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Abu Sayyaf: the IS of the Pacific

Image Credit: Rappler (Published with permission)

On the 26th of March 2017, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated that “there is concern ISIS may well seek to declare a caliphate in the Southern Philippines,”. This was in response to, among other factors, the current leader of the most prominent faction of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, being declared an Emir by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State (IS), in 2016. Ms Bishop went on to describe the group as “particularly dangerous”, especially because this puts a group on par, ideologically, with Islamic State on Australia’s doorstep.

Abu Sayyaf, whose name means ‘Bearer of the Sword’, formed in 1991 after an ideological disagreement between its founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjanlani and the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF. Janjalani split with the MNLF because he believed they were far too lenient and passive in their pursuit of autonomy and an Islamic State in the Southern Philippines. Janjalani was an Islamic preacher who had fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Interestingly, he met Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda whilst fighting in Afghanistan and used his connections to bring in funding and training from which Abu Sayyaf was born and grew. According to the Australian National Security website; Abu Sayyaf has over 400 members within several factions and poses a significant threat to Australia’s national security and interests in the region.

The group since 1991 has become less of a separatist movement and more of a criminal organization as it continues to use kidnappings, arms dealing and extortion to fund its activities. Although, this doesn’t take away the fact that the group’s ultimate goal is to establish an autonomous Islamic State in the Southern Philippines and a large part of its finances goes into propaganda and messaging.

The most recent front-page example of their activities was in early 2016 when Abu Sayyaf kidnapped two Canadians, Robert Hall and John Risdel, both of whom were later killed when the Canadian government rejected any attempt to pay their ransom. Also, later that year, 10 Indonesian sailors were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf militants, and Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began participating in joint patrols and operations within the most dangerous areas in response to this. These 3 countries, and Australia to a lesser extent, have had trouble cooperating in previous years, but Abu Sayyaf may prove to be a unifying factor in the years to come.

The Philippines current President, Rodrigo Duterte, has ruled out any negotiations with the group, vowing to wipe them out if they continue their attacks and kidnappings. And considering the hard-line stance he’s taken on drugs and organized crime within the country, it is certainly quite likely he’ll take a similar stance with Abu Sayyaf. A perfect example of how Duterte may handle the situation was in January of this year when the President stated “They say ‘hostages.’ Sorry, collateral damage,” Mr Duterte vowed to bomb any and all kidnappers, even if it resulted in the deaths of the hostages.

Abu Sayyaf poses a significant threat to Australia’s national security. Links between the group and the Indonesian militants Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) have long been known and certain JI members used Abu Sayyaf to hide in the Southern Philippines after the Bali Bombings in 2002. Also, investigations into the January 2016 Jakarta attack in which 8 people were killed (4 attackers and 4 civilians) found that the weapons used had originated in the Southern Philippines. Although this isn’t solid evidence that Abu Sayyaf was linked to the attackers or the attack, it does point to the danger that Abu Sayyaf poses.

As Islamic States demise draws closer, the possibility of the group seeking a base of operations elsewhere, or someone to carry on its legacy, becomes much larger. Abu Sayyaf and the Southern Philippines may prove to be the groups best hope of a revival. Political issues within the Philippines and in the adjacent countries may prove to be the catalyst Islamic States needs to shift its main area of operations from Syria and Iraq to South East Asia. Although a shift of this size is unlikely to occur, it is imperative for Australian interests that Abu Sayyaf’s threat is not downplayed.

Jake Kay is currently undertaking a Bachelor of International Relations at Curtin University.

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