Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Origin of the Abu Sayyaf Group

By Rommel C. Banlaoi

Though it is widely known that Ustadz Abdurajak Janjalani founded the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), there is no uniform account its exact origin being a clandestine organization like the JI. Based on the various documents of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Department of National Defense (DND), the formation of the ASG could be traced from the disgruntled members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) over the dormant secessionist movement in the late 1970s.[1]  But the late Khadaffy Janjalani, ASG’s second Amir, claimed that the group was officially founded in 1993 with the name Al-Harakatul Al-Islamiyyah (AHAI).[2] 

Media reports said that the military formed the ASG in early 1990s to penetrate the ranks of Muslim radicals in the Southern Philippines.   The ASG was said to have acted as an agent provocateur of the AFP.[3]   Edwin Angles (a.k.a. Ibrahim Yakub), suspected to  be Janjalani’s co-founder of the ASG, was  disclosed as the deep cover agent of the military and the police intelligence units.[4]  Some sources revealed that the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) facilitated the establishment of the ASG.[5] An MNLF leader in Basilan even confessed that the ASG enjoyed the support of the military assigned in the area.[6] The International Peace Mission that went to Basilan on 23-27 March 2002 found that there were “consistent credible reports that the military and the provincial government are coddling the Abu Sayyaf.”[7]  

But the AFP, the DND and NICA have denied all these allegations. ASG leaders even argued that group was a creation of the military.  Abu Abdu Said, then known as the ASG Secretary General, issued on 18 November 1994  an important document entitled “A Voice of Truth” to describe the origin of the ASG.  In this document, the ASG strongly denied that it was created by the military.  It argued that the ASG was a radical movement aiming to pursue the establishment of an Islamic State in the Southern Philippines.

The military establishment said that in 1990, Janjalani formed the Mujahideed Commando Freedom Fighters (MCFF) to wage jihad against the Philippine government.  The Philippine military regarded the MCFF as the forerunner of the ASG.   When the MCFF attracted some “hard core” followers in Basilan, Zulu, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga, it was later called as the ASG.   But according to Noor Muog, one of the key leaders of the ASG now working with the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), an independent terrorism think tank in the Philippines, the MCFF was a misnomer.  The forerunner of the ASG was the Jamaa Tableegh, an Islamic propagation group established in Basilan in the early 1980s by Abdurajak Janjalani.  This group conducted seminars, symposia and small-group discussions to propagate Islam.  It was also through this group where Abdurajak delivered some of his Islamic discourses.  Because of charismatic lectures of Abdurajak, the Jamaa Tableegh received popularity not only in Basilan but also in Zamboanga and Jolo.[8]  The involvement of some of its followers in anti-government rallies prompted the military to put the group under surveillance.  Key followers of Jamaa Tableegh formed the nucleus of the ASG, which Abdurajak Janjalani initially called AHAI or the Islamic Movement. 

But a recent study states that the ASG first emerged in 1989.[9]  Based on existing records of the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP), Janjalani renamed the ASG as AHAI in 1994 to receive international funding and support.  

Though Janjalani was a known mujahedeen by its followers, his reputation of being a veteran of Afghan War is now being challenged.  There is no evidence showing that he actually fought in the Afghan War.    There was no doubt, however, that he was trained in Afghanistan.  He was described as a charismatic and serious Muslim scholar who ironically attended high school in Claret College, a Catholic-run school in the Basilan capital of Isabela. Janjalani also received a very good Islamic education in Saudi Arabia in 1981 and was sent to Ummu I-Qura in Mecca where he seriously studied Islamic jurisprudence for almost three years.[10]  He was later attracted deeply to the concept of jihad when he conscientiously studied in Pakistan.  Heavily armed with Islamic thoughts, Janjalani went back to his homeland in Basilan in 1984 to preach in various mosques.

