereby local government officials can be summarily suspended for failure to maintain law and order or meet development goals.

On the matter of political dynasties, it is recognized that while there is a clear prohibition in the Philippine Constitution against such a practice, unsurprisingly, the Philippine Congress and Senate have failed to pass the needed legislation to implement this provision. How to overcome this reluctance is a challenge.

Traditional Systems for Answers

Some people have suggested looking at traditional systems for an answer to the problem of governance. A Tausug friend of the author recounted:

“I remember (in the late 1940s early 50s) when we were growing up in Jolo, the ‘panglima’ system was still in place in spite of the democratic form introduced by the new Philippine government…Everyone was happy that matters could be brought before the panglima for their resolution. The basis for the selection of the panglima was a moral, upright, leader with unquestioned integrity and could command respect of the community.

“The present leaders in Jolo, with a rare exception of a few, do not deserve to lead at all….in the past, to be known as a corrupt mayor or barrio captain was a cause of shame and humiliation. Not now. I think it is wise not to totally reject the past, in favor of modernity. Many things worked before; sadly, in the name of democracy and so called higher college education of the Sulu people, the positive contributions of culture are now relegated to the background, mere subject of academic dissertations. Sulu culture has its own answers to problems besetting the province, if only we try to look deeper.”[/nextpage]

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Quick Fix?

While trying to fashion a system of governance appropriate to the areas beset by long-standing conflict, consideration should be given to immediately instituting an interim system to firmly address the law and order conditions while at the same time implementing programs aimed at making up for the dire social conditions that these areas are in. Such an interim system would centralize authority in one office, with the right of the President to immediately replace the person in authority if security and development targets were not met. A military governorship would be an example of such a system.

While under normal conditions, legislation and possibly even constitutional provisions would need to be passed to implement such a temporary measure, under the current Martial Law regime in Mindanao, such an interim measure could be effected through a Presidential edict.


Statistics since 2003 show there have been reductions in poverty levels in the country as a whole and even in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). But in 2015 – the latest year that the Family Income and Expenditure Survey was undertaken – the ARMM was still the poorest region in the country, with an average poverty incidence of 54 percent, with Lanao del Sur, the base of the Maute Group, being the poorest province with 72 percent of the population living in poverty, while Sulu, a center of the ASG having more than half of its population under the poverty line (55 percent).

Needless to say, economic conditions impact health. Whereas for the Philippines average life expectancy in 2009 was 72 years, for the ARMM provinces average life expectancy was:

  • Tawi-Tawi -- 54 years

  • Sulu -- 57 years

  • Maguindanao -- 58 years

  • Lanao del Sur -- 60 years

  • Basilan -- 63 years

Living in an ARMM province reduces your life expectancy by 10-20 years compared to the norm elsewhere in the country!

Addressing Poverty

As noted earlier, the Duterte Administration has recognized that military/police operations against militants need to be supplemented with social/economic measures. Thus the government launched in December of last year Negosyo Para sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu, an array of private-sector led projects for the province of Sulu.

But this program is just for Sulu. Could similar initiatives be launched for the provinces of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi where ASG bands are active? And what about Lanao del Sur, the base of the Maute Group, the capital city of which, Marawi, is now devastated as a result of the fighting which broke out starting May 23? It has the highest poverty incidence in the country at 72 percent, with another predominantly Muslim province, Maguindanao, second from the bottom at 57 percent.

While any development interventions would be welcome given the dire conditions in the area, the overwhelming desire of people is for kabuhianan, the mean to sustain one’s life, or livelihood.

The Shadow Economy

For the Philippines as a whole, the percentage of persons in the informal sector dropped from 56 percent to 48 percent between 1988 and 2009. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), however, in the latter year the number of persons engaged in the informal, underground or shadow economy was 83 percent. In the ARMM, the shadow economy is the REAL economy.

The lack of formal employment spurs the illegal shadow economy – unlicensed, unregistered economic activities such as farming, fishing, vending, providing transportation services and a host of other economic activities essential for society but undertaken in an untraceable manner because of being unregistered.

