Bearer of the Sword

Source: PCIJ, by Glenda M. Gloria

The Abu Sayyaf has nebulous beginnings and incoherent aims.

MANILA – – In themiddle of 1997, a brash Muslim youth met with two senior police generals at Camp Crame to discuss the likely surrender of his older, rebellious brother. The 23-year-old told the generals there would be no promises. He’ll merely try his best, he said, as he turned to his sparring partner present at the meeting, Edwin Angeles, who nodded in agreement.

After weeks of haggling, the planned surrender failed to take off. And the generals never heard from the young man again—until 1998, under the Estrada government, when he volunteered his help to the police for the safe release of three Hong Kong nationals kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan.

For a long time, this young man had been accessible to government authorities. He had negotiated on their behalf. In 1995, in fact, he managed to escape from Camp Crame after spending three months in jail for anti-government activities. After his escape, he visited a TV station, shopped at SM Megamall, and toured Manila.

But Khaddafy Janjalani has since gone beyond the business of negotiating for anyone’s surrender or release, or plotting do-or-die escape plots. He is the new boss of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group operating in Western Mindanao. And last summer, under his term, the Abu Sayyaf launched its most spectacular kidnap operations since its inception: the abduction and beheading of Christian civilians, including a priest, in Basilan, and the kidnapping of 21 people, mostly foreigners, on Sipadan Island in nearby Sabah, Malaysia.

Khaddafy’s older brother, the late Abdurajak, founded the group in 1991 in Basilan, after spending many years studying in Saudi Arabia and Libya. But while many in the Islamic community had welcomed Abdurajak’s initial forays into Basilan’s mosques and jungles, it was never really clear what he and his group were aiming for.

In truth, of all armed groups battling the state, it is the Abu Sayyaf that has the most nebulous of beginnings. It is also met by a huge dose of cynicism from fellow Muslims, residents of Basilan and politicians. Part of this could be attributed to how Angeles and the younger Janjalani had flaunted their ties or access to police and military authorities. But part of this is also caused by the mixed signals the Abu Sayyaf has been sending the public with its kidnapping sprees.

A rebel group, after all, would want to tap even just a section of the public’s support for its cause. It would not push itself to a corner where it gets isolated from the rest of the community and becomes vulnerable to all-out military attacks. But that is what the Abu Sayyaf has been doing since its inception, although at first, many thought that Abdurajak was somehow also trying to go back to the “pristine” definition and practice of Islam.

Most accounts describe Abdurajak as charismatic and religious. Born in Basilan of Muslim and Christian parentage on November 8, 1953, Janjalani went to the Catholic-run Claret College for high school in the capital of Isabela. He failed to graduate from secondary school, but somehow wrangled a scholarship from the Saudi Arabian government in 1981. Abdurajak was sent to Ummu I-Qura in Mecca where he studied Islamic jurisprudence for three years. He returned to Basilan in 1984 where he started preaching in mosques. Many of his elders in the More National Liberation Front (MNLF) saw in Janjalani the future of the rebel organization.

In 1987, Janjalani went to a religious institution in Tripoli, Libya, where he met many Muslim Filipinos his age—and recruited them later for what was to become the Abu Sayyaf, which roughly translates to “bearer of the sword.”

Muslim professor Mehol Sadain, who has studied the group, says Abdurajak interpreted jihad as stipulated in the Koran differently, if not selfishly. There is nothing wrong with jihad, Sadain says, because jihad means a battle against evil. And the greater jihad is not the holy war, says the academic, but the struggle against oneself, against one’s weaknesses. Abdurajak Janjalani’s style was to personalize the faith so that he told his recruits that jihad was their personal responsibility, not a community undertaking. And it only came to follow, under Janjalani’s concept, that the rest who happened to be non-believers were to be driven out of Mindanao—killed, if necessary.

Indeed, a man is inspired by his belief but is constrained by his environment. And Basilan, where the Janjalani brothers grew up, is a place where the laws set by men are flouted daily. Abdurajak would find it difficult later to connect the theories he learned about Islam in the comforts of religious schools abroad to the deadly environment in Basilan: grinding poverty, too many loose firearms, and men who thrive on them. All sorts of people and groups competed for legitimacy with the local government in the province: the Marines, the Army, legal and illegal loggers, the ustadz, the Catholic priests and laity, the kidnappers. The Christians who had migrated to the province controlled the economy; the Muslims remained dirt poor.

