They've Come This Far

It has been more than 10 years since a "study group" composed mostly of Muslim students and out-of-school youth rallied behind the pseudonymous "Abu Sayyaf" and transformed themselves into one of the most virulent Islamic militant in Southern Philippines. They unleashed an unprecedented war of terror with shock waves reverberating in the whole country and abroad.

Abu Sayyaf" is a pseudonym of Ustadh Abdurajak Janjalani Abubakar. Unknown to many, the "Abu Sayyaf" is not a formal organization. It has no organizational structure. It is merely a jama'a, a loose, almost chaotic grouping of disenchanted Muslim youth. When the Abu Sayyaf is projected as a well-organized phalanx of mujahideen, this neat picture is provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Many wonder why the Abu Sayyaf has come this far, why it is too violent, and why the Philippine government is helpless in addressing this menace. Disenchantment, virulence, expediency, and tenacity explain why the Abu Sayyaf is still around today.

The collapse of peace talks between the Philippine Government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1988 disenchanted many Muslim youth and triggered the formation of the Abu Sayyaf. Abdulrajak attributed the collapse of the peace talks to the intransigence of the Philippine government and the failure of the MNLF to appropriate Islam in the Moro struggle, along with the capitulation of Nur Misuari in 1996.

Muslim student and out-of-school youth used as front-liners by the MNLF in its mobilization efforts during the peace negotiations felt abandoned and betrayed as the Southern Command turned "hot" against them. Frustrated, they realized the futility of the peace process.

With no one to turn to, they rallied around Abdulrajak. At first, he was hesitant to lead; he was contented in teaching Arabic and Islamic studies in some madrasa in Zamboanga and Basilan. Through the prodding of Asmad Abdul, a student leader at Western Mindanao State University, Abdulrajak was inspired to lead and adopt his now-notorious nickname.

To him, leadership vacuum in southwestern Mindanao necessitated the formation of a new group to advance jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in the way of Allah).

Sick Ulama"

"Abu Sayyaf" and his close friends began to criticize the Philippine government and its failure to grant a "provisional government" to the MNLF. When Misuari went back to the Middle East in 1998 with the MNLF unable to "make noise" after what they believed was blatant government intransigence and betrayal, the Abu Sayyaf castigated Misuari and his MNLF. The Abu Sayyaf also condemned the "sick ulama" for their failure to advance Islam in the Moro struggle.

In the early "9's, the Abu Sayyaf allied with disgruntled MNLF members and other "lost command", riding on the crest of a resurgent politicized Islam. Shifting from the old paradigm of Moro struggle, they envisioned a puritan Islamic state in southern Philippines as they launched bombings, raids, ambushes, beheadings, and kidnappings.

To them, their enemies (satruh) were not only Philippines soldiers; they included non-combatants, Christians, and Muslims who did not agree with their version of political-struggle-cum-war (jihad Qital). Like raging hooves that ruined places they passed, they left hundreds and thousands of people shocked, mutilated, or dead, particularly Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and some other parts of Mindanao.

Social reform, not necessarily political struggle, was the original thrust of Abdulrajak. He. Like other Muslim reformists, was originally concerned with teaching and delivering khutbah in mosques.

As the situation worsened, he despised the Philippines government and justified the launching of violent activities against what he believed were infernal influences of Western culture on the Muslim community. When he left the AFP pressure, he advocated political liberation as well. Since then he has lumped the "enemy" to include the Philippine state, the Church, local and transnational corporations, and ironically, politically passive Muslims, traditional politicians, and "sick ulama."

Abdulrajak's Political Thought

Overwhelmed by the seriousness of its cause, the Abu Sayyaf struggles through expediency, shelving its tasks of struggle, reform, and self-determination, while the world regards it as the embodiment of violence and terror.

Unshaken by the condemnation of the Philippine government, if not world, and his fellow Muslims, Abdurajak deconstructs Islamic thought to address social contradiction in the Muslim area. Claiming that the "disease" in the Philippine is malignant and that it continuously spreads in the Muslim community unhindered, he believes the Muslim condition merits a radical reinterpretation of Islam with emphasis on praxis, primarily the waging of jihad.

In his Fatwa (ruling), the continuing control of the Philippine government over the traditional homeland of Muslims in Mindanao is not only illegal but sacrilegious in the eyes of Islam. Hence, to him, all acts of struggle and violence against the state are justified under the circumstances Muslims are in. Muslims, accordingly, would continue to suffer the "disease" and would continuously bear the sin of transgression unless they fight and strive to establish their own government under the guidance of shari'ah (Islamic law).

By declaring jihad Qital as fard ayn (personal obligation) in the Muslim south, Abdulrajak legitimizes the waging of war and violence. It includes the use of the anarchist method of struggle against the satruh (enemy), both combatants and non-combatants. This explains the Abu Sayyaf's and the atrocities it has unleashed to far.

