Governor claims Sulu has eliminated Abu Sayyaf Group but observers urge caution

Jeoffrey Maitem
Governor claims Sulu has eliminated Abu Sayyaf Group but observers urge caution A motorist rides along a highway in Maimbung town in Sulu, southern Philippines, Aug. 17, 2023.
Jeoffrey Maitem/Benar News

The governor of Sulu has declared it to be free of Abu Sayyaf militants, but analysts warn that the group’s top leaders remain at large while private armies hired by politicians strike fear among people in the southern Philippine province.

Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan, who chairs a task force of military and local government officials, last week announced that the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) had been wiped out in Sulu, a chain of islands in the far south near the Malaysian part of Borneo.

This marked “a significant accomplishment in our never-ending quest for stability, security, and peace,” he said.

Analysts, however, are more guarded in assessing the status in Sulu of the group linked with Islamic State (IS) extremists, and that was tied to a string of suicide bombings until 2020. While the province has managed to improve its security, the national government has refrained from making a similar assertion, according to the observers.

“Why is it that in the higher-ups of the government – at the national level – there is no recognition that there indeed is no more Abu Sayyaf in Sulu?” Julkipli Wadi, dean of the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Islamic Studies, said in an interview with a local radio station.

Some analysts also are warning about other “forces of terror” that are operating in the Sulu Islands – specifically small private armies kept among local politicians.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Ignatius Patrimonio, commander of the Sulu task force, cited the voluntary surrender of 966 alleged bandits and the recovery of 559 firearms from 52 villages as a sign that conflict had subsided in Sulu.

“This will bring forth development and will boost the ecotourism of the province,” he said.

‘It’s peaceful here now’

Only a few years ago, Sulu, which is part of an autonomous zone in the majority-Muslim areas of the southern Mindanao region, experienced a string of kidnappings and deadly attacks that were attributed to IS.

In early 2019, an Indonesian couple carried out a suicide bombing at a church in Jolo, the provincial capital and main town on Jolo island, killing 33 people. Security officials said the couple, suspected members of the Indonesian IS-affiliate Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, executed the attack on orders from Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the late Abu Sayyaf commander.

A year later in August 2020, two suicide bombers killed 15 and injured 70 others in downtown Jolo. The military identified Mundi Sawadjaan, an ASG operative and a suspected relative of the late Sawadjaan, as the mastermind of the bombing.

Pendatum Magdilon, 57, a driver-for-hire, says his home-province nowadays has a completely different vibe.

“Only few outsiders used to visit us, but now you cannot get your ferry tickets if you don’t book in advance,” he told BenarNews last month when some towns across the province declared themselves free of ASG.

“It’s peaceful here now. The Abu Sayyaf are gone. People now go here without security escorts,” he added.

Passengers prepare to board a ferry at the port of Jolo, on Jolo island in Sulu, southern Philippines, Aug. 17, 2023. [Jeoffrey Maitem/Benar News]

Wadi, the dean of the Institute of Islamic Studies, echoed that sentiment.

“You will really feel that Jolo or Solo is safe unlike before, when you couldn’t go out. Now tourism is alive, the beaches are nice,” he said on Saturday.

But he also expressed skepticism about the local authorities’ claim about having gotten totally rid of Abu Sayyaf, and questioned why the top leaders of the militant group were still on the loose.

Authorities say that while leaders such as Mundi Sawadjaan, the ASG leader blamed for the August 2020 suicide bombings, couldn’t be detained, he had been pushed out of the province.

Sawadjaan had been sighted in the neighboring Basilan province as recently as May when soldiers had two separate encounters with his group, Col. Christopher Tampus, commander of the 1103rd Brigade in Indanan, on Jolo island, told BenarNews.

He also alleged that Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a militant splinter faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, had protected Sawadjaan in Maguindanao province.

More than a dozen militant groups continue to operate across the Mindanao region but they remain outside Sulu, according to Maj. Andrew Linao, public affairs chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.

Rommel Banlaoi, a prominent counter-terrorism analyst, said that remnants of the ASG were likely still in Sulu, in particular, and in the Philippines, in general.

“The Philippines continues to be one of the major destinations of foreign terrorist fighters coming largely from Indonesia and Malaysia,” Banlaoi, also the chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, told reporters on Monday last week.

The predominantly Muslim province of Sulu, also the poorest in the country, is geographically nearer to Sabah in Malaysia – the focus of a longtime territorial dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines – than to Manila, the Philippines’ capital city.

A volunteer works inside Mt. Carmel Church, which was trageted in a suicide bomb attack in 2019, in Jolo, southern Philippines. [Jeoffrey Maitem/Benar News]

Banlaoi also noted that there were other sources of instability emerging in the Mindanao region. He pointed to how local politicians were recruiting private armies, leading to political rifts and clan wars.

“Currently, terrorism is not confined [to militant groups]. Private armed groups maintained by local politicians have been identified as new forces of terror in the Philippines,” he said.

“What contributed to the rapid decline [in militant activities] was not military actions but the strong involvement of local government and civil society because they actively participated in countering terrorism in the country through non-military measures,” he added.

Roel D. Pareño and Richel Umel contributed to this report from Zamboanga City and Iligan, southern Philippines.


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