The Abu Sayyaf group remains as relevant today as it was over a decade ago when it bombed Davao International Airport in 2003, killing 21, and a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116.
Heads have now turned desperately to the incoming president. It remains unclear what tactic would president-elect Rodrigo Duterte adopt to track down the militant group once he takes office on June 30. He has indicated that he is willing to negotiate, saying, “we don’t go to war with our own people.”
Multiple cases of foreign tourists kidnapped for ransom have been reported over the past decade and a half. The violence has not spared Malaysians, who had also been taken as hostages, with the beheading of a Malaysian, Bernard Then, last November.
After the second Canadian hostage was killed in two months when the militants’ demands for a large ransom were not met, 5,000 Philippine soldiers have been deployed to the southern province of Sulu and 10 military battalions, including marines, army, air force and navy, are converging on Sulu to focus on areas known to back Abu Sayyaf.
The hostage, Robert Hall, was abducted from a marina last September along with another Canadian, a Norwegian and a Filipino. The first Canadian, former mining executive John Ridsdel, was beheaded in April.
Less than two weeks before they assume office, members of the incoming cabinet security cluster of Duterte are making last-ditch efforts to prevent another beheading by Abu Sayyaf militants. They are trying to help save the remaining hostages from being executed by the group, citing in particular, Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad.
While they have not been officially sworn into office yet, Duterte has given them the go-signal to help resolve the hostage situation.
Incoming senator Panfilo Lacson said granting emergency powers to Duterte would help his administration neutralise the militant group once and for all.
Incoming Armed Forces chief Lieutenant-General Ricardo Visaya has submitted a report to Duterte detailing plans on how he intends to run the affairs of the military in troubled areas, including placing Sulu under martial rule.
Having its roots in the separatist insurgency in the southern Philippines, an impoverished region where Muslims make up the majority of the population in contrast to the rest of the country, which is mainly Roman Catholic, the Abu Sayyaf group broke from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1981.
Since 2014, with an estimated 400 members declaring their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), the Filipino authorities have claimed the pledges as attempts to obtain funds from IS.
Abu Sayyaf has expressed aims to bomb parts of Metropolitan Manila to catch the attention of IS, which gained notoriety for beheading journalists and other hostages.
Many fear the militant group could be supporting other IS-linked activities in the region with claims that the weapons used in the Jakarta attack in January came from the southern Philippines.
The group has also been alleged to have long ties with other prominent militant groups, such as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, one of the militant group’s most prominent leaders, has been recognised as the leader of all IS-aligned groups in the Philippines.
Duterte’s previous experience with the armed groups in Davao, when he was the mayor, could lead to the creation of an effective countermeasure against Abu Sayyaf. Time magazine branded him in 2002 “The Punisher” of criminals.
The man, who has been claimed to loathe criminals but sympathises with revolutionaries, had said: “You cannot kill an idea.” Some of his closest friends claimed Duterte had a deep understanding of cultural and religious nuances.
With support from the sensitive Muslim-dominant south, he faces pressure, however, to address the threat posed by the militants not only as a “terrorist” group, but also as a “criminal” organisation.
Like many other conflicts in the world, some blamed the Philippine government, saying socioeconomic problems are the root cause of the menace. “As long as Muslims continue to be oppressed, there will always be Abu Sayyaf or its like.”
Former Senator Richard Gordon, a 70-year-old humanitarian lawyer, said: “The void must be filled not by shooting our Muslim brothers, but by providing firm and fair leadership. If the next administration failed to provide strong governance in Sulu and other areas where the Abu Sayyaf reigns, foreign military forces might conduct hostage rescue missions in the country.”
These militants resorted to these activities because of the lack of attention given to the areas where they live.
“Everybody knows the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is the poorest of the poor.”
“They live in an environment that is conducive for criminal and terroristic activities to occur — like political grievances, religious persecution, issues of injustices, and issues of relative deprivation and writing expectations. All these factors provide the Abu Sayyaf group a source of staying power,” said Gordon.
Eyes are on Duterte as his ascent embodies frustration that Filipino politics had been hijacked by the elites. With a slogan of “real change” and “fairer economy”, Duterte might just have what it takes to tackle both the hard and soft issues of Abu Sayyaf’s staying power.
Dr Paridah Abd Samad is a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam, and International Islamic University Malaysia (UIA), Gombak