Abdurajak’s preachings on Islam provided his provincemates temporary escape from all these. It did not take long for him to convince hard-core recruits that it is the Christians who continued to deprive them of life’s barest essentials. The Abu Sayyaf would also gain headway in Sulu province on Jolo island, which, like Basilan, is among the Philippines’ 10 poorest provinces.

For all the warring it has done in the name of Islam, however, the Abu Sayyaf has not gained much respect from many Muslim Filipinos. It is not difficult to see why; the prolonged hostage situation in Basilan alone has dislocated more than a dozen Muslim barangays. It doesn’t make sense, residents there argue, for a rebel group with political objectives to put to undue harm the lives of their supposed network of supporters.

Even the government is torn on how it should view the group. Under the Ramos government, the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) then headed by Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Libarnes described the Abu Sayyaf as no more than a kidnap gang. The Philippine National Police (PNP) insisted otherwise, saying the group reflected the so-called Islamic resurgence sweeping the world.

The PNP would say the Abu Sayyaf enjoyed links with international Islamic militants banking on the financial pipeline of Osama bin Laden, branded by the United States as the biggest funder of “Islamic terrorism.” But asked to explain why the group would resort to kidnapping, police and military intelligence agents would say the Abu Sayyaf was always in dire straits and badly needed funds to feed its troops.

With President Estrada at the helm, the government looks at the Abu Sayyaf as part of a single Muslim movement fighting the state through armed struggle. Says Armed Forces chief Gen. Angelo Reyes in Asiaweek’s May 19 issue: “We count them as one. The MNLF is the faction that talked peace with the (Ramos) government, the MILF is the faction that wants to establish a separate Islamic state but wants to talk to the government, while the Abu Sayyaf is the faction that wants to establish a separate Islamic state through terror.”

But Reyes could either be feigning ignorance or staging a cheap propaganda stunt to put all the bad and the good eggs in the Muslim rebel movement into one basket. For all indications point to this: the Abu Sayyaf does not know what it wants. It does not know where it wants to go, or how to articulate the problems of Muslims in Mindanao well beyond what had already been articulated by other Muslim rebel groups. It is like an errant child who had been spoiled and who is now taking a big spanking from authorities.

In the sensational kidnapping of a priest and other civilian hostages in Basilan, for instance, the Abu Sayyaf first demanded that movie actor and Islam convert Robin Padilla negotiate with them. When Padilla arrived at Camp Abdurajak, Abu Sayyaf members lined up to have his autograph. The kidnappers did not demand any ransom, only rice and food. They did not say either if they had political demands.

In Jolo, where another Abu Sayyaf faction has been holding a group of largely foreign captives, the demands have been as confusing. At first, the rebels’ spokesman, Abu Sabaya, said they wanted money. Then they sweetened this demand with politics: implementation of fishing laws and the obsolete 1976 Tripoli Agreement between the Marcos government and the MNLF. Later, they asked for the intervention of Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Then they asked to meet face-to-face with Reyes and PNP chief Panfilo Lacson.

But it is not only the Abu Sayyaf that has been hemming and hawing. So too have state authorities—or at least that is how it appears to some people. For Herminio Montebon, though, there may be another explanation. A councilor of Basilan and a Christian, Montebon recalls that at the height of the hostage crisis, about 3,000 soldiers formed a seemingly impregnable dragnet around Camp Abdurajak. But the kidnappers were able to escape anyway and walk for four days and four nights to the nearby town of Lantawan. In an interview, Montebon said: “Ang tanong ng mga civilians dito—Muslim at Kristiyano —paano nangyari yon…baka may direktor ito (Civilians here—Muslim and Christian—have been asking how that happened…maybe there’s a ‘director’ here).”

What no one is debating, however, is that for a group that used to be limited to the “retail” side of the kidnapping industry, the Abu Sayyaf has gone big-time. To be sure, if its founder were still alive, he may have a hard time recognizing it, and not only because of the international attention it has managed to grab in the last few months.

A Filipino journalist allowed to interview the foreign hostages on Jolo island recalls talking to a few hard-core, Afghan-trained fighters from among the kidnappers. But he also remembers that he, along with other journalists, was stripped of all his valuables upon entering the bandits’ camp. One of their Abu Sayyaf guides took a fancy on his watch and simply took it off his wrist. Says the journalist: “What can you do in that kind of a situation? I just told him he’s got to take care of it because it’s a gift from my wife.” He also left behind in the camp his tape recorder, instamatic camera, and a pair of Nike rubber shoes—returning to the capital town of Jolo in borrowed slippers.

