Unrelenting Abu Sayyaf Group Puts South East Asia on Edge
Anushree Ghisad

On 25 April Filipino extremist group Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) executed a Canadian hostage after a, ransom deadline expired. The incident has understandably raised serious concerns for the safety of the other 21 captives still in captivity of the group.

It may be recalled that all of them were kidnapped in September 2015 in an audacious raid by the ASG on holiday resort in the southern Philippine island of Samal. This hostage crisis, along with the recent spurt in Abu Sayyaf’s activities has raised deep concerns among other neighbouring countries of South-East Asia. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has proposed launching Joint Maritime Patrols with Malaysia and Philippines in Sulu Sea and other southern Philippine waters where ASG normally operates. To get a better understanding of the threat posed by ASG in the region, it is important to look into it’s evolution, ideological bend and extent of its activities

Genesis, Aspirations and Modus Operandi of ASG

ASG, an ultra-zealous terror group is based in and around the southeastern Philippine Islands of Jolo and Basilan. It has its roots in the separatist insurgency movement in southern Philippines, an impoverished region where Muslims make up the majority of the population in contrast to the rest of the Roman Catholic populous in the country. The ASG initially broke away from the broader Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1991 on account of disagreement with the MNLF’s policy of pursuing autonomy. It favoured the establishment of an independent Islamic state. (BBC Asia 2016).

After the death of its founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Jaljalani in 1998, the group underwent a split in 2007. Since then it has been operating as a loose federation of various factions which may work together or compete with each other. Abu Sayyaf’’s strength is estimated at between 200 and 400 members (U.S Department of State 2012).

ASG keeps veering the role from separatists, assassins, kidnappers, bombers and extortionists. The Star reporter Mitch Potter defines them as ‘Occupants of the murky space between crime and (Jihadist) ideology’. The group is primarily funded through kidnapping for ransom and extortion, but may also receive funding from external sources such as remittances from overseas Filipino workers and Middle East-based extremists. (U.S Department of State 2012) .

ASG and the Caliphate:

ASG is recognized as one of the most extreme militant groups that claims to be ‘fighting for establishment of Islamic Caliphate’ across the Muslim regions of South East Asia (Moss 2016). On 23 July 2014, ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon swore an oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS (Ressa 2014). This might well be an opportunistic attempt to obtain funds from ISIS since there is no conclusive proof as yet of ISIS Supremo recognizing ASG as its arm in SE Asia. However, given the fact that nearly 47 per cent Muslim population among the 625-million ASEAN people (Chongkittavorn 2015) (with majorities in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia as well southern Thailand and parts of Mindanao in the Philippines), the probability of ISIS ideology finding some traction in the region, cannot be ruled out. This can have serious implications and attendant repercussions on regional peace and harmony.

Regional Linkages and Activities:

The ASG has proven links to Indonesian militant groups like Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). In fact, the weapons used in a series of explosions that rocked Jakarta in January this year (2016) are suspected to have come from southern Philippines; the ASG stronghold. The group also receives funding from Jemaah Islamiyah whose operatives are also known to have provided training to ASG members and helped facilitate several ASG terrorist attacks. (U.S Department of State 2012). Therefore ASG’s activities are not country specific but inter-regional in nature and demands inter- regional response.

In the context of regional reach and implications, it may be worth mentioning the out of the 21 persons abducted by ASG in September last year there were around 14 Indonesian and 4 Malaysians mariners. This fuels concerns for the security of the highly lucrative fishing industry in the region. As per FAO report of 2013, many economies of South-east Asia are highly dependent on the fisheries sector, with the entire region having highest index value for fisheries sensitivity. Indonesia is among the top five countries in the world in terms of importance of the fisheries sector to employment (Nations 2013). Countries in the region are already experiencing trouble due to unchecked illegal fishing and worsening safety/security situation for fishing grounds can have detrimental effect on local and regional economy.

( (Fisheries Sensitivity across the World)
Notes: Colours represent quartiles with yellow for the lowest quartile, dark brown for the upper quartile (highest index value), and grey where no data were available.)
Source: FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular No. 1081, FIPI/C1081(En), ISSN 2070-6065
“The Vulnerability of Fishing- Dependent Economies to Disaster”
Accessed at http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3328e/i3328e.pdf

Active involvement of ASG in piracy and kidnapping has prompted fears of the maritime region becoming the ‘new Somalia’. A glance at the map below shows the high density of the world’s shipping lanes flowing through the South East Asia connecting Europe, West Asia, Indian Sub-continent and the Pacific Ocean. Disruption of this traffic can have disastrous consequences, not only for the countries of this region but also for the global economy.

The Global Transportation System
Source: http://globaia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/gts1.jpg

Strategy to deal with the ASG:

It is clear that the Philippines lacks the capacity to tackle ASG’s activities alone. It has been more than 20 years that the Philippine Army has been struggling to eliminate this group. Presently, the Army has set an ambitious goal to defeat ASG before the end of current President Benigno Acquino’s term ends this month. This is bound to remain an elusive dream. The Army in fact suffered a blow in the recent operation launched to free the hostages and capture ASG leader, that rendered 18 soldiers dead and more than 50 injured.

