The mopping up of Islamic militants in Southeast Asia continues. Philippine authorities have arrested Adzhar Mawalil, an Abu Sayyaf gunman linked to the 2000 kidnapping of Western tourists from a popular dive resort off Sipadan in neighboring Malaysia and a host of other grisly crimes including the beheading of seven Filipino workers.
The kidnappings, which included locals, resulted in tortuous negotiations through Libya, and a ransom of millions of dollars was reportedly paid by Tripoli to secure their release. Freedom was hard won and their plight dominated the headlines for months.
Other kidnappings followed and some, including Westerners, died in gruesome fashion. Such hostage takings were a notable precursor to the international war on Islamic militancy that erupted after the September 11 strikes on New York and Washington.
Back then, it was already known that groups like Abu Sayyaf had shared direct, backdoor contacts with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, mainly through their local affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which had found sanctuary on Mindanao.
That era is over. JI’s leadership and its significant members, along with those of its splinter groups, are either dead or behind bars, although there are still remnants like Mawalil, who was also allegedly involved in the 2009 kidnappings of a Swiss, Italian and a Filipino Red Cross worker in Sulu.
In recent years, a robust and sometimes unfair debate has emerged over the role the media has played in covering Abu Sayyaf and what the extent of their true involvement was in a region dubbed the second front in the US-sponsored War on Terror.
Some argue Abu Sayyaf were little more than bandits, while others argue they are genuine Islamic militants fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in the Philippines’ troubled south who weren’t afraid to use terrorism as a military tactic to achieve those ends.
One commentator has even compared some coverage with ‘Confetti Reporting’ because journalists preferred to toe the military line as opposed to getting out into the remote areas of the south and mixing it with the militants. An idealistic approach no doubt, but otherwise foolish given the dangers involved.
The reality remains Abu Sayyaf were once tightly associated with JI, and JI did do bin Laden’s bidding, including the 2002 Bali bombing, in Southeast Asia. What is also relevant is the sheer nastiness with which Abu Sayyaf was prepared to act and Mawalil, 32, helped win Mindanao comparisons with Somalia.
In 2007, six road project workers and a factory hand were beheaded amid the singing of a song in a Jolo jungle, because a local governor and the construction company refused to pay a ransom. Their heads were dumped at the gates of an army post.
Mawalil reportedly appeared in a video shot by Abu Sayyaf to capture the moment of death. That video helped authorities identify and capture Mawalil.
Washington has offered large rewards for the capture of Abu Sayyaf’s remaining commanders who are at large in the jungles of Jolo. Group numbers are down at about 400, and it has been leaderless for more than the last 12 months. In time, Abu Sayyaf could well go the way of JI.