MS Risk Blog

Terrorism in South East Asia: The Threat of Abu Sayyaf

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Abu Sayyaf is one of the smallest and most violent jihadist groups in the southern Philippines. Its name means “bearer of the sword” and it is notorious for kidnapping for ransom, and for attacks on civilians and the army. The Abu Sayyaf Group operates mainly in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi Provinces in the Sulu Archipelago and has a presence on Mindanao. Members also occasionally travel to Manila. The Abu Sayyaf Group was listed on the UN list of organizations sanctioned for association with Al Qaeda in October 6, 2001. 

Foundation and objectives

Abu Sayyaf has its roots in the separatist insurgency in the southern Philippines, an impoverished region where Muslims make up a majority of the population in contrast to the rest of the country, which is mainly Roman Catholic. Abdurajak Janjalani founded the Abu Sayyaf group in 1991 as a separatist militant Islamist movement from the National liberation front Moro. Its founding objective is to create an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines areas of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Since its creation, the group became more and more organized, using terrorist methods and tactics.


Following the deaths over the last decade of a number of its key senior leaders, including its founder in 1998, and his brother in 2006 both killed by police forces, Abu Sayyaf has continued to fragment. It remains unclear whether a single figure now leads the group. However, a number of key figures appear to be possible leader such as have Radullan Sahiron, Isnilon Hapilon, Yasir Igasan and Khair Mundos. All have extensive operational experience and are capable of conducting their own independent operations.

Since its inception, Abu Sayyaf has been composed of sub-groups, mostly organised along traditional clan and familial lines. Abu Sayyaf membership consists primarily of young Filipino Muslims from the Sulu archipelago, though the group also attracts poverty‑stricken Muslims from across the southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf membership at times has included foreign jihadists. Abu Sayyaf recruitment efforts have ensured membership numbers remain at approximately 400 fighters, spread predominantly across the Sulu Archipelago. However, membership numbers fluctuate in response to successful terrorist operations and pressure from the Philippine military, which dictate the available resources and relative incentives of membership.

Abu Sayyaf views kidnap-for-ransom and extortion ventures as profitable operational tactics. Kidnappings, in particular, have been a trademark of Abu Sayaaf since its creation and represent the main funding mechanism for the group. These activities help support members’ livelihood and provide resources for the group. Abu Sayyaf has also received funds from other Islamist terrorist organisations and enjoys support from elements of the local population of Jolo and Basilan. It seems that they also received support from Al Qaeda as they have connections to other terrorist groups.

Deadly attacks and kidnapping

Abu Sayyaf violence has claimed more than 100,000 lives since the 1970s. Since 2000, Abu Sayyaf group is known for several bombings including a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 (116 casualties), a simultaneous attack in Manila and Davao in 2005 (8 casualties), an attack on the Filipino Congress in 2007 (3 casualties).

The Abu Sayyaf is also known for numerous kidnapping and ransoming, as it is their main funding resources. Abu Sayyaf’s hostages tend to be released if the ransom demanded for them is paid. This has been the outcome for most of their hostages. The group is known to kill captives if its demands are not met. In 2000, an Abu Sayyaf faction kidnapped 21 persons, including 10 Westerners, from a Malaysian resort, and, in May 2001, the group kidnapped three US citizens and 17 Filipinos from a resort in Palawan, Philippines, later murdering several of the hostages, including one US citizen. In June 2002, one of the two remaining hostages was killed in crossfire between Philippine soldiers and Abu Sayyaf. In 2013, an Australian hostage was released, even though no government officially recognised that they paid the ransom. In 2016, the group murdered two Canadian hostages: Robert Hall and John Ridsdel were murdered after the Canadian government refused to pay the ransom. Its recent kidnap of 18 Indonesians and Malaysians has also prompted fears for the maritime region. The latest is the kidnapping of seven Indonesian sailors in the Sulu Sea at the end of June 2016.

External connection

It is supposed that Abou Sayyaf is connected to Al Qaeda or Jemah Islamiyah. Many leaders had connections to Al Qaeda’s leaders such as Yasser Igasan who worked for the international terrorist group for 4 years. In 2006, Janjalani’s faction relocated to Sulu, where it joined forces with local Abu Sayyaf supporters who are providing shelter to fugitive Jemah Islamiyah members from Indonesia.

There are also fears that the group could be supporting terrorist activities by other IS-linked groups in the region. While there is no evidence that Abu Sayyaf was involved in this, the group has long had ties to prominent Indonesian militant groups like Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiyah. Several members of this group involved in the Bali bombings found shelter with the group after fleeing Indonesia.

A spread of the threat

The Philippine army and police have been hunting the group in an attempt to defeat it and rescue its hostages for several months. A clash in early April between the army and the group resulted in 18 soldiers dead and 56 wounded, the army’s worst casualties in a year. It is not clear what approach incoming President Rodrigo Duterte will adopt once he takes office. On one hand he has threatened to invade Jolo if the kidnappers do not surrender. On the other he has indicated he is willing to negotiate with them, saying “we don’t go to war with our own people”.

The kidnapping remains also a great threat to the region. Kidnap-for-ransom operations have long been a lucrative business in the region but have escalated in recent years. The abductions have also become more brazen and spread beyond the Abu Sayyaf heartland of Sulu province to Palawan and Davao provinces. The Malaysian government has closed its border between Sabah state and the Philippines because of the recent spate of kidnappings of Malaysian citizens.

Finally, the activities of Abu Sayyaf threaten the maritime area. The Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre has warned ships to stay clear of small suspicious vessels in the area. The region fears that the maritime area becomes a “new Somalia”, which could disrupt regional trade. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take possible coordinated actions, including sea and air patrols, to stop an alarming wave of cross-border kidnappings and boat attacks by Abu Sayyaf extremists and other outlaws.

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