However, there are other significant shadow economic activities that contribute directly to the condition of violence and undermine the fabric of society: kidnapping for ransom, gunrunning and the trade in illegal drugs. These generate money, firepower and protection for the ASG as the latter engage in them with the collusion, it is believed, of persons in authority.

Kidnapping for Ransom

The ASG is perhaps best known for its kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) activities. This writer has undertaken his own tally of Sulu-focused KFR activities – i.e., abductions undertaken in Sulu or elsewhere but where the victims were brought to Sulu. Over the last three years –2014-2016 – there were 49 incidents involving 107 victims, half of whom (53) of whom were non-Filipinos. Among the 54 Filipino victims, 19 were in fact Sulu residents. Of the Filipinos, 13 were Muslims. Of the 49 kidnapping incidents, only a third (16) took place in Sulu. The greater majority – 33 incidents – took place outside Sulu, with 13 of these taking place outside the country, mostly sailors abducted from their vessels while on the seas between the Philippines and Malaysia.

The high point of ASG KFR activities as far as ransom payments is concerned took place in 2000 with the kidnapping of some 20 guests and staff from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. From this venture, the perpetrators led by ASG Commander Robot (Ghalib Andang) were able to extract US$20 to US$25 million for the release of their hostages. Achieving something like this has been the ambition of all ASG KFR bands.

It is said that two Germans kidnapped in the province of Palawan and brought to Sulu in 2014 were ransomed for more than US$5 million. When two Canadians and a Norwegian were kidnapped in Davao in 2015, the opening gambit of the abductors was a demand of US$20 million for each of the foreign hostages.

Awash in illegal guns

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) estimated that in 2010 there were 114,000 illegal firearms (unregistered/unlicensed) in the ARMM, by far the highest number relative to population in the Philippines. The actual number may well now be much higher, and the weapons more sophisticated. Sources include illegal imports, local manufacture and a lax registration system for legal purchase. Some are known to be sold by members of security services, other captured in raids. Overall, supplies were plentiful with arms flowing into the area by several routes, but with the Philippines also supplying groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia.

For Sulu, this is nothing new. It has been at the center of a regional arms trade for centuries – as it also was of slaves, opium and other ordinary trade goods in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The British, then the leading Western power, treated Sulu as an independent sultanate, only recognizing Spanish sovereignty in the late 19th century).

It has been observed that whenever ransom payments are collected by the ASG, new purchases of high-powered firearms are effected, augmenting the arsenal of the Group.

Drug Trade

As for drugs, the Philippines has developed the reputation of being one of the main regional manufacturers along with China and Myanmar, of amphetamines, especially methamphetamine hydrochloride (shabu). It particularly thrives in lawless, impoverished provinces of the ARRM.


The bountiful returns from illegal drugs push traffickers to look for ways to ensure the longevity of their enterprise. One, of course, is to build up the means to protect one’s turf from competitors as well as government entities mandated to shut them down. These include acquiring firearms and a private security force as well as infiltrating state agencies which have the mandate to put an end to the industry. Drug money buys elections and officials including governors, mayors, judges and barangay chiefs.

One study of the drug trade in the ARMM described the situation in stark terms:

“The combination of fragile state institutions, colluding public officials and protection rackets explains the legal vacuum and sense of impunity that sustain the drug economy in the ARMM. Narco-politicians reinforce the vicious circle between state fragility and criminal agendas, to the point that it amounts to the ‘criminalization of the state’…. The illicit drug market provides these politicians with the resources to usurp power. Once elected into public office, they have every incentive to ensure that the drug economy, which sustains their political aspirations, remains unchallenged by the state. Through the control they exert over local government, security forces, and their constituents, narco-politicians are able to subvert the rule of law in order to advance their political and economic interests.” (Rufa Cagoco-Guiam and Steven Schoofs, “A Deadly Cocktail? Illicit Drugs, Politics and Violent Conflict in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao”.)

There have been reports that individual bands within the ASG have either engaged in the drug trade as a source of revenue or provided protection for drug traders, and that individual ASG fighters have used drugs to increase their ferocity in battle. These however need to be documented.

