The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) recently announced the capture of three members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG); all three were wanted in conjunction with their roles in the 2001 kidnapping of some 20 vacationers at the Dos Palmas dive resort on the island of Palawan (The Sun-Star, May 10). The hostages included Gracia and Martin Burnham, a missionary couple, and Guillermo Sobero, who was beheaded by his captors. The attacks on the Americans were the casus belli for the intervention of U.S. forces in the southern Philippines in early 2002. The first of the militants apprehended was Sharie Amiruddin, known as Abu Omar, who was captured in Zamboanga (The Sun-Star, April 26). His arrest was quickly followed by that of Abdusalih Dimah, who was captured on Basilan Island (The Sun-Star, April 30). Last week, the Philippine military caught Komoni Pael, known as Abu Bara, another noted member of the cell, in Isabella (AP, May 9).
These arrests raise two important points. The ASG was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Janjalani, a veteran of the Afghan mujahideen who befriended Osama bin Laden and received seed money for the ASG. The ASG continued to receive al-Qaeda funds through 1995 until Ramzi Yousef’s plan to blow up 11 U.S. jet liners and assassinate the pope went awry. Without a steady stream of al-Qaeda funding, and with the 1998 death of Janjalani, the group degenerated into several loosely-affiliated kidnap-for-ransom gangs, earning millions of dollars. Between 1996-2002, the ASG was a criminal nuisance and not a terrorist threat, and hardly one with al-Qaeda links.
After this period, however, developments changed the situation. The first development was the U.S. intervention in 2002, which led to the neutralization of two of the most important kidnap leaders, Ghalib Andang and Abu Sabaya. This allowed Janjalani’s younger brother to consolidate power and bring the organization back to its original jihadist orientation. Since 2002, Khadaffy Janjalani, who has a $10 million bounty on his head, has forged closer ties with Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Since 2004, the ASG has become a genuine terrorist organization, executing several bombings including the February 2004 bombing of the MV SuperFerry 14, which killed 194 people. None of these three captured militants, however, have been identified as part of Khadaffy’s faction, nor have they been linked to the spate of ASG-related terrorism since 2004, including attacks on U.S. personnel. Thus, while these arrests are important, they have not shed significant light on the triangular relationship between the ASG, JI and MILF.
The second and more disturbing question has to do with the ASG’s resiliency, especially in the face of four years of concerted U.S. military assistance to the AFP. There are currently some 660 U.S. troops in the southern Philippines providing support and training for their Philippine counterparts, who are still hampered by an appalling lack of leadership, resources, corruption and institutional integrity. U.S. training, the annual “Balikbatan” exercises and the provision of tens of millions of dollars in military assistance in each of the past few years has not led to the group’s defeat. The ASG, if anything, has grown into a greater terrorist threat today than it was in 2002. The estimated 300 members of the ASG are concentrated on the islands of Jolo, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. This archipelago has been the primary conduit of members of JI to get to and from Mindanao where they have received sanctuary and training in MILF camps.
On a positive note, Komoni Pael and Abdusalih Dimah were captured following tip-offs from the local population, indicating that the human intelligence network of the Philippine security forces is improving and that the U.S. presence has not caused a popular backlash.