Saturday, January 27, 2007

Abu Sayyaf on the run

The Philippines military has stepped up its campaign to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf Group, a local ally of Jemaah Islamiyah. The army is carrying out Operation Plan Ultimatum, a campaign against the group’s base in the southern island of Sulu. The operation started in August and involves at least 7,500 soldiers. The military believe they have Abu Sayyaf on the run after killing many of its leaders in the last few months.

Abu Sayyaf is a small offshoot of a larger rebel group with only about 400 core members. However it has been held responsible for the Philippines' worst terrorist attack, the bombing of a ferry near Manila Bay in 2004 that killed at least 100 people. It became known in the West after a series of high profile tourist kidnappings from Malaysian resorts in 2000. It was originally a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), but split off in 1991 to pursue more fundamentalist goals.

The group has links to the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah whose long-term objective is the creation of a Pan-Asian Islamic state. The top leader of Abu Sayyaf was Khadaffy Janjalani. His elder brother Abdulrajik Janjalani was the founder of the group and leader until he was killed in 1998 by Philippines security forces. Khadaffy then took the helm. The younger Janjalani was a student of Mindanao State University before dropping out to join his brother’s group. It was alleged was killed in a gun battle with elite Marine soldiers in the outskirts of Patikul town in Sulu in September. Finally on 20 January, the government released the result of a DNA test to prove indeed it was Janjalani who was killed.

A week ago, Philippines President Gloria Arroya vowed to wipe out the country’s Islamist rebel groups a day after the military killed 10 Abu Sayyaf separatists in an hour-long gun battle on the southern island of Jolo. The engagement came in the week after day after the military killed two of Abu Sayyaf’s top five leaders, Abu Suleiman and Binang Sali.

In the Jolo incident a team of marines encountered 30 Abu Sayyaf rebels, and killed ten of them and captured two others. Three marines were also killed. The marines were part of a 6,000 strong group who are in pursuit of the rebel group. Two days earlier on the same island, troops clashed with about sixty Abu Sayyaf members, and killed Abu Sulaiman.

Sulaiman was a prize catch. The US had put a bounty of $5 million on his head. Nicknamed “the Engineer” Sulaiman was wanted on 21 counts of kidnapping, murder and “conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction”. He was one of the masterminds of the 2004 ferry sinking. He was also the logical successor to Janjalani.

Abu Sayyaf has been active since the early 1990s. The Janjalani brothers founded the movement in Isabela City on the small island of Basilan off the coast of Zamboanga City. The original Abu Sayyaf (Arabic for “bearer of the sword” or "father of the swordsman", according to the BBC) was an Afghan mujahedin fighter against the Russians in 1980s. The Philippine version is based in the south of the country’s Muslim heartland. A Saudi businessman living in the Philippines, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa provided crucial finance in the early days.

With the two leaders Janjalani (pictured) and Abu Sulaiman now dead, the group has no obvious successor. Romeo Ricardo, chief of the national police's Intelligence Group, said the two were the main contacts to Islamic militants in Indonesia and Middle Eastern donors who have provided funding and combat training. Two Indonesians on the run from the 2002 Bali bombing, Umar Patek and Dulmatin may yet provide the outside links and bomb making skills. Both are believed to be in Jolo. In the meantime, it is likely that the remaining militants will split into even smaller groups in order to evade capture.

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