Abu Sayyaf

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The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) or al-Harakat al-Islamiyya is a militant Islamic separatist group based in the southern part of the Philippines, particularly in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Founded in the early 1990s, the organization has been linked to different violent acts such as bombings, assassinations, kidnappings for ransom and extortion. It is believed to have been initially funded by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, and also has ties with other extremist organizations from the Middle East and Indonesia. The group also resorts to the crimes mentioned above, hostage-taking in particular, for additional funding, which has caused the political goals and motivations of the group to be called into question.

The group was named after an Afghanistan warlord. The name Abu Sayyaf means “Bearer of the Sword” [literally, “Father of the Sword”]. The United States Department of State has added the ASG to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.



The Abu Sayyaf Group's base of operations is located in the Sulu Archipelago, but they occasionally expand their activities to other parts of the country, such as Manila, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and the Zamboanga Peninsula. In 2003, the group crossed the Sulu Sea to reach Malaysia, where they abducted several foreign nationals from a recreational resort.

Links to Local and Foreign Organizations

Although the Abu Sayyaf is claimed to have been financially supported by the Al-Qaeda in its formative years, recent reports present minimal proof that strong ties continue to exist between the two organizations. Nowadays, the ASG is more closely associated with the Jemaah Islamiah group, which is based in Indonesia and has likely provided the Filipino organization with training and funding.

The ASG is also said to be connected with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front, although both groups deny the link.


In the early 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf Group, headed by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, splintered from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Janjalani had studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia and Libya, and he went on to fight in the Afghan-Soviet War. IWhile he was in Afghanistan, Abdurajak Janjalani was purportedly recruited by Osama bin Laden to form his own Islamic separatist group in the Philippines. Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi national doing business in the Philippines and Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, is said to have been elemental in the initial establishment of the group.

The group launched its first attack in August 1991 by bombing a ship in Zamboanga harbor and hurling a grenade during the performance of a Christian missionary group. A barrage of assaults on mostly Catholic communities and figures followed soon after the initial violent incident.

Abu Sayyaf under Abdurajak Janjalani

From 1991 to 1994, the ASG was involved in small-scale insurgent activities in a confined area. The group also allegedly had contact with Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In 1995, the gravity of ASG attacks increased, as members of the organization gunned down the town of Ipil in Southern Mindanao. They took 30 hostages and killed a total of 53 people. That same year, the Abu Sayyaf reportedly planned an assassination attempt on the Pope, who was visiting the country at that time.

In 1996, the MNLF entered into a peace agreement with the government. Disillusioned members of the MNLF joined the Abu Sayyaf after the former officially announced that they had relinquished the aim of a separate Islamic state.

In December 1998, seven years after he formed the Abu Sayyaf Group, Abdurajak Janjalani was killed during a police operation in the island of Basilan. The group underwent a power struggle, which was eventually won by Abdurajak Janjalani's younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani.

Abu Sayyaf under Khadaffy Janjalani

The Abu Sayyaf was inactive its first few years under Khadaffy Janjalani as he solidified his leadership. The group struck again in 2000, when they kidnapped 58 locals from a school in Basilan. Libyan head of state Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi apparently gave the ASG $25 million as ransom for the hostages. This signaled a new era for the militant group, as kidnapping and hostage-taking became its primary activities in the years that followed.

Some of the most notable incidents instigated by the ASG under Khadaffy Janjalani's leadership were the kidnappings in Sipadan, Malaysia; the abduction of tourists in the Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan; and the Superferry 14 bombing in 2004.

Khadaffy Janjalani was included in the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List for a brief period before his death in 2006. He was killed during a clash with the military in Jolo, Sulu.

Sipadan Kidnapping Crisis

On 23 April 2000, six Abu Sayyaf members, armed with AK-47s and a rocket launcher, abducted 21 people from a Malaysian resort on Sipadan Island. The hostages were held in Sulu and some were released over the next few months, but only after ransom payments were made. Military operations freed the remaining abductees. Roland Ulla, a Filipino worker at the resort and the last remaining hostage, managed to escape on 6 June 2003.

Dos Palmas Resort Kidnapping and the Lamitan Siege

On 27 May 2001, 20 foreign and local visiting nationals were taken from the Dos Palmas Beach Resort in Palawan. Among the hostages were Americans Guillermo Sobero and Martin and Gracia Burnham. All of the hostages were taken to the province of Basilan.

The kidnapping prompted the military to launch a large-scale rescue operation. However, in June 2001, the Abu Sayyaf surprised the military by entering the town of Lamitan along with their hostages. The group seized the Dr. Jose Torres Memorial Hospital and the St. Peter's Church, where they acquired more hostages, including a Filipina nurse named Ediborah Yap. Despite being surrounded by military forces, the group was able to escape from the town.

Over the next few months, some of the hostages were either freed or managed to elude their abductors. Others, including Guillermo Sobero, were beheaded. On 7 June 2002, a shootout between the military and the ASG led to the rescue of missionary Gracia Burnham. However, Martin Burnham and Ediborah Yap were caught in the crossfire and died on the same day.

Superferry 14 Bombing

On 27 February 2004, an explosion occurred onboard the M/V SuperFerry 14, causing the death of 94 people. The Abu Sayyaf Group claimed responsibility for the attack. Eight months after the incident, criminal charges were filed against six suspects with connections to the ASG.

Other Attacks Claimed by Abu Sayyaf

  • 21 April 2002 – An explosion at a department store in General Santos City kills 15 people.
  • 4 March 2003 – A bomb explosion kills 21 in the Davao International Airport.
  • 14 February 2005 – Bombings in General Santos City, Makati City and Davao City kill eight people; also known as the Valentine's Day Bombings.

Muslim Criticism of Abu Sayyaf

On 20 October 2002, in the Doha Conference on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Islamic scholar Youssef Al Qaradawi denounced the kidnapping and killing activities of the Abu Sayyaf, stating that the victims of the said group have no direct relation to the conflict between the ASG and the Philippine government.

Youssef Al Qaradawi is known for supporting Palestine-facilitated suicide bombings in Iraq, because he believes that these are not acts of terrorism, but are actions in defense of Palestine's land and its people's holy rights. He defined terrorism as the use of violence “with people with whom you have no quarrel” and cited the Abu Sayyaf hostage-takings and the tourist murders in Egypt and Bali as examples.

The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), a group that fights for Muslim rights across the world, became involved in the negotiation process during the aftermath of the kidnapping in Sipadan. The group's contingent urged the Abu Sayyaf to release the hostages, in line with the group's call for Muslim minorities to follow the laws of their countries. The OIC publicly declared that they condemn kidnappings and other terrorist activities being done in the name of Islam.