Dismissed as violent bandits and unworthy of a place at the negotiating table, Abu Sayyaf has always struggled for political recognition. But their ability to control by force the more remote regions of Mindanao and surrounding islands is rarely questioned as the Philippine military again discovered last week.
At least seven soldiers were killed and another 21 were wounded in an ambush by Abu Sayyaf rebels, led by Radullan Sahiron and Isnilon Hapilon in the hinterlands of Sulu after the Marine Battalion Landing Team launched an attack on a rebel base.
The attack came after a spate of recent kidnappings in Mindanao that authorities suspect involved the Abu Sayyaf and included a Malaysian trader, an Indian national who was visiting his Filipino wife’s home and a Japanese treasure hunter.
Two Filipino fishermen and two Americans are also being held. Operation Wild Finger was focused on 70-year-old Sahiron, Abu Sayyaf's most senior leader since 2006 and who lost an arm in combat in the 1970s.
The United States has issued a $1 million bounty on Sahiron and a $5 million cash reward for the capture of Hapilon. Both have been linked to a long list of hostage taking, including an American missionary couple in 2001 and three Red Cross members of staff in 2009.
The Philippines military estimated there were about 70 rebels at the base, which served as the headquarters of Sahiron and Hapilon, and was described by one military observer as a nerve centre for Abu Sayyaf operations.
‘Our troops were pursuing a small group of armed men who were holding captives when they found themselves in the middle of the Abu Sayyaf’s main base. That would explain our losses,’ said Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang.
A public relations exercise attempted to claim the confrontation as a military victory. However, it was perhaps the worst day for Philippine marines since 2007, when they suffered their biggest debacle against the Abu Sayyaf when 14 soldiers in Basilan were beheaded and mutilated.
Thursday’s fire fight erupted amid stormy weather, in thick forest and lasted five hours, with Sahiron’s men holding the high ground. Atrocious weather made it difficult to evacuate the wounded and retrieve the dead. Five were decapitated. Abu Sayyaf, according to one count, suffered 13 dead.
President Benigno Aquino condemned the killings, saying they were designed to put pressure on current peace talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberations Front (MILF), which has been fighting for an independent homeland for decades.
‘Let me be very clear: those who want neither peace nor progress are the ones who perpetrated this dastardly act. Mark my words: to those of you, who perpetrated this atrocity you are now number one on my radar,’ he said.
As jihadists, Islamic militants or terrorists the Abu Sayyaf have never rated as highly as their neighbours in the MILF or Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), despite some loose affiliations with al-Qaeda. That was largely because their motives were driven more by greed as opposed to a religious or ideological bent. Their methods in kidnappings, ransom and killings were typified by torture, beheadings and an exceptional ability to lie.
They are also said to be protecting JI militants and members of the Kumpulan Mujahedin Malaysia (KMM), a radical group that has favoured the overthrow of the Malaysian government and creation of an Islamic state consisting of the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Like most terrorist outfits, the Abu Sayyaf was stung by the unrelenting crackdown in the aftermath of the September 11 strikes on Washington and New York almost a decade ago, when the US dispatched a military team to the Philippines to help Manila eliminate militant Islamic extremist groups.
The Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines of 600 men and women from the US armed services, with a $90 million annual budget, was mandated in 2002 to advise and assist Philippine forces to fight terrorism.
Its role is strictly advisory – although US troops do patrol, are allowed to fire in self-defence and have suffered casualties – on what is known by some as the Second Front and others as the Forgotten Front after the Middle East, with the Abu Sayyaf active as far south as the Malaysian border with Indonesia.
Despite the advent of Ramadan, Manila has vowed to continue the military operation in pursuit of Sahiron, with Aquino imposing the ‘highest order of battle’ against the Abu Sayyaf. Military offensives are normally scaled back during holy month in deference to religious sensitivities.
‘There is an ongoing operation,’ Aquino said as the caskets carrying the remains of the seven arrived at the Villamor Airbase. ‘We will be sensitive to the concerns of our Muslim brothers, but at the same time there are police operations still going on.’