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Abu Sayyaf is 'more of a brand now'

Interview: Thomas Latschan April 27, 2016

The recent gruesome killing of a Canadian citizen by Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines has drawn global attention to the extremist outfit. Analyst Joseph Franco talks to DW about the threat posed by the group.

Abu Sayyaf Rebellen Mitglieder
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: What does the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) want to achieve with its recent beheading of Canadian citizen John Ridsdel?

Joseph Franco: The ASG has often killed hostages they kidnapped for cash, but these are often Filipinos who couldn't afford to pay the ransom. The ASG killing a Western hostage is a big thing, however, as they usually keep them alive for extracting maximum ransom value.

The last incident I can recall is the beheading of American Guillermo Sobero on June 11, 2001. Sobero was killed by the ASG claiming that he was a CIA asset.

Nevertheless, economic motives trump all others for the ASG. In Ridsdel's case, I suspect the beheading was done after his death. Ridsdel was quite old, at 68, and there are credible reports that he had already been sick in the jungle.

Joseph Franco Sicherheitsexperte aus Singapur
Franco: 'Extortion gangs and criminal groups learned quickly that they gain leverage by claiming to be ASG'Image: RSIS

It is very possible that Ridsdel died on the trail. So they have attempted to offset the death of one hostage by increasing the chances that either Norway or Canada will pay up the cash.

A head in a bag does make a compelling case to pay. Even if official policy says "no ransom," news of a beheading could prompt family members to go on a personal quest to pay up.

Sadly, the kidnapping industry in the southern region of Mindanao has a network of "brokers" and "facilitators" in place. Further complicating that is how some criminal gangs claim to be tied to the kidnappers, and take the money intended for ransom for themselves.

Claims that the killings were inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terror group are inaccurate, as ASG has been beheading people since way before IS even existed.

But the ASG has pledged allegiance to IS. Does the group intend to establish a "caliphate" in the southern Philippines?

The ASG has claimed to be Islamist, but their ideology died with the killing of the group's founder (Abdurajak Janjalani) in 1998. Abdurajak's brother tried hard to make the ASG ideological, but he too died in 2006.

At that point, the cash-loving factions, headed by Ghalib Andang and Abu Sabaya, were the biggest and most powerful factions. Another thing to remember is that allegiance to the IS was declared by leaders of the Basilan Island faction of the ASG. They are a relatively impoverished faction, and therefore trying to get the attention of IS and hopefully funding.

But the fact is the ASG is more of a brand now, rather than a coherent organization.

Extortion gangs and criminal groups learned quickly that they gain "street cred" and gain leverage by claiming to be ASG. It is all about theatrics in the world of kidnapping.

How is the ASG structured? Does the organization have links with other terror groups in the region and across the world?

The ASG is hardly an organization. It is a loose collection of factions in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu, and they have broken down into small "community armed groups." Their persistence is not due to their control of physical territory, but rather because of their kinship and the relations they have with politicians and warlords.

And most of those joining the ASG ranks are impoverished folk. They are mostly subsistence farmers drawn to a criminal enterprise. Without the Islamist badge they claim to have, they are no different from organized crime rings. The old ideological leadership, admittedly, were Islamic scholars. The Janjalani brothers were even known to have fought Soviets in Afghanistan. But they are more an exception to the rule.

The flamboyant ASG personalities like the late Abu Sabaya were petty criminals at first. Some leaders, on the other hand, are former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) commanders who became disillusioned with the 1996 peace agreement the group signed with the government.

Infografik Abu Sayyaf Englisch

Philippine security forces have vowed to neutralize the threat posed by the ASG following the recent killing. How will it affect the terror group's future activities?

I believe, the ASG will probably take advantage of the presidential election season to amplify their message. Similar to the previous instances when the security forces pledged bigger operations against the rebels, expect the ASG to break up into their usual small community armed groups to carry on with their activities.

But I doubt they will do a repeat of their urban bombing campaigns in the 1990s, as it does not help them in the kidnapping business.

Joseph Franco is Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.