Murky Prospects

by Juan L. Mercado

The Abu Sayyaf’s beheading of Marines, slain in last week’s Sulu clash, replays the 2007 ghastly decapitation of 10 Marines in  Basilan. ”That’s  barbarism”, Commission on Human Rights Loretta Ann Rosales snapped. “It has no place in the 21st century.”

Nor in Islam either. The Muslim’s holy book, Qur’an, prohibits mutilation of dead combatants or torture. The revulsion  has been  universal.   Appalled by ASG’s hacking of bodies, President Benigno Aquino directed the military to ratchet the  pressure.

“A barbaric bandit group”  the Abu Sayyaf, emerged outof “the almost medieval poverty of Basilan and Sulu”,  noted a 2008 Inquirer editorial. “( It waved) Islamic fundamentalism, wrapped in the mantle of  Moro nationalism (and protected in the early years by the veil of collusion with military elements ) — a story that goes beyond mere story telling,”

ASG presents an  “enormously complex jigsaw,” asserts “Primed and Purposeful”, a 2010 study of armed groups, To pick one feature of a constantly shifting “Rashomon-like” ASG, smudges “understanding of the total picture” cautions this book, published by Switzerland’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Abu Sayyaf’s  formal name is a mouthful: Al-Haratakul Islamiyya. It’s impact on human insecurity has been disproportionate, given it’s small numbers, limited weapons and operations cramped within Basilan and  Sulu.

The core of poverty  feters here. Life expectancy is Sulu – where 72 out of 100 drink from open, polluted wells – is only  56 years, Philippine Human Development Report reveals. That is almost two decades shorter than those who live in La Union. Functional illiteracy in Basilan is 44 percent. Compare that to 9 percent in Batangas.

Many of SG’s weapons are pilfered from government arsenals, due to corruption and inadequate supervision. Gun caches are “left on roadsides by prearrangement with soldiers who bring them on military trucks. Ammuntion is obtained easily from cash-strapped soldiers and policemen.”

ASG is considered, the main international terrorist threat. Porous borders make possible links with two other groups, namely the Indonesia-based  Jema-ah Islamiyah and the local Rajah Solaiman Movement, composed of militant Islamic converts “This collaboration was highlighted by the Superferry 14 bombing and Valentine’s Day bombing of three cities in 2005.

Chapter 5 is titled:”Abu Sayyaf Reloaded”. Co-authors are Judge Soliman Santos, who specializes in human rights and international law,  and Mindanao State University political science professor Octavio Dinampo.  Are ASGs rebels, as they boast, or agents, as critics scoff?, the two  ask in this case study. Or are they bandits and terrorists, as widows and orphans of their  victims insist?

“It is tempting to adopt a 3-in-I instant coffee formula by coining a ‘rebel-bandit-terrorist’ label,” Santos and Dinampo write.  But this group “seems to be one of a kind.” Composed of mainly young Tausugs, Yakans and Sama, in Western Mindanao, ASG is in constant flux.

The bandit aspect dominated the public mind when “Primed and Purposeful” came off the press last year.  Memories of the Sipadan and Dos Palmas hostage-for-ransom kidnapping were still raw. 

Money was extorted by ransom and “brazen financial charges on  foreign journalists for access to guides and interviews with ASG leaders and hostages,” Journalist Maria Ressa recalls.  “In the midst of such profiteering, political demands and Islamic talk rang hollow,” Santos and Dinampo add.

Khadaffy Janjanlani, Abu Sabaya, Isnilon Hapilon and two sub-leaders took five of the Los Palmas hostages as “wives” while in their custody. With Khadaffy’s tolerance Abu Sabaya did likewise with a teacher hostaged in Basilan.  Former henchmen of Sulu politicians hitchhiked with ASG. They were dubbed namampig-sampig (to “side-slip” or “drift along as events dictate”)

These “postmodern bandits” haggled for ransom in “foreign currency, to be paid in cash or by digital transfer to a numbered bank account”,  Inquirer’s Randy David noted. They negotiated while” wearing a ski mask under Ralph Laureen shades.

The “entrepreneur for violence” template became even more pronounced when, in June 2008, ASG’s leader Radullan Sahiron took hostage Dinampo and  TV anchor Ces Orena-Drilon at a pre-arranged interview. “They were released after a P20 million peso ransom had been paid for Drilon.

That “bandit” visage, however, could  “change with the next sensational bombing or ambush of soldiers,” Santiago and Dinampo warned on the launch of their book. “Then, it will be the terrorist or rebel aspect that will come to the fore in the public imagination”. That came to pass in this month’s Patikul massacre.

What are prospects for the future?

Deaths in battle of leaders like Janjalani and Soliman were big blows.  And organizations like Moro Islamic Liberation Front spurn the theft and mutilations. Still, that is unlikely to finish off the group. Neither will “another major campaign of temporary military saturation with palliative or cosmetic civic action.”

Emergence of new faces “could herald yet another setback.” A new and younger generation of leaders is slowly taking over. Among these are Albader Parad and Sulaiman Pattah in Sulu along with Nurhassan Jamiri and Furuji Indama in Basilan.

The long range solution hinges on the outcome of the ongoing comprehensive Mindanao peace process talks with the  MILF. How the ASG reacts will depend on emerging leaders — “or more precisely on which of them will gain ascendancy”.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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