Philippines: Changing face of terror
By Jacob Zenn
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has recently redoubled its efforts to
capture suspected insurgents responsible for the killing of 19 special forces
troops in al-Barka, Basilan in mid-October and in the process uproot the
remaining pockets of Abu Sayyaf fighters in southern Mindanao.
The capture of three fighters from Puruji Indama's Abu Sayyaf cell in Basilan
in mid-November and the recent apparent success of air strikes on suspected Abu
Sayyaf hideouts are a sign of growing pressure on the al-Qaeda-linked terror
group. However, as Abu Sayyaf has done for the past decade, it has so far
managed to survive the assault and remain a lethal threat.
On November 15, AFP troops from the 4th Scout Ranger Battalion spotted fighters
of Indama's cell in makeshift tents in a forested
area of Basilan and forced them to surrender. The Abu Sayyaf fighters included
a 30-year old fighter, a 22-year-old fighter, and a 12-year old child soldier,
according to reports.
Two weeks earlier, three Abu Sayyaf fighters were killed during an air strike
in Indanan, Sulu province. The main target was Umbra Jumdail, an Abu Sayyaf
commander believed to be hiding foreign terrorists from the Indonesia-based
Jemaah Islameeyah (JI) group in his camp.
Although Jumdail apparently survived the attack, an aide to Zulkifar bin Hir
aka Marwan, a top JI leader originally from Malaysia and trained in the US as
an engineer, was killed. AFP commanders reported that Marwan only narrowly
Jumdail, like Puruju Indama and other Abu Sayyaf commanders, are now on the
run. AFP records show that from January 2000 to June 2011 as many as 46 Abu
Sayyaf leaders and sub-leaders were killed or arrested, including Galib Andang
(alias Commander Robot), Jainal Antel Sali (alias Abu Solaiman), and high
profile leader Khaddafy Janjalani. Khaddafy Janjalani's brother, Abdurrajak,
was an Afghan jihadi veteran who formed Abu Sayyaf with funding from Osama bin
Laden in the 1990s, but was killed in 1998 by Philippine forces.
Since 2001, Abu Sayyaf has seen its overall numbers decrease from more than
1,000 fighters to somewhere between 300 and 400 now, according to AFP
estimates. Those fighters have split up into smaller cells which collaborate
with each other on an attack-by-attack basis, but most cells operate
independently. The Abu Sayyaf fighters are so disorganized that ''Abu Sayyaf''
as an organization probably does not even exist anymore. 
The fragmentation of the group, however, does not mean that individual fighters
will become any less lethal any time soon. Even though Abu Sayyaf as an
organization has lost its center, its hardcore fighters - commanders like
Jumdail and Indama - have survived by becoming intermeshed with the rebel Moro
Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and by adopting new ideologies. Indeed, in
places like Basilan it is now hard to tell where the MILF ends and Abu Sayyaf
begins. The ambush on AFP Special Forces troops by Abu Sayyaf fighters who were
reinforced by MILF fighters on October 18 illustrates the point.
At the time, AFP special forces troops were conducting an operation to locate
Puruji Indama, Long Malat, Dan Asnawi and Jamiri in Basilan. Jamiri is
notorious for high-profile kidnappings, ambushes and beheadings in the name of
Abu Sayyaf, while Malat is a longtime Abu Sayyaf commander associated with
Asnawi. Asnawi is the MILF 114 Base Command deputy commander allegedly
responsible for beheading 14 AFP marines in Basilan in 2007.
The four were in a group of about 10 militants based in or near a MILF
autonomous area in Basilan. When the AFP Special Forces closed in on the 10,
more than 100 fighters from the MILF reinforced Indama, Malat, Asnawi, and
Jamirif by storming from their protected autonomous area and overwhelming the
Without sufficient ammunition to defend themselves in the 10-hour
confrontation, 13 Special Forces troops were killed at the site of the ambush
and six others were taken captive and then hacked to death in the same village
where Asnawi carried out the beheadings of 14 Marines four years earlier. After
the attack, MILF spokesperson Ghadzali Jaafar defended Asnawi, claiming that
the MILF would not surrender Asnawi until he was proven guilty.
At the same time, the MILF is providing safe haven for Abu Sayyaf and its
allies like Asnwai, while other Abu Sayyaf commanders are living off the
reinforcements that the MILF army of nearly 12,000 people has provided.
Although Abu Sayyaf is gradually losing its organizational unity, its fighters
are blending in with the MILF ranks when it is in their interest to survive and
for the opportunity to kill AFP soldiers.
Some Abu Sayyaf foot soldiers, security analysts claim, are becoming influenced
by a previously unseen form of violent messianism. An alliance of Abu Sayyaf
fighters and rogue former MILF and MNLF fighters have recently formed a group
The cult-like group is led by Hatib Zacharia, a religiously "unorthodox"
commander who ascribes to neither Sunni nor Shi'ite Islam. He teaches a form of
mystical Islam influenced by Sufism in which believers are taught not to care
if they die. They seek to emulate the "Awliya" in Islamic tradition who were
the righteous supporters and defenders of the Koran and the Prophet Mohammad
and willing to give their lives for their religion in the first days of Islam.
Awliya attacked an AFP base in Talipao, Sulu province on September 25, killing
two soldiers but leaving as many as 20 Awliya fighters dead. Unlike the
practice of other Mindanao rebel groups which recover the bodies of their dead,
no one claimed the bodies of the slain Awliya fighters or sent relatives to
Despite Awliya's unconventional religious and spiritual beliefs, on a tactical
level Awliya's attacks are consistent with other jihadist groups. Awliya
targeted the soldiers in Talipao because they were securing the grounds of a
school being constructed with funds from the United States.
Abu Sayyaf remains in business in Mindanao, whether in a movement like Awliya,
hiding out on the fringes of MILF camps, or in isolated hostage-taking cells
hoping to capture a foreigner and reap the benefits of ransom. A tenth hostage
taken by Abu Sayyaf in 2011, Warren Rodwell of Australia, was captured on
This demonstrates that defeating Abu Sayyaf as an organization will have little
effect on the overall security environment vis-a-vis Abu Sayyaf fighters in
Mindanao. Its 300 to 400 fighters have numerous other ways to ensure their
survival and continue deadly attacks, underscoring the originally
al-Qaeda-linked, now fragmented group's tenacity and staying power.
1. See What is the "Abu Sayyaf"? How Labels Shape Reality, The Pacific Review,
Eduardo F Ugarte & Mark Macdonald Turner, Global Terrorism Research Center,
Monash University, University of Canberra, Australia.
Jacob Zenn is a graduate of Georgetown Law in Washington, DC, where he
was a Global Law Scholar, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies' Nanjing campus. He is an international security analyst
and writes regularly on security issues in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the
Horn of Africa. He was a US State Department language scholar in Indonesia in
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