Military/Police Collusion with the ASG

There have been many accounts of involvement of members of state security agencies with the ASG. The latest was the attempt of an official of the Philippine National Police (PNP) to rescue one of the members of the ASG band which went to Bohol in April presumably on a kidnapping mission. This official claimed that she was trying to infiltrate the ASG to learn what plans they had but the Director-General of the PNP denied that any such mission had been authorized.

From its beginnings, rumors abounded about the ASG in fact having been a creation of the military, intended to sabotage the peace talks going on at that time between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This was reinforced by the subsequent revelation that Edwin Angeles, the right-hand man of ASG founder Abdurajak Janjalani, was in fact an agent of the PNP and the AFP.

Incidents that provided strong indications of such collusion included the Tumahubong kidnapping incident in the year 2000 where survivors of the incident recounted how they passed by military checkpoints with their ASG captors without being stopped and where they overheard conversations that indicated that the ASG was being warned beforehand of impending attacks. Another such incident was the escape of the ASG with their hostages from the Dos Palmas resort from a hospital in Lamitan City, Basilan, despite the fact that the hospital was supposed to have been surrounded by military and police forces.

In June of 2016, the then-Mayor of the town of Jolo, Hussein Amin, alleged that some military officers were getting a share of ransom payments in exchange for information and protection being provided to the ASG. Amin claimed that when he was a Congressman, an investigation conducted on a kidnapping incident in Sulu showed clearly that a particular military officer had profited in this manner.

Recently, the writer was told by the family of a kidnap victim that in their negotiations with the ASG they were advised that any ransom to be paid would be coursed through a military unit which the ASG specified. It appears that this unit facilitated the delivery of ransom to the ASG in a previous kidnapping incident. Whether such a facilitation was undertaken – contrary to government policy – simply to effect the release of the kidnap victim or whether members of the unit involved profited from the “service” provided is not known. But the simple fact that the ASG would make such a demand is clearly surprising.

Local Government Collusion with the ASG

Very recently, the Sulu-based NGO Save Sulu Movement (SSM) issued a statement claiming that local government officials in the province were protecting the Abu Sayyaf in exchange for “a lion’s share of ransom money.” The SSM said that it had “repeatedly informed authorities that the reason the ASG is still active and even growing is because it is enjoying the protection of local officials.”

The statement further said that former AFP Chief of Staff Ricardo Visaya had stated that LGU officials from governors, vice-governors to barangay heads were protecting the ASG. The SSM lamented why, if the authorities were aware of the protection being provided, “no village chief, mayor or governor…had been arrested or charged with ‘actually receiving ransom money in the guise of negotiations.’ ‘If the connivance is no secret to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, what have they done to stop it?’ the group said.

Last year, reports circulated in Sulu that a Barangay chairperson was found with P6 million out of a P30 million ransom payment that had been made for the release of a kidnap victim. It is generally known that it is an accepted practice within the “industry” for persons through whom ransom payments pass to “take a little something” for their facilitation efforts.

It is also common knowledge that barangays where the kidnap gangs are based or where they hide their hostages, often are provided a share of ransom payments collected. Often, the leaders of the kidnap bands have blood ties with the leaders and the residents of these villages.[/nextpage]

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It has been observed that salafi-wahhabi doctrines had been introduced to Filipino Islamic communities has far back as the 1950s. These were reinforced with the explosive growth of the economy of Saudi Arabia starting in the early 1970s as a result of the increase in oil prices, leading the Saudis to accelerate their promotion of these doctrines with the sponsorship of mosques, madaris (religious schools), scholars and preachers throughout the world.

Within this context of the spread of an intolerant strain of Islam, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) launched its social media campaign to gain adherents to its cause. In its mission to gain more support, the Islamic State has deftly and effectively utilized advances in communication technology to deliver certain key messages. These messages have been summarized by Thomas Korth Sameul, Director at the Southeast Asia Center for Counter-Terrorism as follows:

  • The establishment of a Caliphate as prophesied by the Prophet Mohammed.

