Zamboanga, Philippines – Once described as a spent force that had been isolated in remote southern Philippine jungles, a group of Muslim fighters has again thrust its menacing face into the international spotlight by abducting foreigners and professing support for ISIL combatants halfway across the world.
On Friday, the Abu Sayyaf grabbed international headlines by successfully ransoming off a German couple they snatched while on a yachting trip in southwestern Philippine waters, in a hostage drama that stretched for six months and sorely tested the government of President Benigno Aquino.
Looking frail and gaunt, Stefan Okonek, in his 70s, and Henrite Dielen, in her 50s, disembarked from a Philippine Navy vessel in southern Zamboanga city hours after they were turned over to negotiators following tense talks. Their captors had threatened to behead Okonek unless US$5.6m in ransom was paid, and the German government stopped supporting the US-led campaign against the group calling itself Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq.
Former German ambassador to Afghanistan Ruediger Koenig went to Jolo island as the Abu Sayyaf deadline approached. Sources told Al Jazeera there was a flurry of last minute talks, forcing the gunmen to extend the beheading deadline.
Now that the ISIL is the leading representative of those after caliphate, it is somewhat natural for the Abu Sayyaf to have declared their natural affinity with them.
While the government and military denied any ransom was paid, Abu Sayyaf commander Abu Rami triumphantly announced on a Zamboanga radio station that the entire monetary demand had been met.
“The money arrived. No more, no less,” Rami said over a grainy mobile phone call to the Radio Mindanao Network, which for months had been the only conduit for the Abu Sayyaf and its hostages hiding out in the unforgiving mountain jungle of Jolo.
Flush with cash
News of the release was welcomed, although it also raised critical concerns.
Now flush with cash, the Abu Sayyaf will once again be able to recruit new and younger fighters and buy more firepower. More troubling, the group may have again put its name on the map of global jihadists willing to fly ISIL’s black flag, officials and analysts said.
“The Abu Sayyaf for sometime now have never expanded their horizons beyond Southeast Asia, or beyond Jemaah Islamiah, which was the leading representative of that caliphate ideology. Now that the ISIL is the leading representative of those after caliphate, it is somewhat natural for the Abu Sayyaf to have declared their natural affinity with them,” Steven Rood, country head of the Asia Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
“My assessment is that they were never just a criminal band, and that indeed they are after some ideological reasons,” said Rood, who has studied the long-running insurgency in the southern Philippines. “They walk the talk, and they have displayed the black flag of al-Qaeda in the past and displayed the ISIL flag in the same line.”
He said while the Abu Sayyaf also attracts criminals among its ranks, there remains some “ideological elements” in its struggle.
‘Bearers of the Sword’
Founded by Afghan trained Islamic firebrand Abubakar Abdurajak Janjalani in the 1990s, the Abu Sayyaf – Bearers of the Sword – once received funding from al-Qaeda. But as funding dried up in the aftermath of the US-led global campaign against terrorism after the September 11 attacks, its members had increasingly turned to banditry and criminality to raise funds over the years.
They have been blamed for the Philippines worst terrorist attacks, including a ferry bombing that killed more than 100 people on Manila Bay, and the kidnappings of missionaries and foreigners.
The German couple released Friday were only the latest in a long list of victims. Currently Abu Sayyaf is still holding at least 10 other hostages, including two Europeans seized during a birding trip to the south who have been in captivity for over two years now.
Two American hostages were also killed in a kidnapping campaign in 2001.
While its ranks have fallen to a few hundreds from a high of about 1,500 in the 1990s, Abu Sayyaf remains capable of carrying out atrocities, by hiding out among villagers in remote communities where they are viewed as Robin Hood-like figures.
Successful Filipino attacks assisted by US military intelligence and hardware had led to the arrest and killing of key Abu Sayyaf commanders in the ’90s, although even the military acknowledges the difficulty in flushing out the group from its jungle strongholds.
Rear Admiral Reynaldo Yoma, commander of a joint military task force leading the campaign against Abu Sayyaf, said more troops had been sent to Jolo to once and for all crush the group. He said any advance must be carried out strategically.
“The objective of this sustained deployment of troops is to primarily defeat the Abu Sayyaf gang so that they are no longer going to be able to continue their nefarious activities of kidnapping people and tormenting the populace,” Yoma said.
This recent incident will embolden the Abu Sayyaf and it replenishes their war chest. They were already low on funds, but now with the ransom they will surely be able to buy more men and guns.
But even with the German hostages out, there are other captives that could be put in harm’s way, he said.
“It is very difficult to ensure that there’ll be no hostages killed whenever a rescue attempt is made. But as I said, we are planning out and getting as much information to pinpoint their location and use the appropriate force,” he said.
“We simply cannot do an assault without finding out first the status of the hostages – otherwise it becomes a disaster.”
Government officials on the ground, meanwhile, hailed the release of the German hostages, but stressed any forward moving military campaign now could be more difficult.
“This recent incident will embolden the Abu Sayyaf and it replenishes their war chest,” said Soler Undog, a government engineer on the island of Basilan, which is also a hotbed for extremists. “They were already low on funds, but now with the ransom they will surely be able to buy more men and guns.”
Undog, a Muslim, said the younger generation of Abu Sayyaf fighters are more daring than their elders, and are easily swayed by foreign jihadist rhetoric. Recently, he survived three bombing attacks after he refused to pay extortion money demanded by the gunmen.
“I fear for my life,” Undog said. “But what will happen to the south if we are all cowed and left?”