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Murky prospects

/ 01:11 AM August 06, 2011

The beheading by the Abu Sayyaf of Marines slain  in last week’s  clash in Sulu replayed  the 2007 ghastly  decapitation of 10 Marines in  Basilan.

“That’s  barbarism,” Commission on Human Rights Chair Loretta Ann Rosales snapped. “It  has no place in the 21st century.”

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Nor in  Islam either. The Muslim  holy book, the Koran, prohibits torture or the mutilation of dead combatants.

The  revulsion to the mutilation in Sulu  has been  universal.  President Aquino has directed the military to ratchet the  pressure on the terrorist group.

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A  barbaric bandit group,  the Abu  Sayyaf emerged out of “the almost medieval poverty of  Basilan and Sulu,”  noted a  2008 Inquirer  editorial. “(It waved) Islamic fundamentalism, wrapped in the mantle of  Moro nationalism (and protected in the  early years by the veil of collusion with military elements )—a story that goes beyond mere story telling.”

The ASG  presents  an  “enormously  complex jigsaw,” asserts “Primed and Purposeful,” a  2010  study of armed groups.  To pick  one feature of a constantly shifting “Rashomon-like” ASG, smudges “understanding of the total picture,” cautions this book, published by Switzerland’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

The Abu Sayyaf’s  formal  name is a mouthful: Al-Haratakul Islamiya. Its impact on human insecurity has been disproportionate, given its small numbers, limited weapons and operations cramped within Basilan and Sulu.

Poverty festers in those places. Life expectancy in Sulu, where 72 out of 100 people drink from open, polluted wells, is only 56 years, the Philippine Human Development Report reveals. That is almost two decades shorter than the life expectancy of those who live in La Union.

Functional illiteracy in Basilan is 44 percent, compared to  9 percent in Batangas.

Many of the ASG’s  weapons are pilfered from government arsenals, due to corruption and inadequate supervision. Gun caches are “left on roadsides by… prearrangement with soldiers who bring them on military trucks… Ammunition is obtained easily from cash-strapped soldiers and policemen.”

The ASG is considered the main international terrorist threat here. Porous borders make possible links with two other groups, namely, the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah and the local Rajah Solaiman Movement composed of militant Islamic converts. “This collaboration was highlighted by the Superferry 14 bombing and  Valentine’s Day bombing of three cities in 2005.”

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Chapter 5 of “Primed and Purposeful”  is titled “Abu Sayyaf  Reloaded.” The co-authors are Judge Soliman Santos, who specializes in  human rights and international law, and Mindanao State University political  science  professor  Octavio Dinampo. Are they rebels, as they boast, or agents, as critics scoff? the two ask in this case study. Or are they  bandits and terrorists, as widows and orphans of their  victims insist?

“It is tempting to adopt a 3-in-1 instant coffee formula by coining  a ‘rebel-bandit-terrorist’ label,” Santos  and Dinampo write.  But this group “seems to be one of a kind.” Composed of mainly young Tausugs, Yakans and Sama in Western Mindanao, the ASG is in constant flux.

The bandit aspect dominated  the public mind  when “Primed and Purposeful”  came off the press last year. Memories of the Sipadan and Dos Palmas hostage-for-ransom kidnappings  were still raw.

Money was extorted by ransom and “brazen financial charges on  foreign journalists for access to guides and interviews with ASG leaders and hostages,” journalist Maria Ressa recalled.  “In the midst of such profiteering, political demands and Islamic talk rang hollow,” Santos and Dinampo add.

Khadaffy Janjalani, Abu Sabaya, Isnilon Hapilon and two sub-leaders took five of the Los Palmas hostages as “wives” while in their custody. With Khadaffy’s tolerance, Abu Sabaya did likewise with a teacher hostaged in Basilan. Former henchmen of Sulu politicians hitchhiked with the ASG. They are dubbed “namampig-sampig”   (to side-slip or drift along as events dictate.” )

These “postmodern bandits” haggled for ransom in “foreign currency, to be paid in cash or by digital transfer to a numbered bank account,”  the Inquirer’s  Randy David noted. They negotiated while “wearing  ski masks under Ralph Lauren shades.”

The “entrepreneur for violence” template became even more pronounced when, in June 2008, ASG leader Radullan Sahiron took hostage Dinampo and TV anchor Ces Orena-Drilon at a pre-arranged  interview. “They were released after a P20 million  ransom had been paid for Drilon.”

That “bandit” visage, however, could “change with the next sensational bombing or ambush of soldiers,” Santiago and Dinampo warned on the launch of their book. “Then it will be the terrorist or rebel aspect that will come to the fore in the public imagination.”

That came to pass in this month’s Patikul massacre.

What are the prospects for the future?

Deaths in battle of leaders like Janjalani and Sabaya were big blows. And organizations like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front spurn the theft and mutilations. Still, that is  unlikely to finish off the group. Neither will “another major campaign of temporary military saturation with palliative or cosmetic civic action.”

The emergence of new faces “could herald yet another setback.” A new and younger generation of leaders is slowly taking over. Among these are Albader Parad and Sulaiman Pattah in Sulu and Nurhassan Jamiri and Furuji Indama in Basilan.

The long range solution hinges on the outcome of the ongoing  comprehensive Mindanao peace talks  with the  MILF. How the ASG reacts will depend on their emerging leaders—“or more precisely on which of them will gain ascendancy.”

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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