Abu Sayyaf Militants Thriving as Hostage-Takers in Philippines". After the militant group Abu Sayyaf kidnapped a group of foreign citizens and killed six soldiers in the southern Philippines in late 2014, President Benigno S. Aquino III vowed to wipe the terrorists out. “We have several battalions,” he said, not only line infantry but “some of our most elite forces.” Those troops had been ordered into “all of these mountain lairs and very heavily wooded jungle and dense areas to precisely deprive them of safe havens.”
Instead, Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped several more foreign citizens in the nearly year and a half since, bringing the total to at least 19, and its heightened campaign of high-profile abductions has attracted growing international attention.
This month, it killed 18 soldiers in a single battle. On Monday, the head of one of its hostages, John Ridsdel, a mining executive from Canada, was left in a plastic bag on a street in the southern town of Jolo.
Abu Sayyaf has conducted kidnappings, bombings and battles with soldiers for more than 20 years in the southern Philippines, where many members of the impoverished local population regard it as an ally. Since 2002, the United States has periodically advised the Philippine military on combating the group. With an estimated strength of fewer than 500 fighters, the group was once linked to Al Qaeda but has more recently produced videos vowing allegiance to the Islamic State. There is little evidence beyond the videos, however, that it has received any substantive financial or technical assistance from the terrorist network.
Abu Sayyaf’s stated goal is to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines, but the military says it is at bottom a profit-driven criminal organization. In March, 10 sailors from Indonesia were abducted by the group, Philippine military officials said. Less than a week later, four sailors from Malaysia were also abducted in the region where Abu Sayyaf operates. The Malaysian and Indonesian authorities responded by calling for increased patrols of the area, and Indonesian officials have offered to send in their own special forces to help rescue their citizens.
Some analysts and political leaders have begun to question whether the armed forces are capable of carrying out Mr. Aquino’s order to defeat the group. “Considering how long this problem has been with us, it appears that the government — not just under this administration but under past administrations as well — has failed miserably to put an end to the kidnapping for ransom operations of the Abu Sayyaf,” wrote Ramon J. Farolan, a former military official, in a column for The Philippine Daily Inquirer this month.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, who is a presidential candidate in an election set for May 9, is among those who have called for more efforts to eliminate kidnap-for-ransom groups operating on the island of Mindanao. “These groups are bandits, not rebels, and should be dealt with immediately and decisively,” he said.
Though the military vastly outnumbers Abu Sayyaf and has better training and more sophisticated weaponry, the soldiers face formidable obstacles fighting in the dense jungles where the group operates, said Col. Restituto Padilla Jr., a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “At the tactical level, the bandits have the edge on mastery of the terrain,” he said. “They have clearly mapped the whole area and know every nook and cranny.”
In the last two decades, the group has kidnapped dozens of foreign citizens, receiving millions of dollars in ransom money, and some of that has been distributed to the local population, Colonel Padilla said. In addition, many of the Abu Sayyaf fighters have relatives and traditional clan ties to residents, all of which puts them at odds with government troops. “They have become local Robin Hoods, sought and revered by quite a lot of the locals,” the colonel said.
Matt Williams, country director in the Philippines for Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a risk management and security company, agreed with the military’s assessment of a hostile theater of operations. “The area where the Abu Sayyaf operate is a nexus of crime, clan rivalries and endemic corruption,” said Mr. Williams, who has been involved in hostage negotiations with the group. “Ransoms paid for the release of foreign hostages pump millions of dollars into an underground economy that is shared by armed clans, corrupt officials and intermediaries promising fast solutions to victims’ families.”
In the areas where the group operates, nearly two-thirds of the population lives below the national poverty line, Mr. Williams said. There are also high levels of mistrust of the government and the military in those areas, and many young men see collaboration with Abu Sayyaf as prestigious and lucrative, he said.
“The Philippine military has the technical capability to contain and erode the Abu Sayyaf’s operational capacity,” Mr. Williams said. “What is lacking is the political will to resolve this growing security concern. President Aquino’s government does not appear to have a workable military solution to eradicate the Abu Sayyaf.”