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Philippines: Abu Sayyaf Resurgence a Renewed Threat

Highlights -Abu Sayyaf back, but not what it used to be -New leadership appears more criminal than ideologically-driven -Kidnappings and abductions likely to continue in the near to medium-term After being largely decimated thanks to a joint effort by the United States and the Philippine military, it appears that the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) may be coming back. The group’s return, however, may not be as the same terrorist entity the region once knew and feared. “I think they’ve morphed into something else, just like…criminal gangs,” opined the Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro. Taking a renewed focus on kidnappings for the sake of acquiring ransom, versus making ideological demands, ASG appears to be devolving as a terrorist entity and evolving as a criminal syndicate. While the change may be only temporary, we assess that the group’s resurgence will result in a distinct organization from that which once existed; driven more by its own survival than ideological underpinnings. Recent ASG Kidnappings Stretching Military According to current estimates, ASG is now holding 10 hostages for ransom, the most recent having been kidnapped on February 13. Three international aid workers are the most high-profile abductees currently held by ASG. On January 15, three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers were abducted by gunmen while returning from inspecting a water and sanitation project at a prison on Sulu province’s Jolo Island. The two Europeans and one Filipina are currently being held in the island’s dense jungle. Agence France-Press reports the Philippine military has trapped the kidnappers in a 1.5 square-mile area and is currently contemplating its next move. According to the Mindanao Examiner, ASG wants to exchange the three ICRC hostages for some of its 135 members now jailed in Manila. Further, the group has demanded that all military troops in Indana, a region in the south of the Philippines, be removed from the area before negotiations can begin. Responding to the group’s demands, Governor Skur Tan of Sulu province stated that the government will not pay a ransom for the hostages, but rather called on ASG to release the hostages unharmed. In addition to the area the military has now cordoned off around what it suspects is the hiding-place of the ICRC workers, Filipino troops have also isolated an area of the restive island of Basilan where the group is holding three public school teachers who were kidnapped on February 7. The efforts to address the growing number of kidnappings has stretched the already undermanned and underequipped Filipino military. Efforts to curtail ASG’s success, and to neutralize their capabilities, are unlikely to bear much fruit until additional funding, equipment and training are devoted to the military. Outlook According to a confidential Filipino government report, Abu Sayyaf raised more than US$1.5 million dollars in 2008 through ransoms paid for regional tourists as well as some local business owners – the standard targets of the group’s kidnapping operations. Additionally, the same report notes the group’s ranks rose from 383 members in 2007, to 400 members in 2008. ASG’s ability to attract additional recruits appears to have held-up against US-Filipino efforts to target the group. Given the dearth of economic attention that Manila provides to the country’s mostly-Muslim southern islands, we foresee no significant change in the group’s continued ability to attract disenfranchised youths from the local population. As such, we estimate kidnappings, which have proven successful for the group in the past, to continue in the near to medium-term, particularly as abductions remain the group’s only means of fundraising. We note, however, that despite some affiliation with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) – mostly permitting

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