President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known for his sanctioning of death squads and numerous cases of violating international human rights laws, has made it one of his main focuses to resolve the prevalence of insurgencies within the Philippines. The Abu Sayyaf insurgency group, which is an Islamic separatist organization based in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, is responsible for continuing active hostilities against the Philippine government in its quest to establish an independent Islamic state for the Filipino Muslim minority of the country. Abu Sayyaf’s current military operations involve disrupting any truce negotiations that are being held between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and Philippine government as well as gaining access to funding from Islamic jihadist donors across the world for their actions. Although Duterte has improved Philippine military operations against the insurgent group in the Mindanao region by authorizing martial law, the lack of coordination with other organizations that are designed to gain the popular support of the Muslim Filipino population has allowed Abu Sayyaf to survive. Abu Sayyaf’s terrorist operations against the Philippines and its spillover of operations into Malaysia makes the insurgent group a serious threat to international peace and security. Abu Sayyaf’s ability to access weapons from corrupt local Philippine army officials and communist guerrilla groups must be stopped and its operational capacity must be mitigated by a Philippine army occupation if the Philippines is to succeed in ending this ongoing insurgency.
Conflicting Ideologies and A Splintered Past
After the MNLF began to participate in peace negotiations and settlement deals with the Philippine government in the early 1990s, disenchanted leaders from its organization splintered off and formed a more radicalized insurgent group called Abu Sayyaf in 1991. In contrast to the MNLF, who agreed on a peace deal that gave Muslims higher local autonomy and larger aid projects in the southern Philippines with the Fidel Ramos administration in 1996, Abu Sayyaf maintained its demands for an independent Philippine Islamic state in the Mindanao region.
Abu Sayyaf, which was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani and other defective MNLF leaders who held more militant ideologies about how to establish and independent Moro state, benefited heavily from widespread corruption, local poverty, and Janjalani’s Al Qaeda connections during its infancy as an organization. However, due to the death of Janjalani in 1998 during a Philippine military operation, Abu Sayyaf was forced to reinvest its efforts from terrorist operations to kidnappings that were aimed for funding its existence. In addition, the death of Janjalani caused a splinter in the Abu Sayyaf group as his younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani and Galib Andang became the leaders of their respective local Islamic separatist factions.
After Operation Enduring Freedom and the 9/11 attack on the world trade center in 2001, the United States and Philippine government initiated counterterrorism operations against Abu Sayyaf and increased U.S. military presence in the southern Philippines. Consequently, the Philippine government’s success in capturing key figures such as Galib Andang, allowed Abu Sayyaf to become less fragmented and translate its economic gains from kidnap ransoms into controlled attacks against the Philippine government. Abu Sayyaf’s major bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 and Valentine’s Day bombing in 2005, led to an increase in counterterrorism operations. In 2007, the death of Khadaffy Janjalani and the subsequent decentralization of the insurgent group’s higher command forced the insurgent group to refocus its efforts on criminal activities such as kidnaping which lacked an ideological emphasis.
Currently, Abu Sayyaf is measured to have over 400 active fighters who are responsible for frequent kidnappings, robberies, murder, and armed attacks in the southern Philippines and Mindanao region. Recent pledges to the Islamic State by leading members of the Abu Sayyaf insurgency group have convinced Duterte to increase attempts at political negotiations with the group.
Halting the Circulation and Access to Weapons
Although Abu Sayyaf and the Mindanao region remain under extreme supervision by the Philippine government, its ability to obtain large amounts of ammo and new weapons has raised questions as to where the insurgent groups is receiving supplies from. According to the Philippine non-governmental organization “Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism”, frequent government focus on Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic separatist groups such as the MILF and MNLF has allowed the New People’s Army (NPA) and other communist groups to obtain arms from contacts within the Philippine national army. Consequently, the NPA has been able to purchase weapons from corrupt military officers who continue to proceed with their black market operations. Evidence of sales of illegal weapon transactions to the NPA suggest that sales to Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic separatist groups are inevitable if present conditions continue to exist. If the Philippine government and President Duterte want to stall Abu Sayyaf operations in the southern Philippines, it is essential that Duterte root out corruption within the Philippine military and place its weapon arsenal under closer supervision.
According to non-governmental organization journalists, the Philippine military’s lack of supervision over the loss of weapons during military operations against internal insurgent groups within the country allow the small-scale sale of illegal weapons to flourish in the country’s black market. More severe financial punishments against soldiers who lose their weapons in combat and more thorough inspections by military officers of these soldiers could increase accountability and reduce the flow of weapons available in the black market. If Duterte and his administration adopt the United States’ army protocol on issuing harsher punishments for losing weapons in combat, the Philippine government could increase the risk aspect of the risk-benefit mechanism that exists with the illegal sale of government issued firearms.
Reducing Fragmentation of Counterinsurgency Operations with the Public
The United States’ assistance in the development of the Mindanao region from 1996 to 2012 with the Growth with Equity in Mindanao program has successfully built up popular support for the Philippine government. However, civilian development strategies have failed to be successfully coordinated with the Philippine army’s military strategy. A successful population-centric counterinsurgency strategy would involve producing small-scale amenities to impoverished regions in order to reduce popular support for the local insurgency and its operations. However, the Philippine government has relied heavily on U.S. aid in developing the Mindanao region with large-scale projects that gives members of the Abu Sayyaf insurgency access to the amenities necessary to survive. If the Philippine government wants to increase public support for itself amongst the Mindanao region as well as reduce the strength of Abu Sayyaf, then it needs to implement foreign aid in small-scale projects that are easier to supervise and control. Targeted and low profile aid is the best option for completing this mission. Choosing to build local schools and access to clean drinking water versus handing out large amounts of food rations would allow the Philippine government to control the flow of aid as well as direct it to the originally established targets.
Crippling Abu Sayyaf and its Popular Support
The Philippine government must reduce corruption within the Philippine army and prevent the spread of weapons within the black market if it has any hopes on ending the Abu Sayyaf insurgency in the southern Philippines. The army’s lack of supervision and implementation of punishments over the conduct of Philippine soldiers losing their weapons in combat has exacerbated Abu Sayyaf’s ability to obtain new weaponry that will allow it to prolong its fight against the government. Harsher laws surrounding the sale of weapons and closer monitoring of weapon arsenals would lead to the crippling of Abu Sayyaf’s operational capacity.
Given that the Philippines receives a large amount of foreign aid from the United States, it is essential that it is accountable with where the aid is distributed and to who. Small-scale aid that is targeted and closely monitored by the Philippine army can produce popular support for the government amongst the Mindanao population while also restricting Abu Sayyaf’s access to supplies that are critical for its survival. Gaining the support of the local population and establishing an image of the Philippine government as one of support would isolate Abu Sayyaf and reduce its appeal to the local natives of the Mindanao region.