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Looking beyond labels

/ 10:03 PM September 30, 2011

Abu Sayyaf group members dwindled to 379 last June  from a  peak of 1,270  four years back. Armed Forces headcount shows 46 ASG leaders were run to the ground. All had bounties on their heads. The Supreme Court, this week, confirmed life sentences for 17 ASG members for razing a Basilan hospital and abducting three nurses.

Marines in Sulu beat back an attack by Awliya, a new rebel band. Two soldiers and 13 attackers were killed. Tuan Awliya was among the rebels who rejected peace offers in the 1990s. His group has links to ASG, the military claims.

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Murder and mutilation of dead soldiers have been pinned on the ASG. They held three International Red Cross workers hostage. ABS-CBN paid ransom to spring broadcaster Ces Drilon.

Thus ASG’s image is that of a terrorist group, packed with jobless, poorly schooled Muslim youth. One assumption anchors this perception: A hierarchy of authority, with defined goals, directs the ASG. It resembles structured groups.

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The reality is more complex, assert Eduardo Ugarte of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University and Mark Macdonald Turner at the University of Canberra. The ASG is “part of broader and shifting ‘dark networks.”’ These webs of kinship, culture and politics enmesh many, including elected officials, military, police and insurgents.

Ugarte and Turner title their analysis “What is the Abu Sayyaf? How Labels Shape Reality.” The Pacific Review (London) published their study.

Perceptions morph into “reality”  and mold policy, they write. “What things are called is incomparably more important than what they are.”

Both assembled scattered data to “construct a reality that, until this Pacific Review issue, has not been coherently analyzed.” Tumahubong, Sipadan and Palawan kidnappings by the ASG are used as case studies.

The notion that the ASG “is a distinct group is an illusion,” Ugarte and Turner conclude. “Classificatory labels, employed by the military and media, are meaningless… Islamists in southern Philippines are not concentrated in a discrete collectivity.” Instead, they straddle the MILF, the MNLF and communal alliances. They have evolved into random networks. Power and leadership are haphazardly distributed. No actor or group makes binding decisions for others.

The ASG “is not an organized phalanx of mujahideen,” notes Julkipli Wadi, a leading political Islam scholar. “Rather, this jama’a [grouping ] is a loose, almost chaotic, grouping of disenchanted Muslim youth.”

An Inquirer count, in late 2000, identified a welter of 11 commanders: “six in Sulu, four in Basilan and one in Zamboanga.” They control followers even when they tie up with other bands.

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The ASG’s demands “can change from moment to moment,” Inquirer’s Noralyn Mustafa commented on the March 2009 kidnapping of Red Cross workers. “After one commander agreed to the terms, the following day he’ll say that after ‘consulting’ his co-commanders, they refused to comply. And negotiations begin anew—from zero.”

Interpersonal linkages command “overriding importance.” Groups survive because their leader crafts a network of relatives and clients.

“Blood ties are very strong in Sulu,” notes researcher Victor Taylor. “People don’t think in terms of organizational labels, whether Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) or Abu Sayyaf. Halo-halo na ’yan (They’re all mixed together).”

In the 2000 kidnappings, assorted ASG groups presented different demands. These ranged from meeting movie actor and Muslim convert Robin Padilla to tearing down of Christian crosses, implementation of fishing laws and, of course, money. These shifted as each commander advanced his own set of claims

“The ASG  does not know what it wants,” observed Glenda Gloria, Newsbreak editor and co-author of “Under The Crescent Moon.” “It does not know where it wants to go, or how to articulate problems of Muslims in Mindanao beyond what [has] been articulated by other groups… It is wrong for government to assume that it is dealing with a cohesive organization with a set of doctrines, rules or solid leadership.”

“Coveting each other’s captives,” ASG groups frequently squabbled over money, recalls negotiator Roberto Aventajado. “The jungle did not have a single master. No one could guarantee anyone’s safety because no one’s writ ran unopposed across the wilds of Talipao… Not even ‘Robot’ (a slain ASG commander) was safe.”

Did Marine Gen. Guillermo Ruiz coin the label “Abu Sayyaf Group”? There are more mundane but likely reasons. “Abu Sayyaf” was Abdurajak Janjalani’s nom de guerre. The label is  shorter than the mouthful

“al-Harakatul al-Islammiyah.”

“Basilan residents find it difficult to distinguish the Abu Sayyaf, the MNLF, and the ‘Lost Command’ from one another,” journalist Carolyn Arguillas wrote earlier. “Members are apparently like chameleons… The other day, this person was MNLF Lost Command. Yesterday he was MNLF regular. Today he is Abu Sayyaf.”

“Look beyond labels and shape policies to  cope with covert networks,” the analysis urges. “Today’s pattern will have changed by tomorrow.” The only constant is loot from crime over which rebels, elected officials, police and military personnel bicker for their share.

The Pacific Review study may help retool government’s efforts to ferret out al-Qaida and other terrorists who burrow into “dark networks.” The human cost of protracted strife, however, is staggering.

Life expectancy in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (55 years) is a generation shorter than in La Union (74 ). Seven out 10 rebels drink from contaminated wells. And eight out of their 10 kids never get high school diplomas. “To call things by their right names is the beginning of wisdom.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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TAGS: Abu Sayyaf, Eduardo ugarte, featured columns, mark macdonald turner, MILF, MNLF, opinion, terrorism
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