Abu Sayyaf – Threat, Irritant, or Both?

With the Moro Islamic Liberation Front making strides towards a peaceful resolution with the Filipino state, much attention has switched over to Abu Sayyaf, Moro’s more radical offshoot.  Abu Sayyaf, founded by mujahedeen fighters of the Afghan-Soviet war, has long existed as an international boogey man due to its ties and sympathies to Al-Qaeda.  After a long counterinsurgency plan instituted by the Filipino government (and supported by the United States), public opinion is finally starting to come around to a simple realization – Abu Sayyaf is not a terrorist threat comparable to AQ.  Rather, it is a criminal organization with a radical ideology – more like the FARC in Colombia or the Triads in Southeast Asia.

What to do about Abu Sayyaf?

Abu Sayyaf is increasingly isolated within Mindanao and its nearby islands and enjoys extremely limited support from the local Muslim population.  As a result of its decline, the organization has increasingly found itself without access to monetary support.  Criminal actions, primarily in the form of kidnappings, have emerged as one of the group’s primary mechanisms for income. 

With the peace process between the government and Moro progressing (albeit slowly), the problem of insurgency in Mindanao has largely been eliminated.  Consensus among the southern citizens of the Philippines is that they wish to remain a part of the country, so long as they have a greater say in the distribution of tax revenue, the celebration of cultural matters, and greater access to political decision-making. 

Better relations between north and south provide a new opportunity by which to further cripple Abu Sayyaf.  Insurgency programs run by the military should be positioned as a secondary initiative, with the national police and local police forces positioned as the lead.  Police, along with related state agencies, will be able to further push Abu Sayyaf to the fringes of society, inform the population more accurately, and build local information networks that reveal the group’s operations. 

Abu Sayyaf was always of secondary concern when Moro was conducting its campaigns.  It received attention due to its relationship to AQ, but it was never a true threat to the Filipino state.  Continuing to treat Abu Sayyaf as a substantial threat means the military will continue as the lead.  Military operations against the group run the risk of harming the civilian population and once again escalating tensions in the south.  The Philippines government and its international partners need to realize what Abu Sayyaf is – a dangerous irritant that can be effectively dealt with by careful and precise police work. 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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