Terror in the Philippines: Who are the beheading militants?

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By Zofia Reych

Just a couple of days after the world was shocked by the death of one of four hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf extremists in the Southern Philippines jungle, the terrorists issued a new, terrifying warning.

“We will upload a new video soon for our new ultimatum. No ransom, another beheading,” said Abu Raami, a spokesperson for the militant group.

The first victim, Canadian John Ridsdel, was beheaded by his captors in April this year. Two months later, after more failed demands for ransom, the Abu Sayyaf released a video showing a fellow Canadian, Robert Hall, kneeling in front of an armed militant before being decapitated. His severed head was discovered a couple of days later on Sulu, a Southwestern island known for ongoing violent clashes with Islamist extremists.

The two Canadians, as well as Filipina Marites Flor and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad were abducted in September last year in from a tourist resort on Samal Island. The perpetrators demanded a ransom of $6.4m for each of the hostages. However, both Canada and Norway operate a strict policy of not paying ransoms.

“[It] is a significant source of funds for terrorist organizations that then allows them to continue to perpetuate deadly acts of violence against innocents around the world, said Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference.

“But more importantly, [it] would endanger the lives of every single one of the millions of Canadians who live, work and travel around the globe every single year.”

The Philippine authorities have deployed 5,000 troops to pursue the militants on Sulu.

Bandits not extremists

In the Southern province of Mindanao, political tensions between a Muslim majority and the Catholic population go back nearly a century. The native Muslim people have formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a separatist organisation now conducting an insurgency against the Philippines’ rule. An offshoot of MNLF, Abu Sayyaf was created in 1991 after its founder was influenced by Osama Bin Laden and, allegedly, provided with funding. Initially associated with Al-Qaeda, the Abu Sayyaf has officially pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State.

Although Abu Sayyaf identify themselves with the black ISIS flag, the group seems to have a very localised agenda. They “are rooted in a distinct class made up of closely knit networks built through marriage of important families through socioeconomic backgrounds and family structures. It’s not easy to expand in that kind of context,” explains Dr Michael Buehler from SOAS, University of London. Buehler added that it’s unlikely that Abu Sayyaf will bring ISIS-like Islamic extremism to the Philippines.

The accounts of former hostages paint an image of a rather disorganised, albeit violent group. In 2001, a missionary couple Gracia and Martin Burnham were kidnapped and held hostage for over a year in the jungle of Sulu. They later testified that their captors were unfamiliar with the Koran and had a very vague understanding of Islam. They used their status of a ‘holy warrior’ to justify bombings, kidnappings and beheadings that the Abu Sayyaf gained notoriety for.

Another survivor, Australian Warren Rodwell, described his captors as full of testosterone, youngsters eager to make money through violence. Rodwell was released after his family paid $100,000 to the group.

The politics behind the violence

Abu Sayyaf is one of the smallest and the most violent groups active in the context of the Mindanao Muslims insurgency that was initially led by the MNLF. Now at the forefront of the separatist movement is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that emerged from within MNLF. The Abu Sayyaf militants are seen as terrorists by both MNLF and MILF and the latter, looking to establish lasting peace in the region, co-operate with the Philippines’ army in operations against the Abu Sayyaf.

As a result of MILF lobbying, the Malacañang agreed in 2014 to pass a bill that would establish a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region to replace the current Autonomous Region In Muslim Mindanao. The bill, known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), would grant greater independence to the Muslim majority and native people in the region through almost complete political autonomy, including a separate constitution.

Some see the BBL as the only chance to secure peace in the area. It would also allow the Philippines’ army to focus on other matters, such as the ongoing South China Sea debate. Others deem the BBL a threat to the integrity of the state and the MILF a terrorist organisation not dissimilar from Abu Sayyaf. Much confusion comes from media reports listing both organisations in one breath.

Indeed, the MILF is a militant organisation and as such it has been involved in armed fighting, yet they deny association with incidents such the 2007 beheading of ten Filipino soldiers. For bandit groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and other extremists in the region, the ethnic conflict is a merely a pretext to carry out terrorist activities under an extremist flag.

The MILF is fully committed to resolving the ongoing conflict through politics and the Malacañang is keen to co-operate, despite the recent delay in passing the BBL.

“The success of the Bangsamoro peace process can help us arrest the spread of extremism around the globe by showing clearly that an Islamic movement can address its grievances and pursue its interests through a legitimate mode of democratic political engagement,” said government peace adviser, Secretary Teresita Quintos Deles.

In his presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte pledged to pass the BBL as ‘the Moro people should be given what is due’.

Regardless of what shape the peace process in Mindanao takes, the Abu Sayyaf actions create a false association between the Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao and the terrorist methods of ISIS.

As of now, the fate of the two surviving Abu Sayyaf hostages, Marites Flor and Kjartan Sekkingstad, remains unknown.