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TematicheCina e Indo-PacificoAbu Sayyaf and the threat of Islamic terrorism in...

Abu Sayyaf and the threat of Islamic terrorism in South East Asia


Recently, Philippines have been the location of a new rise of concern about Islamic terrorism. Abu Sayyaf, the most famous terrorist organization in the country, declared its support to ISIS, the group which is spreading terror in Iraq and Syria. To strengthen the link with the caliphate, Abu  Sayyafaired a video where two German tourists ,kidnapped by the group in April, are threatened to be killed unless a 4 million euros ransom is paid and Berlin stops to support the US led coalition against the Islamic State. In the case that the German government would not comply with these requests, the terrorists will behead the hostages, taking as example what ISIS did with foreign hostages .

This Phillipinegroup, whose name means “father of the sword smith”, operates mainly in the south of the country, in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi Provinces in the Sulu Archipelago and has a presence in Mindanao. Members have occasionally raided in Manila and also in someMalaysian islands.It is estimated that Abu Sayyaf has a membership of 200 with an extended of over 2000.

Philippineinsurrections had their originsin the 70’s, when the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)engaged in  an uprising against the central government for the creation of an independent state in the provinces of Jolo and Basilan. AbdurajikAbubakarJanjalani, who fought in Afghanistan against Soviet Union in the 80’s,returned to Philippines with the intention to create a new group, more extremist and radical, that could side MNLF in its struggle for independence.Janjalani was allegedly given $6 million by Osama Bin Laden and even his brother in law,Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, in order to start this project. But, the MNLF was no more willing to continue its fight against the government and it decided to turn to politic, founding its own party, the ARNM. The party was fully institutionalized by 1996 and it eventually became the ruling government in southern Mindanao.

Despite all this, Abdurajik did not abandon his plans to continue the fight against the central government. Gathering together the former militants of MNLF who subscribed to his view, he created Abu Sayyaf in 1991.The strategy was simply: they would have employed the same guerrilla tactics used by MNLF and they would have recurred also to improvised explosive devices and large scale bombings, all inspired by Islamic extremism. The first Abu Sayyaf attack took place in 1995,when they assaulted the city of Ipil in Mindanao.

On December 1998, Abdurajik was killed in a gun battle with the Philippine National Police on Basilan Island. This episode represented a watershed for this organization. Abdurajik, the founder, who pursued the dream of Iranian style revolution in South East Asia, was replaced by his younger brother, KhaddafyJanjalani, more interested in shifting the strategy into a general series of acts of terror and regular crimes like robberies, extortion and kidnappings.These became the principal sources of funds to sustain the group’s activities. Doing this, the motivation of these insurgents became more financial than religious.

To mark the new change of direction, Khaddafy ideated an effective action to demonstrate the force and the determination of his organization. On May 2000,they occupied the Malaysian dive resort of Sipadan island and took 21 hostages , including 10 tourists and 11 resort workers. After the raid, they were taken to an Abu Sayyaf base in Jolo, Sulu.These hostages were released only after four months of captivity, thanks to the negotiation of different governments, among them the Libyan one, and the offer of $ 25 million in “development aids”.

Few weeks after the liberation of the people kidnapped in May, Abu Sayyaf stormed again into a Malaysian island, Pandanan, taking as hostages three Malaysians. As a result, the Philippine army decided to take a prompt action against these insurgents and launched an assault in Abu Sayyaf territories, rescuing all the hostages in the hands of the organization.

By then, Abu Sayyaf members have kidnapped  many people, from different nationalities and backgrounds, in the Philippines but not only, gaining large amounts of money for financing their insurrection against the central government.

However, the group did not limited itself to this kind of crimes. The most deadliest act of terror carried out by these extremists took place on February 2004. A large ferry boat was made blown up by a bomb, killing 116 people. This was the worst terrorist attack ever launched on sea. At the beginning of the investigations, police thought it was caused by an accident. After further analyses, the authorities discovered that there was the terrorist organization behind this tragedy.

This episode can be considered a watershed in the struggle against Abu Sayyaf. In order to tackle this problem, Philippines authorities started large scale antiguerrilla operations, even with help of US special forces and CIA’s paramilitary divisions. Thanks to this crackdown, the number of insurgents has been continually decreasing.This deterioration was due also to the death of Khaddafy.News organizations in the Philippines came out with reports on December 26, 2006 about a body being dug-up in the area where Janjalani was known to be at large. On January 20, 2007, DNA test results came back confirming the body was his. Despite these results, his family believes that he is still alive and in hiding.

However, it is not the large number of members what Abu Sayyaf counts on the most to carry out its missions. Operating in small groups, they have demonstrated to be able to spread terror in that area of Asia. Although they are still present and included in list of Foreign Terroristic Organizationsedited by United States Department of State, its members  have been turned more and more to criminal activities instead of real acts of terrorism. More, according to the former hostages and people who dealt with them, their faith is not so strong and their interest in the Islamic religious doctrine is not that consolidated.

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