While formally establishing the ASG, Janjalani became an avid preacher to limited audiences in Santa Barbara madrassah in Zamboanga City in the early 1990s.   During his preaching, Janjalani openly released different theological statements and public proclamations revealing his deep grasp of Islamic religion, particularly the Wahhabi Islamic theology. Wahhabism brands other Muslim sects as heretical.  Janjalani delivered at least eight discourses or Khutbah within a radical framework based on the Quranic concept of Jihad Fi-Sabil-lillah (the fighting and dying for the cause of Islam).[11] 

To advance his fanatical belief, Janjalani convinced some Muslim leaders in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi- Tawi, Zamboanga City and General Santos City to join the Juma’a Abu Sayyap movement, now rendered in English as the ASG.  Most of his recruits were disgruntled members of the MNLF and the MILF.  When Janjalani attended an Islamic course in Tripoli, Libya in 1987, he met like-minded Muslim Filipino students who eventually helped Janjalani to form the ASG.  These students had common remorse against the Philippine government based in Manila and against “heretic” leadership of the MNLF and the MILF.  Many scholars and journalists mistranslated ASG to mean “bearer of the sword”.[12]  But ASG really means in Arabic, “Father of the Swordsman”.[13]   

a)    Organizational Structure

When Abdurajak Janjalani formed the ASG, his original vision was to form a highly organized, systematic, and disciplined organization of fanatical secessionist Islamic fighters in the Southern Philippines. Janjalani recruited younger and more passionate Muslim leaders who studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan and Egypt.  These young Muslim leaders had common remorse against the MNLF, which entered into peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996.  These leaders also shared common anger against the Philippine government based in Manila.

To achieve his vision of a truly organized Muslim resistant group in the Philippines, Janjalani deliberately made a detailed organization of the ASG.[14]  He formed the Islamic Executive Council (IEC) composed of fifteen Amirs.    Janjalani chaired the IEC to serve as the main planning and execution body of ASG.  Under the IEC were two special committees. The first committee was the Jamiatul Al-Islamia Revolutionary Tabligh Group in charged of fund raising and Islamic education.  The second committee was the Al-Misuaratt Khutbah Committee in charged of agitation and propaganda activities.[15]  

The ASG also established a military arm called Mujahidden Al-Sharifullah whose members came predominantly from disgruntled members of MNLF and the MILF.  This military arm had three main units to carryout all terrorist activities of the ASG: the Demolition Team, the Mobile Force Team and the Campaign Propaganda Team.  The Demolition Team composed mostly of trained fighters, had the capability to manufacture its own mines and explosives used in the bombing operations of the group.  The Mobile Force Team - composed mostly of affiliates of radio clubs, traders, businessmen, shippers, and professionals – was in charged of collaboration and coordination activities of the ASG.  The Campaign Propaganda Team – composed of professionals, students, and businessmen – was in charged of gathering vital information necessary to carry out the mission of Mujahidden Al-Sharifullah.[16] 

However, the original organizational set-up of ASG was short-lived.  When the combined forces of the Philippine police and the military killed the Janjalani in a bloody encounter in December 1998 in Lamitan, Basilan, the ASG suffered a severe leadership vacuum.  This led to the discontentment of some of its original members. The organization set-up by Janjalani crumbled rapidly with him.  The IEC headed by Janjalani also suffered an untimely demise. With no overall Amir at the helm of the organization, the group became a mere network of various armed groups with their own respective Amirs commanding their own respective loyal followers operating mainly in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.

With the death of Janjalani, remaining leaders, however, reluctantly selected Khadafy Janjalani, a younger brother, as his successor in July 1999.  But the ASG under the younger Janjalani had lost its original organization set-up and Islamic theological zeal.  Unlike the older Janjalani, the younger Janjalani did not have the theological passion of his brother.    Lacking strong ideological guide, most of its members resorted to banditry, piracy, kidnap-for-ransom, and other terrorist activities.  The ASG was also heavily factionalized.  Khadafy Janjalani attempted to revive the Islamist agenda of the ASG. But his confirmed death in January 2007 aborted his plan. 

