Radullan Sahiron—Is the Abu Sayyaf Leader Partnering with Islamic State in the Philippines?

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 11

On November 22, four members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) surrendered to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Patikul, Sulu province. One of the four was revealed to be the grandson of Radullan Sahiron, a leader of ASG and a multi-decade veteran of the Philippines’ insurgencies (Manila Bulletin, November 22). Sahiron is one of the most senior and highly respected of ASG’s factional leaders. He is also a prominent leader of the organization who has not pledged bay’ah (allegiance) to Islamic State. However, recent activity suggests that he is growing closer to that international organization, with worrying repercussions for the Philippines.

Sahiron is an ethnic Moro and is believed to have been born in either 1952 or 1955 in Kabbun Takas, Patikul, Sulu. He reportedly lost his right arm above the elbow while fighting the AFP in the 1970s, earning the nickname ‘Commander Putol’ (meaning ‘cut off’ in Filipino) (FBI.gov, February 27, 2007). Sahiron was originally associated with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), but left the group in 1992 to join Abu Sayyaf alongside other extremists who were disillusioned with that organization’s compromises with the Manila government. When Sahiron made the move to ASG, he had under his command a fighter named Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan. Sawadjaan is today the de facto leader of Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Islamic State East Asia province (ISEA) (Sunstar, February 22, 2019).

Sahiron has been a part of the ASG leadership for several decades, having reportedly joined the organization’s 14-member leadership council, the majlis shura, in 1999. In mid-2002, he acted as a close advisor to ASG leader Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani, who took over the position following the December 1998 death of his brother and ASG founder Abubakar Abubakar Janjalani.

From 2000 to 2003 he led a sub-group of the organization, ASG-Putol, which consisted of about a hundred fighters, before further climbing the ranks of the organization to become the overall commander of the group’s forces on Jolo Island, Sulu province. At this point, Sahiron reportedly commanded approximately a thousand fighters. After Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani’s death in September 2006, Sahiron emerged as one of the group’s senior leaders, alongside Yasir Igasan and Isnilon Hapilon (UNSC, April 17, 2018).

Sahiron has been on the FBI’s most wanted list since 1993, when he was involved in the kidnapping of a U.S. citizen (FBI.gov, February 27, 2007). Sahiron was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department in November 2005. The department cited his involvement as a key leader in multiple kidnapping-for-ransom operations. The largest such operation he oversaw was the April 2000 kidnapping of 21 tourists, including Westerners, Malaysians, and Filipinos. By December 2003, Sahiron likely raised more than $636,000 from several kidnapping-for-ransom operations.

The ASG leader is also responsible for coordinating a series of bombing attacks that killed 11 people and wounded 200 others in October 2002. The bombs used in the attack reportedly were assembled in his headquarters (Treasury.gov, November 30, 2005).

Since these exploits in the early 2000s and his rise to further leadership in 2006, Sahiron has continued to use Jolo Island, specifically the mountainous town of Patikul, as a base of operations. He has taken part in multiple gunfights with the AFP, who have relentlessly targeted him. In April 2015, the AFP engaged in a two hour firefight with forces led by Sahiron (Rappler, April 9, 2015). He was reportedly injured engaging soldiers associated with the AFP’s Joint Task Force Sulu in March 2016 (The Philippine Star, March 19, 2016).

Sahiron has historically not associated with foreign fighters and has not pledged loyalty to Islamic State (Asia Sentinel, April 24). That Sahiron would not allow foreign fighters in his group—believing them to be “magnets for military airstrikes”—led current IS-EA leader Sawadjaan to leave his command (Sunstar, February 22, 2019). Sahiron’s aversion to following Islamic State, and instead focusing on conducting criminal activities, led to a splintering within the larger ASG organization in 2014, as Islamic State-aligned ASG leaders, such as the now-dead Isnilon Hapilon and Sawadjaan, pushed for more terrorist attacks.

Recent events, however, seem to indicate that he has changed policies, or at least made a temporary marriage of convenience with the ASG faction affiliated with Sawadjaan’s IS-EA. Analysts have speculated that increased operations by the AFP in Patikul have pushed Sahiron’s faction and IS-EA together. Sahiron and Sawadjaan jointly commanded an ambush of AFP soldiers on April 17, which involved approximately 40 IS-EA/ASG fighters, and killed 12 Filipino soldiers, wounding 13 (Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines Report, June 30, 2020).

A day after the ambush, AFP soldiers killed Vikram Sahiron, Radullan’s grandson. Vikram Sahiron was a bomb-maker who was reportedly involved in both the April 17 ambush and the January 19, 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombing (Rappler, April 19). Sawadjaan was allegedly the “mastermind and financier” of the cathedral bombing, which killed 23 and wounded over 100 others (Rappler, July 24, 2019).

On November 3, 2020, the Joint Task Force Sulu intercepted an ASG speedboat that, according to the AFP, was planning to conduct kidnapping-for-ransom activities. The seven militants onboard the speedboat were killed in the encounter with the Filipino military. Two of the dead were nephews of Sawadjaan, and the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command said that the operation they were conducting was being overseen by both Sawadjaan and Sahiron (CNN Philippines, November 3).

Sahiron has seemingly avoided closer ties to Islamic State’s affiliates in the Philippines since the first ASG factions made their oaths to former Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 due to an aversion to hosting foreign fighters and a predilection toward focusing on criminal activities and minimizing risks. Sawadjaan, meanwhile, has introduced foreign fighters—something Sahiron has opposed—and suicide bombing tactics to the insurgency in Sulu.

Increasing pressure from the AFP is pushing Sahiron closer to Sawadjaan’s IS-EA, as indicated by their recent collaborations. ASG factions are organized within familial and clan-based cells, so the fact that family members of both leaders have reportedly worked for the other side is indicative of a growing integration between the factions. Should the two formally combine their forces, it would change the dynamic of the insurgency for the worst, augmenting the number of fighters the insurgency is able to place in the field while potentially simplifying their chain-of-command. Furthermore, it could act as a beacon to other extremists in the Philippines and the wider region, especially should Sahiron acquiesce to Sawadjaan’s policy of allowing foreign fighters to join the group. Differences in policies, leadership styles, and the continued domination of familial-based faction within ASG are likely to keep these leaders and their followers from fully integrating their operations, but their cooperation will, at the very least, hurt the AFP’s mission of stabilizing this volatile province.