ABDURAJAK JANJALANI was killed in an encounter with the police in Basilan in December 1998. A month later, Edwin Angeles, who had accompanied Khaddafy in the talks with the generals in Camp Crame, was also killed. Angeles had been the Abu Sayyaf’s operations chief. He was locked in a fierce power struggle for control of the organization at the time of his death. His assassin was allegedly an Abu Sayyaf member.

It is uncertain if Abdurajak had known that his younger brother had tried to negotiate for his surrender in 1997 with the National Police’s top brass led by then Director General Recaredo Sarmiento. The brothers were not exactly of one mind. Sadain and fellow Muslim scholar Samuel Tan say Khaddafy lacks the ideological and religious moorings of Abdurajak. The latter could spend a day discussing Islam, the Koran and the dynamics of Islamic movements in the world with anyone who wishes to talk to him. Khaddafy, in comparison, is more comfortable in battle talk, in the ways of the world.

A senior police official who interrogated Khaddafy in jail describes him as “playful…who knows nothing when it comes to ideology.” In 1995 in Sulu, the Marines arrested Khaddafy and Juvenal Bruno, an Islamic convert who also belonged to Abu Sayyaf. It was Bruno who sounded more like Abdurajak, says the same official who later interrogated both men at a Camp Crame jail.

Some of the Abu Sayyaf leaders based in Sulu had fought in the Afghanistan war in their teens. Given the choice, they have told journalists, they would not condone the kidnapping of non-combatants. But it is easy to justify a money-making venture: the Abu Sayyaf has not been receiving foreign funding and it has to sustain the operation of its fighters and their families. The Sipadan kidnapping, for instance, was not proof of foreign support for the bandits’ cause; it was proof of their attempt to get foreign funds.

Even communist guerrillas have at one time kidnapped civilians for fund-raising activities. But then these were special operations projects usually not admitted to the public. The Abu Sayyaf has done the reverse. It has used its fund-raising scheme as a political tool for still unclear objectives.

This has grown more apparent with Abdurajak’s death. Tan says Khaddafy represents a “clear deviation” from his older brother. Other observers say this could make the Abu Sayyaf more dangerous, as it now lacks a solid ideological foundation to work on. But even under Abdurajak, the Abu Sayyaf was already kidnapping and killing with abandon—proof that the older Janjalani was not able to match his rhetoric with the realities demanded by his jobless and hapless constituents.

To a cold-hearted military strategist, the Abu Sayyaf—with its inherent weaknesses in structure and leadership—has been, and will always be, ripe for exploitation. The reality is that the group gives Islam a bad name, and it is the height of hypocrisy for any military strategist to deny being tempted to exploit that. In fact, after the Sipadan kidnapping, police and military intelligence agents drafted separate internal briefs calling the incident as the spark of a likely united front of “Islamic extremists” in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Sipadan kidnapping has been used as a showcase against “militant” Islam and for a big, U.S.-led support for efforts to crush it.

The Abu Sayyaf has a track record of being used in this regard. In 1995, intelligence agents did not think twice in using Angeles to the hilt, involving him in the PNP’s counter-terrorist campaign, despite knowing that he remained connected to Abdurajak. An Army general once assigned to Basilan claims that he was aware Marines on the island had used Angeles to prop up the Abu Sayyaf in the hope of triggering divisions within the Muslim rebel movement. “But it (Abu Sayyaf) grew into a Frankenstein that they could no longer control,” says the general who spent 28 years in Mindanao.

Khaddafy, more than Abdurajak, has shown skills that he could be a player like Angeles. He and Angeles, in fact, according to sources close to both, were kindred spirits. The new Abu Sayyaf chief is honed in bargaining; to him, everything seems negotiable. But he is not the only one in control of the group, since some Abu leaders had been trained in the Middle East and who have more or less some ideological foundation to work on.

It is wrong therefore for government to assume that it is dealing with a cohesive organization with a set of doctrines, rules or solid leadership. But it would take a more sophisticated mind—not a conventional one so used to fighting conventional wars—to confront, and defeat, a reckless but heavily armed crew called the Abu Sayyaf.

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The story originally appeared on i Magazine(April -June 2000) published by Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

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