Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf Terrorists Turn to Suicide Bombing

New militant leader becomes region’s most-wanted extremist

By: Michael Hart

In the mid-afternoon of 17 April, Philippine soldiers on the trail of the Islamic State’s chief in Southeast Asia in the dense forests of northern Jolo were ambushed by more than 40 heavily-armed Abu Sayyaf bandits hiding out on higher ground. In a disadvantaged position, 11 troops perished during an hour-long gun battle.

The jihadists involved were followers of a mysterious 60-year-old veteran militant leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who commands a 200-strong faction of Abu Sayyaf in the mountains around Patikul town. Last year, the US State Department described him as the Islamic State’s ‘acting emir’ in Southeast Asia. Sawadjaan was previously little-known, but a string of suicide bombings in the last two years has thrust him and his radical devotees into the spotlight, making him the region’s most-wanted terrorist leader.

Suicide blasts in the Philippines have been rare. Yet Abu Sayyaf has now perpetrated four involving six bombers since the first in July 2018. In that attack, the bomber detonated himself as he drove up to a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Lamitan city, killing six troops and four civilians. Last January saw double blasts at a Catholic cathedral in Jolo, leaving 22 worshippers dead and 81 injured. Before 2019 was out, two army bases had been attacked by bombers in Indanan town.

The bombers included Indonesians, Moroccans, and Egyptians. Amid the attacks also emerged the first known Filipino suicide bomber, 23-year-old Norman Lasuca, raising fears that a fresh wave of violent extremism inspired by the brutal tactics of the Islamic State might sway local fighters in a region where militancy has historically remained separatist and avoided the perverse allure of transnational jihad. The recent arrest of two Filipinos plotting to bomb a church in Basilan has further stoked this concern.

Against this backdrop, how did Abu Sayyaf bring suicide blasts to the Philippines? And with Sawadjaan at the helm, does the spate of bombings mark an ideological shift in Abu Sayyaf’s campaign of terror?

Historical precedent?

Before the spate of attacks across 2018 and 2019, there had only been two previously reported suicide bombings in the Philippines. The first, in 1997, was perpetrated by two Al-Qaeda trainers, a Saudi and an Egyptian, targeting an army camp in Cotabato city. The second, a suspected suicide blast by a bomber aboard a motorcycle, targeted US servicemen at a restaurant in Zamboanga city in 2002.

Despite the use of suicide bombers by the militants of Jemaah Islamiyah and Jemaah Ansharut Daulah in neighboring Indonesia, and the proliferation of suicide attacks worldwide by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State offshoots, the supposedly more moderate Filipino jihadist cohort remained averse to the tactic. Some analysts have attributed this to the ‘warrior culture’ of Filipino Muslim tribes in the south, where the honor of the battle is as important as victory. This may help explain the absence of suicide blasts during the five-month assault on Marawi in 2017, led by Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic State affiliates.

A succession of attacks by radicalized families affiliated to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah in the Indonesian city of Surabaya the following year turned out to be a warning of what was to come in the Philippines.

Yet warnings can be traced to an earlier era, and Abu Sayyaf’s explosive campaign considered a revival of past tactics rather than a sharp break with history. In the 1990s, Al-Qaeda not only inspired Jemaah Islamiyah but also sought a safe haven in the Philippines, where some of its fighters were harbored by Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. Looking back, this period can be considered the first wave of transnational jihadist outreach into Southeast Asia, whereby Al-Qaeda sought to export its global extremist narrative to local Muslim rebel groups, already waging their own separatist wars.

Notorious Al-Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef, responsible for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing in New York, visited the Philippines several times in that decade and experimented with explosives. With 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed he hatched the Bojinka plot to down 12 Western airliners over the Pacific, and bombed Philippine Air Flight 434 as a trial run in December 1994, before a chemical fire in his Manila apartment alerted police to his activities and led him to flee to Pakistan.

Yousef was later arrested in Islamabad and is now imprisoned in the US. But he was the trailblazer for other inspired bombers in the region, laying the roots for Sawadjaan’s present suicide spree. Several Jemaah Islamiyah militants followed his path, crossing to Mindanao to train ASG cadres, who provided a safe haven in the Sulu islands. Co-conspirators of the 2002 Bali bombings, Dulmatin and Umar Patek, were two of the first, while later arrived Sanusi and Marwan. These connections boosted the bomb-making skills of Abu Sayyaf’s initial leaders, which were then passed to later generations of militants.

Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda also inspired Abu Sayyaf to carry-out large-scale, attention-grabbing attacks using IEDs, notably the 2004 bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay, which left 116 dead.

Islamic State bomb-makers

In more recent times, Abu Sayyaf’s bomb-making has been driven by a connection to the Islamic State and an influx of skilled foreign fighters inspired by its ideology. Last year, Lieut. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the Philippine armed forces’ Western Mindanao Command, confirmed at least seven foreign terrorists were with Abu Sayyaf, “training bombers” and “grooming” Filipinos to launch suicide missions. Authorities in Mindanao have previously suggested as many as 60 foreign jihadis may be active in the region, not just with Abu Sayyaf, but also with the Mautes and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Most likely arrived in a pre-Marawi influx, where they joined armed groups on Mindanao’s mainland. Despite maritime patrols, a smaller flow of militants has persisted to outlying islands in Tawi-Tawi and Sulu, on the porous western fringe of the Sulu Sea. This is reflected by the identity of recent attackers.