  • The battle to end all battles will take place in Sham (present-day Syria) and will be undertaken by the Army of Mahdi carrying black banners to liberate Jerusalem and resurrect the Caliphate.

  • All Muslims should join this final battle, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to establish and spread the domain of the final Caliphate.

  • All Muslims should join this final battle to help their brothers who are being oppressed by the Shia-dominated regimes in Syria and Iraq.

  • Joining will atone for past misdeeds and un-Islamic actions.

Regional Call to Arms

More recently, Muslims from the Southeast Asia region have been urged to go to the Philippines to join the militant Muslim struggle there rather than to go to Syria or Iraq.

As is well known, several Philippine groups have openly pledged their support to IS and its self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These groups include the ASG in Basilan (under its formal name Al-Harakatul Al-Islamiyah), Katibat Ansar al-Shariah (headed by a Malaysian going by the name Abu Anas al-Muhajir who was killed shortly after having pledged loyalty to IS), Ma’rakah al-Ansar (supposedly from Sulu), Ansarul Khilafah Philippines (operating in the Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, South Cotabato area and whose leader, Mohammad Jaafar Maguid, was killed in January of this year), the Maute Group in Lanao and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.


To what extent the IS messages resonate with Filipino Muslims is something that needs to be examined. It has been observed, however, that many of the local madaris in fact adopt Salafist perspectives in their teachings, so there may be a receptive audience. And in this age of the global reach of communication technologies anyone who has a smartphone can download extremist writings, videos and audio messages. Maria Ressa, for example, noted that a study done in 2015 stated that IS was using a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts and that some 200,000 pieces of social media were being created every day. The author knows highly educated individuals who take a perverted pleasure in watching videos of Abu Sayyaf beheadings and encouraging others to watch them as well.

Researchers on terrorism point out that only a small proportion of those who are radicalized actually resort to violence. Among those who do, the motivating factors are varied. There are, certainly, those who are impelled by ideological convictions. But there are also those who take up arms (or set off bombs) for other reasons including status, thrills, identity and revenge

Revenge-seekers and risk-takers

Ideology can provide an underpinning which justifies individual or group actions. So too can the notion of payback – kidnaps justified by reference to past exploitation by Christians of Muslims lands, or the extra-judicial “disappearance” of suspected ASG supporters. So too is the notion of revenge for the killing of relatives, often parents, at the hands of state security forces. In fact there is an ASG band known as the Anak Ilu, orphans of MNLF or ASG fighters.

The risk-takers and thrill-seekers recalls the description of Tausug males by anthropologist Thomas Kiefer:

“Risk-taking in Tausug culture is encouraged, and the prudent lose the opportunity to demonstrate to their fellows valued virtues of character: bravado, honor, masculinity, and even magnanimity. Outlaws, criminals, well-known thieves and the ever-present seekers after revenge are admired as persons of strong character who have demonstrated their willingness to seek dangerous situations, or to accept them voluntarily when luck has made them inevitable. Long epic songs glorify heroes who have excelled in these virtues.”

Then, of course, there are the opportunists, individuals simply out for financial gain.

Summing Up

These then are some factors that need to be considered in attempting to address the issue of Islamic militancy in the Philippines as reflected by the Abu Sayyaf Group. They would apply as well to other groups like the Maute, the BIFF and others.

  • The vestiges of mutual distrust that still exist between Muslims and Christians

  • The absence of a governance system that is responsive to the needs of the communities

  • The abject poverty that exists in many Muslim communities

  • The spread of socially destructive activities like kidnapping, gunrunning and the trade in illegal drugs

  • Collusion of persons in authority with the ASG

  • Radicalization of individuals and communities

This is not an exhaustive list. There are other factors as well, such as the matter of clan ties which underlie the militant groups, for example, But these are some elements which, in the writer’s view, contribute to the complexity of the situation and need to be considered in crafting programs aimed at bringing about an end to the violence and a condition of long-term peace.