Disregarded by Analysts

I highlight the "political thought" of Abdulrajak because it is generally disregarded by most analysts. It is such thought that strengthens the will and resolve of the Abu Sayyaf to engage in violence and terror. It also determines their capability. They imprinted their signatures in major atrocities like the bombing of the M/V Dolous, the killing of Fr. Salvatore Carzedda, the kidnapping of Fr. Blanco and Charles Walton, the Ipil raid that killed 54 people, the Sipadan and Dos Palmas kidnapping, the hostage taking of teachers and school children in Basilan, and political movements and criminal groups.

Chain of Muslim Uprising

The emergence of a group like the Abu Sayyaf is really not new, viewed in the larger context of the Moro struggle. Since the beginning of American colonial rule in the Philippines, the Muslim South has been home to various ethnic and political movements and criminal groups.

After an interregnum since 1946, the Philippine government has been rocked by a chain of Muslim uprisings that grew into a war of secession waged by the Mindanao Independence Movement, succeeded by the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Animated by the indisputable fact of history, the logic of Moro struggle, whatever its form, is to gain the usurped sovereignty and occupied territories of the Moros in Mindanao and Sulu, the raison d'etre that has consistently inspired successive Muslim movements to wage the Moro struggle since the "60s and "70s.

After the devastating defeat of the MNLF in the "70s, the political after-effect continued to define Moro affairs in the "80s. it became a critical period not only in the whole country but in the rise of new Muslim movements like the Abu Sayyaf.

As the Abu Sayyaf did not have any sources, they played "games" with the AFP by accessing weapons from them as they fought the military in battles. The Abu Sayyaf also allegedly forged links with Jamal Khalifa, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden. Political expediency made the Abu Sayyaf link up with allies as well as foes.

Many thought, including the AFP, that with the death of Abdulrajak, the Abu Sayyaf would fade away. Since 2000, the Abu Sayyaf has split into at least eight groups with the Philippine government at a loss on how to deal with each group.

Contradictory Role

Indeed, government is remiss in addressing the Abu Sayyaf problem; it allowed the AFP to determine the course of action. If the military approach were effective, the Abu Sayyaf would have not reached this far. Government, through the prodding of the AFP, has spent lavishly to contain the Abu Sayyaf. In 1994, it spent P360 million to try to neutralize the group, for an average of P1 million per day.

Since the rampage of the Abu Sayyaf has continued from 1990 till today, government must have already spent around P4,32 billion. This is not to include the ransom money and ammunition that pass trough a number of hands, whether public/military officials or otherwise, to reach the Abu Sayyaf.

Another reason the Abu Sayyaf still exists is that government has practically allowed the Abu Sayyaf to play a "contradictory role" in Philippine politics for the past 10 years. While the Abu Sayyaf is "taking hostag" the long-term interest of the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf is "servicing" the AFP's short-term interest.

Government embarks on a short-term policy as it treats the Abu Sayyaf problem separate from the larger "Moslem problem."Moreover, the AFP relies mainly on "tactical victory" in fighting the Abu Sayyaf, making the problem inconclusive, with neither victory nor defeat for either side.

Another glaring example of how the AFP outmaneuvers the government is when the latter is made to pay reward money if the AFP can catch the "big fish" among the Abu Sayyaf. Why does the government pay a reward when it is the AFP's job to catch , if not finish off, a ragtag band of criminals like the Abu Sayyaf? When did the life of Commander Robot become so expensive?

It is the belief of the Abu Sayyaf that, in their "jihad," they are good as dead. Yet, the military provides a price tag for each ranging from P3000,000 to 5 million. The giving of reward is an act of double jeopardy against the state. On first count, the state suffers from the rampage of the Abu Sayyaf; on second count, the national coffers are depleted.

Comprehensive View

As the Abu Sayyaf espouses violent struggle against the Philippine government, it not capable of equaling the power of the AFP; hence, the Abu Sayyaf is not winning any strategic or tactical victory.

The Abu Sayyaf's inability to claim victory, however, does not mean a victory of the Philippine government and the AFP. In a war akin to an elephant versus a mouse there can never be any respectable success for the Philippine government. The mere presence of a group like the Abu Sayyaf shows there is something wrong in Philippine Muslim society. Eliminating the Abu Sayyaf does not totally remove such "wrong."It is only by addressing the Abu Sayyaf's reason for being that can guarantee and end to its rampage.

Unless the government adopts a comprehensive view of the "Muslim problem," the Abu Sayyaf menace is expected to remain, if not worsen. The existence of the Abu Sayyaf is sustained not just by the tenacity of the group but by the "contradictory role" the government has clothed the Abu Sayyaf with. Even if the present crop of Abu Sayyaf is decimated, new groups are ready to continue the struggle. Since the trigger in the formation of Abu Sayyaf was the aborted RP-MNLF peace talks, it is but logical to suggest, even if it would appear naive and quixotic, that the only way to deal with the Abu Sayyaf is for the government to embark on a comprehensive peace policy. Government should not offer the olive branch directly to the Abu Sayyaf. What is needed is a comprehensive peace with the major Muslim movements, the MNLF and the MILF. If government can make both fronts partners, it would be easy to discipline the Abu Sayyaf, or more appropriately, "normalize" the condition that led to its birth.