After the end of the five-month siege of Marawi and the death of long-time Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, one of Southeast Asia’s longtime criminal groups faces an uncertain future.
A sizable cohort of fighters from Hapilon’s Basilan-based faction of Abu Sayyaf took part in the assault on the Muslim-majority city – located on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao – alongside the Islamic State-aligned Maute group, led by brothers Abdullah and Omar.
The violence erupted on May 23 after a botched raid by Philippine troops sparked a militant uprising. More than five months on, President Rodrigo Duterte has declared the city “liberated” following the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute on October 16.
The government estimates more than 900 militants have been killed, yet the jihadist threat in the region has not disappeared. The relatively newly-formed Maute group may fade away, but the notorious militants of Abu Sayyaf have a reputation for resilience.
The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) has been around since the early 1990s. It has outlived the deaths of key leaders before, and retains active cells dotted across the remote maritime borderlands of the southern Philippines.
Despite Hapilon’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS in 2014, the group has its roots in the longer-term political struggle in Mindanao, where Moro insurgent groups have fought for greater autonomy since the 1970s. In 1991, former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) member Adburajak Janjalani founded Abu Sayyaf as a radical offshoot to fight for a fully independent Islamic state.
In its early years, the group launched a series of criminal and terrorist attacks and drew support from al-Qaeda and Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah. Yet after a U.S.-backed military crackdown in the wake of 9/11 led to the deaths of senior leaders, the ASG had by the mid-2000s splintered into factions and became something more akin to a criminal enterprise.
Abu Sayyaf became notorious for hostage-taking after launching a spate of kidnappings in the Sulu Sea, demanding multi-million-dollar ransom payments to fund its activities. The group provoked international outrage and developed a reputation for extreme brutality after beheading several Western hostages – including two Canadians in 2016 – when payment demands were not met.
Given Abu Sayyaf’s profit-driven modus operandi, the Marawi siege marked a turning point. When Hapilon’s followers joined the Mautes earlier this year to take over a city under the banner of ISIS, the group appeared to have rekindled its early ideological motivations, and for the first time became involved in a large-scale armed insurgency.
But now that Hapilon and his comrades have been killed in Marawi, what is left of Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines? Will his death signal the end of the ASG’s recent ideological turn? And, what kind of threat will the group pose in the coming years?
Whilst most of Hapilon’s faction is assumed to have fought in Marawi, it is unclear exactly how many ASG fighters took part in the siege. However, there is evidence that a significant proportion of ASG’s estimated 400 members stayed behind in the group’s maritime strongholds.
These fighters can be split broadly into two groups, separated both geographically and operationally. First, several loosely-linked ASG factions operate in Basilan, the strongest of which was led by Hapilon and had pledged allegiance to ISIS. Yet Basilan-based factions not controlled by Hapilon, including a group led by Furuji Indama, did not travel to Marawi. Secondly, the ASG has multiple offshoots located in the Sulu archipelago, where senior figurehead Radullan Sahiron is based. The Sulu-based factions have not pledged allegiance to ISIS and remain relatively localized in their structure and outlook.
Attacks carried out by Abu Sayyaf factions in Basilan and Sulu since May indicate the group retains substantial presence and operational capability in its traditional strongholds.
In Basilan, seven hostages were beheaded on July 31, whilst ASG militants ransacked the town of Maluso in late August, killing nine civilians. In Sulu, ASG militants killed three members of a local clan on August 29 and abducted a politician on September 27, before abducting five Filipino fishermen on October 14. In both provinces Abu Sayyaf has continued to clash frequently with the military.
Now that the Marawi siege is over, it remains to be seen whether Abu Sayyaf will revert back to operating as a localized criminal group focused mainly on hostage-taking and ambushing security forces, or whether some factions will remain aligned with ISIS, seeking to draw ideological inspiration and financial support. This seems an unlikely strategy given recent ISIS losses in the Middle East, as its attractiveness and financial clout continue to wane.
What is certain is that it will now be harder for Abu Sayyaf to operate as freely as it once did, due to heightened awareness of the jihadist threat and closer regional cooperation. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have recently launched trilateral naval and air patrols over the Sulu Sea, meaning that any attempt by ASG to return to maritime kidnapping on a large scale will be more difficult.
In addition, law enforcement operations have led to the death or capture of several senior ASG leaders. Kidnap-cell leader Badong Muktadil was killed in August, whilst high-profile figures Abu Asrie and Boy Indama were arrested in September. Another ASG hostage-taker, Guro Idzri, was killed on October 8. The removal of key figures hampers coordination and inevitably dents morale, which has surely been further damaged by the ultimate failure of the militant effort in Marawi.
Since the conflict there ended, Duterte has looked to seize the moment and capitalize on recent events, vowing to “blast Abu Sayyaf pirates out of the seas,” whilst military leaders have pledged to tackle Islamist militants head-on following the defeat of Maute.
Yet in reality, Abu Sayyaf will be hard to defeat. The splintering of the group into factions since the mid-2000s makes it difficult to plot against – Abu Sayyaf has no hierarchical structure or centralized leadership. Its remote areas of operation in the densely forested islands of Basilan and the Sulu archipelago provide ample cover from which to launch attacks and retreat when threatened. The group is also embedded within deeply marginalized communities from which it retains a degree of local support, whilst its factions are run along family or clan lines, making it resistant to infiltration.
These factors combine to make Abu Sayyaf more resilient than a more conventional insurgent group or terrorist organization. After all, the ASG has survived repeated military offensives since the early 1990s under previous Philippine presidents.
Given the history of Abu Sayyaf, their participation in battle for Marawi – a large-scale armed insurgency in an urban setting – stands alone as an outlier. It is most likely that Abu Sayyaf will now revert to its previous state as a splintered organization made up of loosely affiliated factions, acting upon a fluctuating mix of ideological, criminal, and financial motivations. Its tactics in the coming years are likely to revert to small-scale attacks, ambushes targeting government troops, and occasionally more ambitious kidnap attempts.
Yet the “ISIS factor” does add an element of unpredictability. It can’t be ruled out that ASG factions inspired by the wider jihadist narrative may again join other radical groups in the region to launch attention-grabbing terror attacks or assaults on major cities.
The death of Isnilon Hapilon and heightened vigilance by states in the region post-Marawi may succeed in restricting Abu Sayyaf’s reach in the coming years. Yet as long as poverty and a sense of injustice continue to blight the southern Philippines’ remote islands, the decades-long problem of terrorist recruitment in Basilan and Sulu will persist, leaving Abu Sayyaf once again able to replenish its ranks, and find new leaders from its jungle strongholds to reinvigorate its brutal campaign.
Michael Hart is a writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and terrorism in Southeast Asia. He has written for publications including The Diplomat, World Politics Review, Geopolitical Monitor, Asian Correspondent and the Japan Times, in addition to writing a blog on conflict in Southeast Asia.