Abu Sayyaf’s Local and Global Prospects Look Increasingly Grim in the Philippines
In one of the most recent counter-insurgency successes against Abu Sayyaf, the Philippines army announced that 100 former fighters have renounced the group, pledged loyalty to the government, and returned to their homes in Sulu, southern Mindanao. Their rehabilitation program involves not only financial assistance, especially for food supplies, but also entrance into assisted learning programs and summer employment for youths (philstar.com, July 30).
This “carrot” approach toward Abu Sayyaf, however, has not detracted from the government’s “stick” approach with regards to the fighters who have not surrendered. One month before the 100 Abu Sayyaf members’ surrendered, the government designated five Islamic State (IS)-loyal Abu Sayyaf members as terrorists. Nevertheless, the military noted that even those members were largely unable to conduct any of their typical kidnapping-for-ransom schemes due to operational constraints, including a lack of funding (benarnews.org, June 16). In that respect, the cycle of Abu Sayyaf violence is set to diminish once funding dries up because this, in turn, further reduces the group’s operations and funding.
Moreover, even Abu Sayyaf’s attempted bombings have fallen short in recent weeks. The group, for example, bombed a fast food restaurant and a bus in Isabel City in May, but neither caused any fatalities, while leading to only minor property damage and injuries to civilians (rappler.com, June 1). Compared to much more lethal Abu Sayyaf bombings, such as the incident at a Jolo church in 2019 that killed 20 people, these bombings were much less deadly. Part of the reduction in Abu Sayyaf’s bombing capabilities can be attributed the arrests of the group’s members, including those responsible for the Jolo church bombings (aljazeera.com, January 6, 2021).
Another reason for Abu Sayyaf’s decreasing capabilities is the army’s continued pressure on the group’s leaders. In March, for example, Philippines’ troops killed Radzmil Jannatul, who had been wanted by the U.S since 2011 for abducting U.S citizens in Zamboanga that same year (manilatimes.net, March 28). Abu Sayyaf’s loss of Jannatul, who had replaced Furuji Indama as the group’s leader in Basilan two years after the army killed Indama, further incapacitated Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping-for-ransom operations, which are crucial for replenishing its funding.
Excluding the localized setbacks for Abu Sayyaf, the global-level picture is no more promising for the group. Various factions of Abu Sayyaf pledged loyalty to IS after Abubabakar al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate in 2014. Three years later, in 2017, Abu Sayyaf leaders participated in the siege of Marawi, Mindanao, which IS widely publicized in its propaganda (rappler.com, June 6, 2017). Yet, five years on, IS no longer holds its “territorial caliphate” in the Middle East and instead focuses more on its African “provinces,” which are as geographically far from the Philippines as possible (Terrorism Monitor, May 20). As a result, funding streams to IS’s short-lived “Southeast Asia Province” are likely negligible at present. Moreover, Marawi, which was intended to be IS’s crown achievement in Southeast Asia, is now under government control and is increasingly being rebuilt by the Philippines’ authorities. Accordingly, it has been generally stable since 2018 (scmp.com, May 26, 2021).
Abu Sayyaf is neither on the upswing nor necessarily defeated. However, any jihadist hopes for a revival will likely remain unfulfilled at least in the immediate future.
ISWAP Attacks Key Army Checkpoint Outside Nigerian Capital
On July 31, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) claimed an attack at the Zuba army checkpoint in Abuja (Twitter/legiolllgallica, July 30). The attack, which was originally attributed to “bandits” by the media and reportedly led to the deaths of two soldiers, occurred in the symbolic location of Abuja for three reasons (vanguardngr.com, July 29). First, Abuja, as the Nigerian capital, is far removed from the main battleground between ISWAP and the army in northeastern Borno State. Thus, ISWAP struck Nigeria “where it hurts” because it is the political heartland of the state and located in an area where attacks have been increasingly rare since 2011.
Second, the checkpoint was along the road leading to Suleja, Niger State. This town is where, on Christmas Day in 2011, ISWAP’s predecessors in “Boko Haram” conducted a massive church bombing that killed 43 people and injured well over 100 others. That attack was followed up by another one on a church in Suleja three months later that killed five (aljazeera.com, February 19, 2012). More than a decade later, the Christmas attack is still a source of psychological trauma for Christians in the area and Nigerians of all stripes more generally (punchng.com, December 29, 2021). The 2011 attack also became symbolic of Boko Haram’s transformation from an emerging terrorist cell into a militant force that could no longer be ignored. The fact that ISWAP is now operating again near Suleja after roughly a decade of dormancy in the region will revive lost history for Nigerians, who again must fear attacks in central Nigeria.
Third, the military checkpoint was near Zuma Rock, as the ISWAP claim indicated. The Abuja landmark is a common site for tourists and is, to some extent, a Nigerian national symbol. The attack will dissuade visitors from exploring that site. Moreover, the site is along the Kaduna-Abuja expressway, which is adjacent to the train route that itself was attacked by bandits in a massive hostage-taking of hundreds of passengers in March (tribuneonlineng.com, July 29). That train attack alongside this checkpoint attack and other ISWAP attacks south of Abuja in Kogi State since April will only further endanger, if not isolate Abuja, and enable ISWAP to lay siege to the capital (Terrorism Monitor, July 15).
However, considering that ISWAP has not been able to seize even Borno State’s capital, Maiduguri, it is unlikely the group will be able to effect anything more than making Abuja’s inhabitants, including political leaders, “feel” under siege through attacks in and around the city on a range of targets (Twitter/@Peccaviconsults, July 28). More broadly, however, reports of escapees from the ISWAP-claimed Kuje Prison break in July integrating with northwestern Nigerian bandits, including those involved in the Kaduna-Abuja train kidnapping, raises the likelihood ISWAP is consolidating its presence not only in central Nigeria, including the Kogi-Abuja-Kaduna axis, but also deeper into northwestern Nigeria (premiumtimes.ng, July 24). The rival Shekau faction, too, had demonstrated at least communication ties to northwestern Nigerian bandits before Shekau’s death in 2021 when Shekau himself claimed a kidnapping of more than 300 schoolboys in a split-screen video with the boys, although the bandits soon after exchanged the boys for an undisclosed compensation and likely without Shekau’s approval (dailynigerian.com, December 15, 2020).
ISWAP, which previously accepted al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansaru faction defectors into its ranks, will encounter Ansaru in northwestern Nigeria and either fight them or attempt to recruit them (al-Haqaiq, June 2018). One ex-factor is the death of al-Qaeda leader Aymen al-Zawahiri and whether a credible leader replaces him. While Ansaru has indicated Sayf al-Adl would be a suitable replacement for al-Zawahiri in its own media, it remains to be seen whether al-Adl will become al-Qaeda’s new leader and whether al-Adl or another new al-Qaeda leader can continue to inspire Ansaru members (Terrorism Monitor, May 20). This would dissuade any ISWAP attempts to recruit more defectors from Ansaru.