In addressing the situation, the author suggests certain approaches which, it is believed, are essential to make any programs effective.

First, any interventions must aim to gain the support of the communities involved. In aiming to do so, communities must be involved in every stage of the process, from the analysis of the situation, identification of appropriate interventions, program design and implementation.

Second, religious leaders must take a leading role in guiding their communities along the path to peace and justice. The author has noted that beyond condemnations of ASG atrocities by umbrella organizations like the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP), the religious leaders in the areas most directly affected by ASG activities appear to have been reluctant to tackle the problems brought about by the ASG openly and directly.

Third, consideration should be given to designing program interventions within an Islamic framework. The author is involved with a group that is working with an MNLF community in bringing about development interventions. For this, an Islamic framework was drawn up which focused on such principles as Tawheed (the Oneness of the Creator and Creation), Khalifa (the stewardship of Man over Creation) and Amanah (the Trust bestowed on Man by the Creator). Other frameworks have been presented such as the Maqasid al-Shariah (the Objectives of the Shariah) and the Hukm Shar’I (the Rules of Divine Law), as expounded by Prof. Yusuf Morales.

Changing Face of Militancy

The Abu Sayyaf has been sowing turmoil in the southern Philippines for over two-and-a-half decades. While the main secessionist groups – the MNLF and the MILF – have sat down with the government and have hammered out agreements accepting autonomy for the Bangsamoro, the ASG has been unyielding in its avowed aim to establish an independent Islamic State. its atrocities disqualify them from consideration for negotiations with the government.


Isnilon Hapilon

Frequently derided as being no more than bandits, using ideology as a cover but really interested more in money-making criminal ventures, the ASG has survived efforts by the Philippine Government, aided by over a decade of US military assistance, to eliminate it. Despite assessments of its dwindling number of fighters – hovering around 300-400 by intelligence estimates – it has nevertheless survived campaigns pitting them against thousands of military and police officers and men augmented by naval and air assets.

The ASG has even survived its own internal weaknesses, principally its organization as an array of autonomous bands, each pursuing its own individual entrepreneurial ventures, but coalescing when the need arises, as in the face of a common enemy, state security forces. This is an attribute more of the Sulu ASG forces rather than the Basilan forces, which appear to be more unified under Isnilon Hapilon.

ASG Metastasizes

In recent years, however, the ASG has slowly morphed into the nucleus of a coalition of groups allying themselves with the Islamic State. The alliance – pledging of loyalty to IS and its self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – boosted the image of the ASG and particularly its head in Basilan, Isnilon Hapilon, who was officially designated by the IS as the Amir of IS-affiliated groups in the Philippines.

Moreover, the coalition has extended the ASG’s reach to beyond the Basilan-Sulu-TawiTawi (BaSulTa) region, its traditional area of operations, and has given them a presence on Mainland Mindanao. Hapilon’s presence in Mindanao and Marawi – which triggered the fighting in that city – was for the purpose of setting up a base for the IS Caliphate in the region, an officially recognized Wilayat or province of the Caliphate.

The current situation in Marawi and Mindanao is such that ASEAN officials have expressed concern. Very recently, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen declared that “if the situation in Marawi and Mindanao is allowed to escalate or entrench, it will pose decades of problems for ASEAN cities.”

From its origins in the early 1990s as a home-grown militant group, the ASG appears to now be moving on the path of becoming a major threat to the ASEAN region.

Victor M. Taylor has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) area for more than 50 years, starting as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College in Sulu. Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President of the Philippines. Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, he assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG. Recently he has worked with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area.

The 10-part series on which this is based, written for MindaNews, is based on one article of six written for the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian security think tank. The series can be accessed through the following links:

  1. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (1): Overview

  2. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (2): Muslim-Christian Enmity

  3. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (3): Radicalization of Outlook

  4. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (4): Governance

  5. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (5): Poverty

  6. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (6): The Shadow Economy

  7. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (7): Collusion with the Abu Sayyaf

  8. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (8): Community Support

  9. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (9): Islamic Framework for Development

  10. COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (10): The Role of Religious Leaders