According to various AFP reports, there are two major factions of the ASG operating independently in two major areas in the Southern Philippines: Basilan and Sulu.  Khadafy Janjalani, also known as Commander Moktar, used to head the Basilan-based ASG.   Galib Andang, otherwise known as Commander Robot, headed the Sulu-based ASG.  When these two leaders died, they were replaced by remaining ASG leaders.  At present, the Sulo faction is believed to be headed by Radullan Sahiron while the Basilan faction is believed to be headed by Khair Mundos.  There is also a reported faction in Zamboanga City engaged in covert operations.

There is a need to underscore that the ASG is not a homogenous organization.  Rather, the ASG is a very loose coalition of many groups of radical Muslim leaders and bandits commanding their own loyal followers in the Southern Philippines.  These groups have mixed objectives from Islamic fundamentalism to mere banditry.  Members of these groups pay allegiance mostly to their respective leaders rather than to ASG doctrines.  Not all groups are truly committed to the idea of a separate Islamic state in the Southern Philippines, though there is no doubt that some groups are really committed to the cause.  Some Muslim bandit groups in the Southern Philippines want to be associated with the ASG for prestige, political expediency and economic gains.  But the dynamics of these groups shares common feature:  they are highly personalistic rather than ideological groups of Muslim radicals. 

Because of intensified military campaigns of the Philippine government, some factions of the ASG were dismantled as a result of the capture, neutralization or death of their leaders.  Based on intelligence reports, the ASG strength has been reduced to less than 400 as of the end of 2010.

[1]See for example Department of National Defense, Info Kit on the Abu Sayyaf Group (Presented before the hearing of the  Senate Committee on National Defense and Security  at the Philippine Senate, Pasay City on 30 August 2001); and, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Knowing the Terrorists:  The Abu Sayyaf Study (Quezon City:  General Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, 2002).
[2]Khadaffy Janjalani, “A Brief History of the Al-Harakatul Islmamiyyah” at  
[3] See  Eusaquito P. Manalo, Philippine Response to Terrorism:  The Abu Sayyaf Group (MA Thesis:  Naval Post Graduate School, Monterey, California, December 2004), p. 3 and  Mark Turner, “The Management of Violence in a Conflict Organization:  The Case of the Abu Sayyaf”, Public Organization Review, Vol. 3, No. 4 (December 2003), p. 394.
[4] Dorian Zumel Sicat , “Transcript of Interview with Elmina Abdul, widow to Edwin Angeles “ (10 March 2002) at <>  (accessed 14 November 2005).
[5] Mirian Coronel Ferrer, ed., Peace Matters:  A Philippine Peace Compedium (Quezon City:  University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, 1997), p. 218.
[6] Marites D. Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria, Under the Crescent Moon:  Rebellion in Mindanao (Quezon City:  Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs, Institute for Popular Democracy and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, 2000), p. 217. 
[7] For a complete copy of the report, see Basilan:  The Next Afghanistan? (Report of the International Peace Mission to Basilan, Philippines 23-27 March 2002) at <>  (accessed on 30 August 2004).
[8] Abu Hamdie, “The Abu Sayyaf Group” (undated and unpublished manuscript).
[9]Eusaquito P. Manalo, Philippine Response to Terrorism:  The Abu Sayyaf Group (MA Thesis:  Naval Post Graduate School, Monterey, California, December 2004). p. 31.
[10]Gloria, p. 2.
[11]Tan, “The Juma’a Abu Sayyap:  A Brief Assessment of its Origin, Objectives, Ideology and Method of Struggle”, p. 3.
[12]See For example, Turbiville, Jr.,   pp. 38-47.
[13]Jose Torres, Jr., Into the Mountain:  Hostages by the Abu Sayyaf (Quezon City:  Claretian Publications, 2001), p. 35.
[14] Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, J3, Knowing the Terrorists:  The Abu Sayyaf Study (Quezon City:  Headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, undated).
[15]To know more about the strategy of the ASG, see  Office of the Assistant to the Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Field Handout:  Doctrinal Extract for the Abu Sayyaf Group (Headquarters of the Philippine Marine Corps, 21 January 2002).
[16]Ibid.  Also based on various intelligence briefings obtained by the author.

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