The origins of the Filipino terrorist group known as Abu Sayyaf date back to the 1990’s. The group split from the Moro National Liberation Front, a movement in the Philippines seeking Muslim independence in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. When the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace treaty with the Filipino government in 1996, some who still sought independence joined Abu Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf became an extremist, Muslim terrorist group, forming under the leadership of Abdurajak Akubakar Janjalani, who fought alongside Osama Bin Laden in the Soviet-Afghan war. Inspired, funded, and trained by Al-Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf(“bearer of the sword”) gained traction in the thick jungles of the underpopulated southern Philippines, territory it controls to this day. Its exact membership has never truly been known, but Abu Sayyaf is currently estimated to have only about 400 members.
Over the years, Abu Sayyaf has degenerated from a notorious guerrilla group seeking a caliphate, to a fragmented gang whose goals seem to be mostly related to profit. The main factor behind Abu Sayyaf’s transformation is its decreased centralization. Under its first leader, Abdurajak Akubakar Janjalani, Abu Sayyaf had a clear chain of command and the political goal of a caliphate. His death by security forces in 1998 passed power on to his brother, Khadaffy Janjalani. The group was still strongly centralized, and it really began making its way into the limelight in 2000, when it kidnapped 10 western tourists, and 11 Asians. Abu Sayyaf acquired its first ransom for these hostages in August of 2001, as Muammar Gaddafi, then leader of Libya, is said to have paid millions of dollars for their return. Under Janjalini’s leadership the group continued many successful kidnappings for more ransoms, often beheading victims if their demands were not met. Seeking to assert its power and possibly scare the Filipino government into officially giving up some territory for a caliphate, the group firebombed a ferry in Manila Bay on February 27, 2004 , killing 116 people in the largest terror attack in the Philippines’ history. Khadaffy Janjalani was killed over two years later by the Filipino military in September of 2006, fracturing the group’s centralization, and causing Abu Sayyaf to begin its transformation into a gang.
Factions of Abu Sayyaf still claim to seek a caliphate, and a few have dedicated themselves to ISIS, but the reasons for this declaration are likely for monetary aid. No evidence of aid has come. This could very well be because of Abu Sayyaf’s fragmentation into what essentially is a group of gangs. Abu Sayyaf’s unifying goal may no longer be a caliphate, but the one common motivation amongst its factions remains the extortion through kidnappings. The group’s lack of unity proved to be a detriment in 2015, when one faction wanted a larger ransom than another. This disagreement led to the beheading of a Malaysian hostage. Abu Sayyaf’s transformation into a gang has indeed not made it any less brutal. In April and June of 2016, two Canadian men abducted from a resort were beheaded when the Canadian government refused to pay the ransom. Clearly, even a decentralized Abu Sayyaf is not a group to be trifled with, even if their power is dwindling.
This dwindling power comes in large part from an order of eradication by President Rodrigo Duterte. When Abu Sayyaf formed it had a decent amount of support locally, but Duterte has mobilized the largest amount of Filipino troops in the country’s history to accomplish their defeat, and support from the villages of the Southern Philippines is, according to Filipino General De La Vega, now “considerable”. Working in familiar territory, constantly finding new hiding places, Abu Sayyaf, despite its minimal support will be difficult to destroy completely. The problem is quite vaguely reminiscent to the difficulties the U.S. military experienced in Vietnam, as well as the difficulties the British faced fighting the colonists in the American Revolution. Knowledge of the local terrain is undoubtedly an advantage in battle. However, compared to both the Vietnamese and the American colonists, Abu Sayyaf is a far less organized group. Abu Sayyaf by no means looks to be a threat to the broader international community, but its total destruction will prove challenging. However, all in all, being as fragmented as it is, the Filipino army’s growing presence, and its decreasing support among locals makes the likelihood of a resurgence by Abu Sayyaf nearly impossible.