By: Criselda Yabes

The discovery Monday, April 25, of the beheading of a Canadian tourist held hostage by Islamist militants in the Philippines outraged foreign leaders and locals alike as the outside world again was touched by the country’s seemingly endless cycle of violence in remote parts of Mindanao.

John Ridsdel, held hostage with three others since September, was killed after a deadline set by Abu Sayyaf militants passed. The others, a Norwegian and a Filipina, are sill under threat with a demand for $27 million in ransom still on the table. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the death “an act of cold-blooded murder” by terrorists.

The people behind the terror

It is an act of murder that goes back in a long line to thousands of senseless deaths on the strife-torn island. We try to make sense of the senseless through the reporting of Criselda Yabes, who recently spent a week in Mindanao reporting on the conflict. Here is her report:

Scrolling through her Facebook posts on her phone, Amina Aban saw the face of the soldier who killed her father, who was a known commander of a Muslim rebel army in Mindanao. The photograph was one of many that went viral after 18 soldiers were killed in a long-running gun battle in the southern Philippines. 
The man who had gunned down Amina’s father during the peak of an all-out military campaign that took place nearly two decades ago was also a Muslim. He had joined the armed forces as part of an earlier peace resolution with the dominant rebel group back in the 1990s, later becoming a sergeant. 

Amina’s story is a simple narrative buried in the complexities of the Mindanao south where both sides – the government and the rebel groups – have failed to build the conditions for peace in what was once a fertile promised land.

The Cycle Starts Again

The Mindanao problem does not end because of corruption, incompetence, tribal rivalries, clan feuds, lack of governance, an entire gamut born of historical misunderstandings.

For Amina, her grief has come full circle, quietly. For the country, Mindanao’s violence has perpetuated itself for nearly half a century of strife and rebellion.

The bloody firefight that claimed the lives of the men of the 44th Infantry Battalion on the island of Basilan two weeks ago was but another example of the chain of setbacks in military strategy. It undergoes repetitions and revisions, strategies that are not consistent in finding an end to the Mindanao saga.

Casualties of this magnitude have occurred twice before in the past decade on Basilan island alone. Always it was a scene of carnage and some beheadings by the rebels, creating shock-waves in Manila when it reaches the news, as if what people read still carries the shades of the pre-colonial wars during the era of the sultanates.

Terrorism in the south has made different turns since the 1970s when independence was the war cry of Filipino Muslims. Years of fighting and losses have narrowed claims for autonomy in five provinces, themselves divided among varied ethnic groups from the mainland of Mindanao to the islands of the Sulu Archipelago, where radicals easily roam.

Abu Sayyaf and ISIS

Today rebels of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group – many say they are criminals hiding under the banner of Islamism – are seeking an alliance with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, with the younger generation splitting away from older rival leaders previously allied with Al-Qaeda. Some are just in their 20s, forming factions within the rim of the archipelago, according to an army source on the ground.

Military intelligence classifies them as “ISIS-inspired” looking for external support and attention for their so-called jihad in Mindanao. Following the near demise of their elders and leaders that was brought on by a “war against terror” aided by American forces in the south during the 2000s, the Abu Sayyaf used kidnappings in exchange for ransom to sustain their militancy.

Acting like pirates from the old days, the Abu Sayyaf kidnap their victims even from across the maritime border in Malaysia and Indonesia. Eighteen have been taken as of late, and millions of pesos have been demanded for their freedom. The Canadian was one such victim; a Malaysian captive was beheaded late last year upon failing to pay ransom, an new development in Abu Sayyaf’s horrific record.