Abu Sayyaf’s Renewed Capabilities in the Philippines

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
161115-SEA-gunaratna-620.jpg Philippine soldiers fire Howitzer cannons toward positions held by Abu Sayyaf militants in Jolo, Sulu province, Sept. 3, 2016.

One of the oldest terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has re-emerged in the southern Philippines. Through collecting ransom money for hostages in its captivity, the militant group is developing capabilities to conduct long-range operations to kidnap more tourists and crew members of ships.

Despite efforts by the Philippine police and military to deal with the threat, ASG has stepped up operations on land and sea. By boarding vessels off the Philippine coast, ASG has attacked pleasure craft, tugs and fishing boats as a source of revenue.

However, ASG is building its capabilities to launch operations away from its heartland. In a landmark maritime operation, ASG successfully targeted a cargo ship just off the southern entry of the Sibutu Passage, a 29 km- (18 mile-) wide channel used by merchant shipping in transit between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.

On Oct. 20, ASG gunmen in a speedboat boarded the 11,400-ton heavy load carrier Dong Bang Giant 2, abducting the Korean captain, Park Chul Hong, and a Filipino crewman, Glenn Alindajao, 30, a master mariner – in the first kidnapping incident aboard a merchant ship.

Historically, ASG threatened the national security of the Philippines and, on occasion, it extended its reach to Sabah, eastern Malaysia. But its operation on Oct. 20 threatens the region’s security.

A hybrid

ASG is a hybrid group engaged in criminal and terrorist activity on land and at sea. Formed in 1991, ASG is led today by Radulan Sahiron, who has amassed more than U.S. $10 million in kidnaping for ransom operations during the year, according to reports.

The ransom payments emboldened the ASG and enhanced its long-range operational capabilities. The theater of conflict is shifting and expanding, and the lack of government capacity to fight back is becoming increasingly evident.

With both a terrorist and guerrilla capability, ASG is the most capable threat group in the Philippines and added to its capability during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III.

Despite the Philippine security forces killing 200 ASG leaders, members and supporters in 2015, ASG recruitment grew from 449 to 506, a 16.71 percent increase. In 2015, there were 148 ASG-initiated violent incidents, a 70.11 percent increase compared to the 87 incidents in 2014.

There were 46 IED attacks in 2015, marking a 275 percent increase from 12 incidents in 2014. Most IED attacks occurred in Basilan where Indonesian, Malaysian and Moroccan fighters aligned to the so-called Islamic State (IS) teamed up with Isnilon Hapilon, ASG deputy leader and leader responsible for Basilan. In preparation for joining IS, Hapilon broke away from ASG and unified several groups that pledged allegiance to IS and invited foreign fighters.

“Despite the government’s law enforcement operations and focused military operations which resulted in the neutralization of hundreds of ASG-linked personalities, its manpower and firearms continue to increase due to the inclusion of newly identified personalities, recruitment efforts and procurement of war material, funding for which emanates from ransom payments derived from its kidnap-for-ransom activities,” the Joint Armed Forces of the Philippines-Philippine National Police Intelligence Committee (JAPC) reported in March 2016.

Both the Philippine military and police will need to deploy more operational troops to contain, isolate and eliminate the ASG threat. Furthermore, both AFP and PNP will need operational and intelligence support from their regional and international partners.

Held hostage

At present, ASG is holding nearly two dozen captives. In addition to Filipinos, ASG kidnapped a Dutch, a Korean, a German, six Vietnamese, five Malaysians, and two Indonesians. In addition to Filipinos, ASG released Indonesian and Malaysian sailors and nationals of other countries after their ransoms were paid.

On Nov. 8, Gen. Ricardo Visaya, chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, expressed confidence in neutralizing the ASG in Basilan and Sulu before he stepped down on Dec. 8.

Nonetheless, the ASG threat is likely to persist and worsen unless the government builds greater counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency capabilities. Philippine military and political leaders had made similar pledges and vows to wipe out ASG, but they failed repeatedly.

The threat groups in the Philippines are undergoing dramatic change with the influence of the IS. An al-Qaeda centric group, ASG is transforming into an IS-centric group with ASG members lured by IS propaganda.

The Sulu-based ASG, led by Sahiron, suffered after his deputy, Isnilon Hapilon, who led the Basilan faction, broke away in 2015. With its Basilan faction joining IS and forming the Islamic State of the Philippines (ISP), ASG is trying to recover by stepping up its operations.

Unlike ASG, the local branch of Islamic State also engages in criminal activity – notably extortion – to raise funds. Although ISP has not engaged in kidnappings, it has received significant funding from IS central and IS regional associates.

Government response

The Philippines, meanwhile, heavily relies on international counterterrorism operational and intelligence support. The capacity of the Philippines to fight terrorism and insurgency will diminish if its new president, Rodrigo Duterte, shifts closer to China. Chinese counter-terrorism capabilities are 20 years behind the United States.

Philippine-U.S. relations suffered after Duterte launched a campaign to eliminate drug traffickers and drug dealers. According to human rights organizations, at least 3,680 people have been killed by police and unidentified attackers in the Philippines, from June 30 to early October.

Although the campaign to eliminate drug traffickers and dealers is popular within the Philippines, the European Union., U.N., other entities and a few Western countries have expressed reservation. Angered by American criticism over his campaign to kill the drug dealers, Duterte called for the withdrawal of U.S. special forces.

From 2002-2015, the U.S. Special Operations Forces were deployed to train and advise Philippine units fighting ASG. Although Duterte is determined to dismantle ASG, his call for a U.S. withdrawal will hamper the greater international cooperation and collaboration needed to maintain the military and police’s combat and intelligence capabilities.

This month, Duterte also authorized Indonesia and Malaysia to engage ASG in hot pursuit in the waters of the Philippines. These three affected nations are expected to discuss a standard operating procedure (SOP) and legal aspects of the operational plan when the defense ministers meet in Vientiane, Laos on Nov. 22.

Challenges for Duterte

The response of the Philippine authorities to the emerging threat of IS was belated. The Aquino administration refused to accept that IS had created a nucleus in Basilan and that an IS-centric threat landscape was emerging. With 16 IS-linked entities operating in the Philippines, the Duterte administration faces twin challenges.

First, it must eliminate the emerging IS threat by targeting ISP and other local groups that have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of IS. These entities include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in Central Mindanao, and Islamic State Lanao (ISL).

Second, it must neutralize the ASG, the group responsible for both terrorist attacks and piracy. The core strength of ASG is in Western Mindanao – the Sulu Archipelago consisting of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi.

Until Manila develops capabilities to dismantle the threat groups on land, create a maritime corridor with security escorts, and regulates foreigners visiting high-risk zones, terrorism and piracy will persist and may even grow.

The Philippine government will need the support of the international community to fight the renewed capabilities of the ASG. To develop an aggressive response to dismantle the ASG, Manila will have to retain its intelligence capabilities and build new operational capabilities.


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