Abu Sayyaf, also known as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) or Al Harakat Al Islamiyya, is an Islamic terrorist organisation, primarily operating in the Philippines. With their name literally translating to ‘Bearer of the Sword,’ Abu Sayyaf is an organisation that has been known to conduct terrorist and criminal operations.
Whilst membership has depleted in recent years, Abu Sayyaf remain active in the region as a designated terrorist organisation. The group was responsible for the Philippines’ most deadly terrorist attack in history; the 2004 bombing of MV SuperFerry 14, which killed 116 people.
As ASG has former ties to Al Qaeda, they remain of strategic importance to both the US and the Philippines.
Abu Sayyaf emerged in 1989 under the separatist Muslim movement in the Philippines. At the time, it was comprised mainly of former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members and led by Abudurajak Janjalani. Following his death, the group has shown resilience in changing of leadership, with a move towards a regional leader structure to increase agile and decentralised operations.
ASG reportedly built strategic and economic ties with Al Qaeda throughout the 1990s. The UN notes that Usama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jammal Khalifa, used an organisation to fund Abu Sayyaf’s training and weaponry programmes.
However, relations with Al Qaeda deteriorated in the early 2000s, which has been attributed to Janjalani’s death. The financial link between Al Qaeda and ASG therefore was severed, changing the nature of Abu Sayyaf towards terrorism and crime as means of financing. More recently, ASG has known ties to both Jemaah Islamiyah and Rajah Solaiman, other Islamic radical groups operating throughout the Sulu region.
ASG Organisation and Ideology
Abu Sayyaf maintain a highly decentralised structure, with regional leaders across different areas of control. ASG publicly named Yasser Igasan as the party leader. However, other regional leaders include Radulan Sahiron, Isnilon Hapilon, and Gumbahli Jumdail. This decentralised structure allows for agile operations and multinational naval operations to occur.
Most historians and analysts define Abu Sayyaf as an Islamic Separatist organisation, with specific ideologies associated with Islam within the Philippines. Officially, ASG is considered a splinter group of IS. It has repeatedly campaigned to establish an Islamic state in the Philippines, operating under Sharia law. ASG has also publicly declared its allegiance to IS.
However, recent studies suggest that, ideologically, ASG has very few ties to Islamic extremist ideologies. Authors argue ASG in fact is better described as a criminal or pirate organisation. Commentators suggest that ASG’s allegiance to IS is unlikely to be ideological – rather, to appeal to potential new recruits in Muslim-majority areas in the Philippines, in light of declining membership numbers.
Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TPP)
As previously discussed, ASG conducts mainly organised crime operations, with its large major terrorist attack being in 2019.
Abu Sayyaf is mainly active in Southern Philippine Islands, with known presence in Zamboanga City, Sulu Archipelago, and Mindanao. However, reports also suggest a smaller presence in Manila and Indonesia. Similarly, ASG conducts naval operations, conducting pirate operations throughout the entire Sulu region, using common arms and human smuggling routes as form of financing.
ASG is known to have asymmetric maritime capabilities within the Sulu and Celebes Seas against Philippine authorities. Therefore, members are able to travel with relative ease across multiple islands to evade capture. This is through existing established networks and illicit trading routes.
The most common modern operations of Abu Sayyaf are:
Notably, one of the ASG’s most lucrative and common tactics is Kidnap for Ransom (KFR). Abu Sayyaf gained US$7.3 million from KFR operations across 35 hostages in 2016 alone.
Membership of Abu Sayyaf is low in recent years, with estimates suggesting that numbers have dropped as low as 50 members. This has decreased from a force of around 400 in the early 2010s, and 2000 members at the height of the group’s power.
The reduction in membership to the organisation is largely due to an intense crackdown on organised crime and extremism following the 9/11 attacks. Following this, in 2002, the US committed 1,300 soldiers and almost US$93 million in military aid to the Philippine government to aid the war on Abu Sayyaf. The joint naval exercises and counter-terrorism training, now conducted on an annual basis under the name ‘Exercise Balikatan,’ has significantly improved official monitoring and policing of ASG activities.
Despite depleting membership throughout the twentieth century, Abu Sayyaf remains a significant strategic threat to the Philippines, as well as a significant target for both the Philippine and US war on terrorism. As a result, major Abu Sayyaf operations include:
- Multiple kidnapping operations throughout 2000 and 2001
- 2004 bombing of MV SuperFerry 14 – the highest number of casualties for any naval-based terrorist attack
- 2005 simultaneous bombings in multiple cities including Manila
- 2007 multiple attacks on marines and government officials
- 2016 bombing in Davao City, killing a minimum of 15 people
- 2019 bombing of a Cathedral in Jolo, killing a minimum of 18 people
In 2019, military personnel seized an ASG arms stronghold in Sulu, which suggests ongoing activity in the region. Whilst there have been no major terrorist attacks attributed to Abu Sayyaf in recent years, Philippines forces have continued to investigate and seize weaponry from the group, as recently as July 2021. This includes both small arms as well as larger machine weaponry.
Reporting suggests that ASG’s organised criminal activities, such as KFR, robbery, and arms smuggling continue up to 2021 as a means of financing.
Whilst membership is lower than ever, Abu Sayyaf remains active and agile within the wider Sulu region. Their previous links to Al Qaeda, and more recent ties to IS and JI, make the group of specific strategic interest to the US war on terror and Philippine counter-terrorism efforts.
Recent maritime and criminal operations suggest an increase in Abu Sayyaf’s available capital, potentially resulting in further terrorist activities in the future.