New fighters flock to join cash-rich rebels

By Luz Baguioro, The Straits Times, 3 September 2000

MANILA—A flood of ransom money has drawn thousands of new recruits to the Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang and has turned the rebel group into a hydra that has become more difficult for the Philippine government to slay, analysts and authorities said yesterday.

Believing that kidnapping foreigners for ransom is a profitable business, many poor and desperate Muslims have joined the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf.

As the group reaps more cash and amasses arms and troops, authorities admit that the Abu Sayyaf will be harder to subdue.

Already, several factions of the group function as separate kidnap rings that prey on foreigners.

Ransom payments are determined by nationality, with Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya saying recently that one American is worth 10 Europeans—an apparent reference to kidnap leader Ghalib Andang's success at getting up to US$1 million (S$1.74 million) for the European captives he had released in recent weeks.

But the ransom windfall could turn the Abu Sayyaf into a more vicious problem than the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is reckoned to have around 25,000 fighters based in Mindanao.

Andang, known popularly as Commander Robot, abducted 21 Western tourists and resort workers from Malaysia's Sipadan resort island in April. Up to US$15 million had been paid to the kidnappers in exchange for the release of all but one of the hostages.

Military authorities said the ransom spoils were spent on a new speedboat, weapons, clothes and gold jewellery.

The speedboat is believed to have been used in the Abu Sayyaf's second cross-border kidnapping on Sunday, when they snatched three Malaysians from Pandanan island.

More and more people are going to fall into the hands of these people, especially now that they have become so strong. They have all the resources, warned Muslim chieftain Nur Misuari, governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Mr Misuari, who dropped his secessionist bid after signing a peace accord with the government in 1996, said his group, the Moro National Liberation Front, lost 5,000 outstanding freedom fighters to the cash-rich Abu Sayyaf.

Even from their southern stronghold on Jolo island, the gunmen have succeeded in undermining faith in the government of President Joseph Estrada, in destroying tourism and in endangering trade routes serving Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and the southern Philippines.

National Security Adviser Alexander Aguirre said the Abu Sayyaf were more difficult to deal with than the MILF.

It is much easier to talk to the MILF because they are fighting for a political cause and that is why we are seeing to it that our peace process with them is still open, he said.

On the other hand, what the Abu Sayyaf (gunmen) are doing is really terroristic. Let us say they are also saying they have a cause. Only that their way of doing it is through terroristic actions, he said.

But with both groups presently acting up, the country's southern region has turned into a simmering cauldron of trouble which the government is finding increasingly hard to handle.