Abu Sayyaf at heart of Islamic war after $17m hostage deal

By Richard Lloyd Parry, Independent, 29 August 2000

Enriched by Libya's multi-million dollar pay-off, the world's most ruthless terrorists now pay $1,000 a head for new recruits

Until four months ago, few people in the world had heard of the rabble of mercenaries, Islamic students and mujahedin known as Abu Sayyaf.

Filipinos knew of them as a small but brutal splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is fighting for an independent state in the southern island of Mindanao. Those with a special interest in such matters might have remembered the name in connection with Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted in 1997 of trying to blow up New York's World Trade Center with a bomb, who had holed up with them in the mid-Nineties.

But Abu Sayyaf was as remote from the concerns of the Western world as the dens where its members based themselves, on a string of poor, jungly islands with names such as Basilan, Jolo and Tawi-tawi. The continuing hostage saga in the Philippines has changed all that.

Abu Sayyaf may be steadily releasing its Western hostages—yesterday a South African man, Carel Strydom, walked free, leaving six Westerners and 13 from the Philippines still in captivity. But the deal struck for their release, and the multi-million-pound ransom Abu Sayyaf is widely believed to have been paid, marks its emergence as one of the world's most successful Islamic terrorist groups, and a force to be reckoned with throughout South-East Asia.

Abu Sayyaf—the name means sword of God—emerged from the margins of Asia's two great Islamic causes of recent years: the war in Afghanistan, and the independence struggles of the Muslims of the southern Philippines.

For decades, the latter was dominated by a group of secular guerrillas called the Moro National Liberation Front. In 1996, the MNLF leader, Nur Misuari, came to terms with the Manila government in return for limited autonomy for the predominantly Muslim population on the southern island of Mindanao.

Some of Mr Misuari's group broke away to join the overtly Muslim MILF, which sustains an intermittent war with the Philippines armed forces. On the fringes of the struggle, based on the isolated islands strung between the Philippines and Borneo, was a third group—Abu Sayyaf.

It was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, a fisherman's son from the island of Basilan, who won a scholarship to study Arabic and law in Saudi Arabia and who travelled to Pakistan in 1980 to join the mujahedin fighting against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

At this time he made contact with Osama bin Laden, the Saudi fugitive who tops the United States's most-wanted list. Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, Mr Bin Laden's brother-in-law, gave him the funds—and perhaps the guns—to establish Abu Sayyaf, and he was also helped by the British-educated Yousef. He may also have spent time in Libya; ironically, but by no means coincidentally, it is the government of Muammar Gaddafi that has negotiated this week's hostage releases.

At its foundation, Abu Sayyaf had no more than 30 members, a mixture of Islamic students from Iran and Janjalani's former colleagues in the mujahedin.

The group announced itself by killing two people with a bomb attack in Zamboanga in 1991. Four years later it notched up its greatest outrage, an attack on the Mindanao town of Ipil in which 50 civilians died. By 1996 membership had risen to 350 and its arsenal to about 230 firearms, although numbers declined again after Janjalani was killed in a shoot-out with Philippines police in 1998.

The group has always kept an eye out for money-making opportunities, as well as murdering missionaries, planting bombs and seizing hostages (until April's snatch of Western tourists from a Malaysian resort island, they were generally Filipinos). There have also been a number of successful bank raids. But never had Abu Sayyaf hit a jackpot like the one it landed this week.

At first, Abu Sayyaf's demands were political, including the release of Yousef and other Islamic prisoners from jails in the United States. Soon, though, they settled to the serious business of negotiating ransoms.

Respectable governments do not pay off terrorists, because it encourages them to take hostages again. But, whoever the ultimate source of the payments may be, it is generally accepted that—by means of the Libyans—large sums are changing hands in return for the hostages.

Unofficial estimates put the figure at up to $17m (£11.5m). The chief of the Philippines armed forces, General Angelo Reyes, says the group is already shopping for arms and ammunition, and has splashed out on a new speedboat and 10 motorcycles.

Most significantly, it is offering $1,100 to new recruits—a sum a Muslim fisherman with a family can only dream of earning legitimately. As many as 2,500 new recruits have responded because, whatever the hostage crisis of the past four months may have done for the cause of independence, has turned into very good business for Abu Sayyaf.