The first Abu Sayyaf suicide bombing, in July 2018, was carried out by a Moroccan national, Abu Kathir al-Maghribi, while the double Jolo cathedral blasts in January 2019 were perpetrated by an Indonesian husband and wife. The couple, identified by police as Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, had been deported from Turkey in 2016 with their three children after attempting to join the Islamic State in Syria. After completing a rehabilitation program upon their return, they traveled to Mindanao.

The next attack, which struck a military camp in Indanan last June, was carried out by a Filipino and a Moroccan. The fourth – and so-far, final – successful attack, saw an Egyptian woman wearing an Abaya blow herself up at an army base last September. In November, soldiers shot dead a further two Egyptian nationals wearing bomb vests in Indanan, thwarting an imminent attack. Upon DNA testing, they were revealed to be the husband and son of the female assailant. Initial hopes that the first blast was a one-off have now faded, and the security forces fear the tactic has been adopted permanently. 

Abu Sayyaf: bandits or ideologues?

Suicide blasts represent just the latest incarnation of Abu Sayyaf. The group has toyed with the idea of jihad since its beginnings but has primarily been motivated by profit and survival. Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani formed the group in 1990 as a splinter from the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front. Having studied theology in Libya, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, he placed religion at the forefront, hoping to bring an ultra-conservative form of Islam, centered on Wahhabi teachings, to the islands of Mindanao.

Yet after his death in 1998 at the hands of Philippine troops, and the American-led crackdown on Abu Sayyaf post-9/11, the group turned away from its ideological roots. Janjalani’s brother Khadaffy, who had succeeded him as leader, suffered the safe fate in a 2006 gunfight, leaving a void at the top. Abu Sayyaf turned to criminality and illicit economic activities to survive, co-operating with local gangs and drug syndicates.

The group fast became notorious for piracy and kidnappings-at-sea, seizing Western hostages for multi-million-dollar ransoms, and brutally beheading captives on video if their demands were left unmet. Without a unifying, central ideological figure, Abu Sayyaf split into disparate factions.

The state of flux ended with the emergence of Isnilon Hapilon, the chief architect of the Marawi siege. He pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, by which time he had risen to lead the largest Abu Sayyaf faction on Basilan island. Hapilon oversaw a reversion to jihadism as the primary motivator and a return to large-scale attacks. In September 2016, Abu Sayyaf killed 17 in an IED explosion at the night market in Davao, the home city of President Rodrigo Duterte. Hapilon was killed the following October in the dying days of the Marawi siege, but his ideology still defines Abu Sayyaf. His Islamic State-linked deputy, Furuji Indama, took over in Basilan, while Sawadjaan emerged as the main figurehead in Sulu.

Sawadjaan, in particular, was keen to harness the skills of foreign fighters. Evidence of this is contained in samples analyzed from the devices used in recent suicide blasts. The devices detonated in both Jolo and Lamitan contained ammonium nitrate and a different chemical signature to previous explosions, indicating a higher skill level among those who constructed them. Typically, IEDs deployed by armed actors in Mindanao have been more basic in nature, fashioned from improvised grenades and mortars.

While smaller Abu Sayyaf cells still exist in Tawi-Tawi and engage in maritime heists along the border with Malaysia, the majority of ASG fighters are unified behind Sawadjaan and Indama. Even veteran Sulu-based commander Radullan Sahiron, once averse to permitting foreign militants, had reportedly sided with Sawadjaan. Sahiron’s grandson Vikram, killed in April, was himself a bomb-maker. Head of the army in Sulu, Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan, linked Vikram to the device used in the Jolo suicide attack.

A tool for recruitment

It is the youth of Abu Sayyaf, like Vikram, who present the greatest concern to the government. In the past, the Moro struggle has been nationalist and separatist in nature, dominated by the long battle of the Moro National Liberation Front, and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for autonomy. Those groups have committed to peace. Their war was not driven by religious ideology, but by their identity as Moro Muslims. Although the Moros consist of 13 separate ethnic groups, they are bonded by their shared history of fighting oppression: first Spanish and American colonizers; then the Philippine state.

Jihad and suicide bombings were never on the agenda. In the age of the Islamic State, Abu Sayyaf has altered the narrative. Yet their adoption of this new shock tactic might say less about their long-term commitment to jihad and more about their need to survive. While other radical elements have faded away, Abu Sayyaf has proven resilient and adaptable for three decades. Not only profit, but its ability to recruit and replenish its ranks – routinely depleted by military offensives – are the key to its survival.

Suicide attacks not only aim to advance the jihadist cause, but to inspire radicalized youth to join-up, inspired by the propaganda of the Islamic State and the opportunistic ideologues leading Abu Sayyaf. But with the horror that suicide bombings provoke, the pressure from military offensives will only rise, pushing Sawadjaan and his followers deeper into their remote hideouts. If he meets the same fate as his radical predecessors of the 1990s, Abu Sayyaf’s latest turn to extremism may yet be short-lived.

Michael Hart (info.michaelhart@gmail.com) has researched for Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch. This is written for Asia Sentinel.