The Sulu Archipelago, where the kidnappings occurred, forms the northern limit of the Celebes Sea and the southern limit of the Sulu Sea. The area is in the southern part of the Philippines, while Indonesia and Malaysia both share a land border on Borneo, which lies southwest of the Sulu Sea (Parameswaran 2016). According to Indonesia’s foreign ministry, more than 100,000 ships have already crossed the waters of the Sulu Archipelago carrying 55 million metric tons of cargo and more than 18 million passengers in year 2015.

Hence, in the light of Philippians capacity and preparedness, contiguity of water bodies with other countries and strategic cum commercial importance of this region, there is no alternative to opting for a combined strategy and mechanism to tackle this menace.
Some of the options could be:-

  1. Setting up a new Joint Maritime Patrols is a highly resource intensive initiative. So instead of going for a new initiative, the Malacca Strait Patrol that is already in place since 2004 to counter maritime piracy and terrorism in and across the Strait of Malacca can be further expanded. Except for Thailand, the remaining three contracting parties are the same for this initiative, which already comprises the Malacca Strait Sea Patrol (MSSP), the Eyes-in-the-Sky (EiS) air patrols, and the Intelligence Exchange Group (IEG).
  2. Vietnam and the Philippines are exploring the possibility of joint exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. In this light, contracting parties of this proposed Joint Maritime Patrols need to evolve of a mechanism to deal with the ASG in the event of overlapping with other initiatives.
  3. There are also lingering questions about how the various countries can work together when it comes to effectively sharing equipment and intelligence. Contending claims in the South China Sea may also make patrolling some areas a rather turbulent affair (Parameswaran 2015).

Initiatives Taken Amidst Current Hostage Crisis

On May 5 2016, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines agreed to conduct coordinated maritime patrols as part of a broader plan to tackle rising security challenges in the wake of recent abductions by the ASG. At a trilateral “2 + 2” meeting of their foreign ministers and military chiefs held in the central Java town of Yogyakarta, the Southeast Asian states agreed to have joint patrols in their surrounding waters. They also said they would set up crisis centers within their countries as well as a hotline between them to ensure speedy communication during maritime emergencies. (Parameswaran 2016)

The Sulu Archipelago, where the kidnappings occurred, forms the northern limit of the Celebes Sea and the southern limit of the Sulu Sea. The area is in the southern part of the Philippines, while Indonesia and Malaysia both share a land border on Borneo, which lies southwest of the Sulu Sea. According to Indonesia’s foreign ministry, more than 100,000 ships have already crossed the waters of the Sulu Archipelago carrying 55 million metric tons of cargo and more than 18 million passengers in year 2015.

Present Status of the Hostages

The ASG has released 10 Indonesian hostages on May 1 followed by remaining 4 on May 10. Although it was believed that the ransom was paid in their exchange as that was the singular motive behind this abduction, the Indonesia's government has denied these reports. In the recently released video on May 7 that shows a Canadian and a Norwegian hostage in a jungle setting, surrounded by hooded, armed men, the group has threatened to execute at least one hostage if Peso 600 million (S$17.7 million) ransom is not paid by June 13. The status of other hostages which includes 4 Malaysians is still shrouded in ambiguity.


As the hostage crisis intensifies with every passing day beyond the ransom deadline set by the kidnappers, concerned governments might eventually end up paying ransom to secure the release of their citizens from the clutches of this barbaric militant group. Obviously, that will further embolden the group to continue with its unscrupulous activities. The real danger is that the ASG might start re-emerging as a potent threat to peace and stability in the region by seeking to build alliances with the like minded entities in the neighbourhood. Of particular concern to the security agencies would be the new element of loyalty and alliance that ASG vows to seek with ISIS. As stated earlier, this could well be an inspirational dream of ASG that could remain unfulfilled, yet the fact remains that a number of smaller extremist Islamic terror groups in the region have take to ISIS ideology and reactivated themselves to launch attacks espousing local causes. A case in point could be the recent escalation in targeted terror activities in Bangladesh in the name of ISIS.

It may also be mentioned here that South and South-east Asia as a region, are assessed as susceptible to ISIS influence. There have been frequent, though possibly exaggerated reports of local groups shifting loyalty to the ISIS and recruiting foot soldiers for the war in West Asia. Whether this spreading influence of and attraction for the ISIS take deeper root in the Philippines and the surrounding areas, is still debatable. The ground seems fertile with the group seemingly exploiting inefficiency of Filipino government thus far in eradicating the ASG insurgency. But it needs to be noted that with the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the new Filipino President; a leader who has the reputation of having zero tolerance for criminals, the picture might change. In case the new government is indeed contemplating any shift in its policy on terror, the first indicator could come as early as June 10 which is the new deadline set by the ASG for payment of the ransom.

Published Date: 1st June 2016, Image Source: http://www.longwarjournal.org
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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