WHO ARE THE TERRORISTS BEHIND ABU SAYYAF?
In a two-minute video filmed somewhere in the southern Philippine jungle, a diminutive militant with a black mask and a childlike voice read out his “ultimatum” to behead a Canadian hostage unless he was paid an $8-million ransom.
“God is Great,” the gunmen around him chanted.
After officials confirmed Monday that hostage John Ridsdel had been killed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “an act of coldblooded murder” by a “terrorist group” and said Canada would “pursue those responsible for this heinous act.”
But Zachary Abuza, a leading scholar on terrorism in Southeast Asia, isn’t convinced the kidnappers should be called terrorists. Although they project that image and wave ISIL flags, he believes that is theatre meant to drive up their demands.
“I’m not even sure they have a political agenda,” said Abuza, a professor at the Naval War College in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively about Abu Sayyaf. “They like to think they do but, I mean, they don’t have a very clear stated political goal.”
Abu Sayyaf was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Janjalani, a Filipino who had been part of an international brigade that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. He and his brother, Khaddafy, who replaced him after his death, advocated for the creation of an Islamic state in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines.
The group was financed by a Saudi businessman named Mohammed Jama Khalifa, according to a Council of Foreign Relations report. But kidnapping for ransom eventually became “the main funding mechanism for the group,” said the Australian government’s national security website.
The Canadian government similarly defines Abu Sayyaf largely as a kidnapping racket. “Ostensibly, the group’s goal is the establishment of an Islamic state government by sharia law,” according to the Public Safety Canada website. “In practice, however, the ASG primarily uses terrorism for profit.”
Abu Sayyaf is composed of between 200 and 400 fighters spread across the Sulu Archipelago, most of them young Filipino Muslims, although the Australian government’s listing said that, “ASG membership at times has included foreign jihadists.”
Abuza said Abu Sayyaf ’s claim to be a Muslim separatist movement was undermined by its lack of a mass following. The group has done practically nothing to win over the local population and has not demonstrated a grasp of the faith it claims to follow, he said.
“I don’t think they would know a Koran if it fell from the sky and hit them in the head. I really do think that they are a very opportunistic kidnap-for-ransom gang that is constantly able to forge connections with other groups,” the professor said.
While Abu Sayyaf was once aligned with al-Qaida, it recently pledged allegiance to ISIL. The ISIL flag appeared in the background of the videos it released demanding money to spare Ridsdel, his fellow Canadian Robert Hall, a Norwegian man and a Filipino woman.
There is little evidence, however, of meaningful ties between the ASG and ISIL, said Abuza. For example, ASG members have not been turning up in Syria and Iraq, he said. He believes the ASG is exploiting the ISIL brand for shock value.
“I certainly think it’s done to increase the psychological pressure on the captives, their families and their government. They’ve only pulled out the IS imagery when they’ve kidnapped Westerners, never any of the Asians or Filipinos,” he said. When they haven’t received the ransoms they wanted Abu Sayyaf, which means “Bearers of the Sword,” has beheaded its hostages, including a Malaysian last November. “They’ve done this many times before, this is not the first time,” Abuza said.
I DON’T THINK THEY WOULD KNOW A KORAN IF IT FELL FROM THE SKY AND HIT THEM IN THE HEAD. — ZACHARY ABUZA, LEADING SCHOLAR ON SOUTHEAST ASIAN TERRORISM THEY’VE ONLY PULLED OUT (ISLAMIC STATE) IMAGERY WHEN THEY’VE KIDNAPPED WESTERNERS.