The noose may be tightening on Islamist militant rebels on Jolo island, but the rebellion clearly still has teeth, judging from a spate of attacks claimed by the Abu Sayyaf group on February 14. Bombs within one hour of each other exploded in crowded areas in three cities — General Santos, Davao and Manila, and left more than 12 people dead and over 130 injured. Abu Sayyaf says it carried out the attacks as a “Valentine’s gift” to the president, in revenge against a heavy military offensive launched on Muslim rebel strongholds on the southwestern island of Jolo. Authorities say more than 100 insurgents and over two dozen soldiers have been killed.
Though coming to notoriety as a kidnapping band through the 2001 raid on a tourist resort on the island of Palawan, (during which an American tourist was beheaded), in recent months Abu Sayyaf has been attempting to present itself as a nationwide insurgency group and claims to have joined up with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This group detached itself from its later formation, the more politically active Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is attempting to negotiate a peace treaty with Manila. The claim of fusion with Abu Sayyaf was vehemently denied by the MNLF Secretary General, Ustadz Murshi Ebrahim, on a February 14 posting on the MILF website Luwaran, on the grounds that Abu Sayyaf is “a group working outside the rules of what a truly revolutionary organization should be.” MILF itself also posted the following day a denunciation of the Abu Sayyaf Valentine’s Day bombings as “the handiwork of murderers” (www.luwaran.com).
But the claims of Abu Sayyaf’s involvement with the MNLF focuses on events on the island of Jolo. Here the death in early February of a family group (said by the military to be Abu Sayyaf members) sparked off an armed confrontation with the organization. After five days of clashes that left more than 60 dead (including 24 government soldiers), on February 16 the insurgents were chased out of a mountain stronghold near the town of Panamao. While the MILF denounced the Jolo clash as “not their war,” the February 14 posting on the website announced the arrival in Jolo of up to 3,500 MNLF forces that had declared the island a battle zone and would “keep on pestering government troops” stationed there (www.luwaran.com).
Manila, however, is confident that its enemy is in the throes of defeat, and that the February 14 bomb attacks were nothing more than a desperate “diversionary attack” to take the heat off Jolo. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has confirmed the government’s attention “to wipe out the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf,” and Abu Sayyaf has replied in kind. In a phone call to a radio station, Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Solaiman candidly stated his goal: “find more ways and means to inflict more harm to your people’s lives and properties.”
Manila’s sniff of victory along with the MNLF’s perception of a “new battle zone,” looks set to provoke an intensification of the conflict. Whatever the fate of the peace treaty, the attempts by “the enemies of Islam to sow division in the MILF”, according to Abu Solaiman in a report to the Philippine Daily Enquirer, will only mark out “those who prefer to sell their honor for a measly sum”. The equation, he states, “has developed into a clearer picture, much to our advantage” (www.inq7.net).