Philippines sets March deadline to bring an end to the Abu Sayyaf Group
Top Stories | Feb 14, 2020:
The Philippine military is forging plans to dismantle a terror group responsible for dozens of kidnappings and suicide attacks plaguing the country.
“I am confident that we can dismantle the Abu Sayyaf Group [ASG] by March 31,” said Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of the Western Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, according to a report in The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper. Maj. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, added that the military has greatly reduced the number of ASG fighters. At some point in 2019, ASG had 300 fighters. “Now, their formation is more or less 50,” he said.
The military struck a key blow in November 2019 when it killed a liaison between ASG and the Islamic State. Talha Jumsah, also known as Abu Talha, had been trained by the Islamic State in bomb-making and was training ASG members to carry out suicide attacks. His body was recovered in the town of Patikul.
The bomb maker also served as “finance conduit and liaison” between foreign and local jihadists, according to a Reuters report. “The death of Abu Talha will surely cause demoralization in the ASG ranks in Sulu,” Philippine Army Brig. Gen. Antonio Nafarrete said.
ASG has claimed responsibility for many suicide attacks and kidnappings for ransom. The Philippine Army disrupted an attempted suicide bombing in the Jolo municipality in the Sulu region in November 2019, Reuters reported. Sulu, which is ASG’s stronghold, endured four suicide bombings in the past year and a half. The deadliest took place on January 27, 2019, when two bombs exploded at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, killing 20 people and injuring 102.
Maj. Gen. Vinluan Jr. said the new military campaign requires more troops to be deployed to Sulu but more importantly requires civilian help. “Soldiers kill terrorists,” he said. “Civilians kill terrorism.” He urged remaining ASG members to “surrender and live a normal life instead of being hunted down as fleeing criminals.” (Pictured: Philippine Soldiers distribute pictures of the wanted Abu Sayyaf Group extremist Isnilon Hapilon in February 2017. The Philippine Army killed Hapilon in October 2017.)
The military is also battling the terror group on the water. As ASG’s numbers dwindled, the group quickened the pace of its kidnappings for ransom. Philippine forces on January 20, 2020, rescued Indonesian fisherman Muhammad Farhan, who had been held in the southern jungles of Sulu province for nearly four months. A day later, ASG bandits kidnapped five more Indonesians in the waters near the southern Philippines, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
Government data show that 39 Indonesians were kidnapped and held hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants between 2016 and 2019. One hostage died while the others were freed, the AP reported. Most victims were migrant workers abducted while fishing in the waters off Sabah on Malaysia’s eastern coast.
The recent kidnappings have resuscitated calls for more counterterrorism cooperation among Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu reiterated his country’s commitment to increasing security in the Sulu Sea region and invited Indonesia and the Philippines to work with his country, according to a report by The Jakarta Post newspaper. “The three countries — Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia — need to increase security,” he said.