Abu Sayyaf’s birthplace in southern Philippines declared militant-free

Abu Sayyaf remnants could still link up with other militants in and outside the Philippines, a security expert warns.
Roel Pareño
Zamboanga, Philippines
Abu Sayyaf’s birthplace in southern Philippines declared militant-free Local government and security officials release doves and balloons as they declare Lantawan, a town on Basilan island in the southern Philippines, free from Abu Sayyaf militants, June 4, 2024.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Mindanao Command

Authorities have declared a town on Basilan island to be free of the Abu Sayyaf militant group that terrorized the southern Philippines with a wave of kidnappings and beheadings in the 2000s.

The Municipal Task Force on Ending Local Armed Conflict (MTF-ELAC) made the declaration on Tuesday after a “peace program” with local government and security officials in Lantawan, the Basilan town which was considered the birthplace of Abu Sayyaf.

“I want to inform my constituents in Lantawan that there is no more Abu Sayyaf Group,” said Mayor Nasser Abubakar, who had survived an ASG ambush in 2001 that left several of his companions dead.

Basilan was a longtime hotbed of activity by the feared Islamic militant group, which was also known for carrying out some bombings in more recent years. Lantawan, a town of more than 31,000 residents, was the first of the island’s nine municipalities to be declared Abu Sayyaf-free.

Such an event would have been unheard of in the past considering that many Abu Sayyaf leaders originated from that remote municipality. 

Residents who used to work with the ASG surrendered high-powered firearms to authorities, including a .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle, four M16A1 rifles, two M1 Garand rifles, and other firearms, officials said. 

“This achievement is a direct result of the unwavering resolve of the people of Lantawan, who chose peace over violence. It is a powerful symbol of hope and a testament to the strength of collaboration between the military, the local government, and the community,” said Brig. Gen. Alvin Luzon, commander of the 101st Infantry Brigade, which is stationed on Basilan.

Abubakar, the mayor, urged residents to remain vigilant in maintaining peace and unity in the town.

Afghan-trained fighter Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani established Abu Sayyaf in the early 1990s ostensibly to fight for a Muslim homeland.

When Janjalani was killed in a gunbattle in December 1998, he was replaced by his younger brother Khadaffy, under whose command, the group deteriorated into a criminal gang specializing in extortion and kidnapping of Filipino and foreign nationals.

In 2006, Khadaffy died in a gunfight with Philippine military forces in Sulu province. Throughout the years, sustained military campaigns splintered the group into factions.

While Philippine security officials maintained that ASG’s armed fighters never surpassed 500, the group still managed to operate in the rugged terrain of Basilan and nearby Jolo island. 

One of its leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, would later be named as the head of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. In May 2017, he led fighters in taking over Marawi, a lakeside city on southern Mindanao island. 

The five-month siege and battle that ensued with government forces left 1,500 civilians, Philippine military personnel, and militants including Hapilon, dead in urban, street-by-street clashes. 

Analysts have said that although the authorities claim that Abu Sayyaf’s numbers have fallen, it is only likely that its members scattered and joined other militant factions in the southern Philippines. 

Rommel Banlaoi, a Philippine security analyst, told BenarNews late last year that it was difficult to estimate the current strength of the Abu Sayyaf in numbers, but he noted that the group’s remnants were present in some parts of Basilan and Jolo. 

They may not be able to carry out bombings anymore, but the strategy has shifted to smaller, scattered attacks, other analysts have said. Other militant factions in nearby Southeast Asian countries can also still join up with Philippine-based militants through the country’s difficult-to-watch borders.

“The Philippines continues to be one of the major destinations of foreign terrorist fighters coming largely from Indonesia and Malaysia,” Banlaoi said.


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