Duterte takes on Abu Sayyaf: can he succeed where others failed?

Photo: U.S. Marine Corps

Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte has sent troops into strongholds of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf, determined to wipe out the long-standing insurgency by force. This overturns his previous approach of calling for peace and intensifies a situation which has already seen huge numbers of people killed. 

By Claire Heffron

President Duterte’s strategy on tackling domestic terrorism has changed. Speaking about the Abu Sayyaf militant group operating in his country he said, “Even if we grant them autonomy we will never have peace in the country.

Reversing his position on the loose network of militants formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, tough-talking Duterte has ordered the military to destroy the group because they are “nothing more than criminals.” But effective action will need more than tough words; dealing with Abu Sayaff is undoubtedly the toughest challenge for his new leadership.

However, many question whether this is the best option when the Armed Forces of the Philippines would need to go all-out in the fight against them?

Will it be enough?

The Philippine military estimates Abu Sayyaf has about 300 to 400 men, mostly in Basilan and Sulu provinces in Mindanao. So far, Duterte has ordered the deployment of more troops in the group’s stronghold to tackle the problem directly. But will Duterte’s action make the insurgency stronger and create retaliation? The government’s intensified campaign may yet trigger diversionary attacks in Manila and other major cities.

There is also the question of whether further loss of life through direct clashes is helpful when seeking peace. An assault last week on the Abu Sayyaf’s stronghold at the heavily forested island of Jolo met violent resistance. A single encounter with the group saw fifteen troops killed and another ten injured. However, the fight back was still reported back as a success – 30 Abu Sayyaf members died since the start of clashes, according to a commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Mindanao Command.

The President wants to ensure that the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf is “terminated as soon as possible.” But is that even achievable? A military spokesman claimed the army could work to eradicate the group, but faced the challenge of strong support for the militants from local Muslim residents.

Important to tackling the problem is understanding the reasons behind it. Analysts say the militant organisation is running a profitable kidnapping business rather than defending or promoting a religious ideology. Recent rumours on the internet say Duterte had paid a ransom for the freedom of Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad; this may have been as much as $1 million. When the government itself is forced to pay ransoms into terrorist coffers then the scale of the problem becomes ever clearer.


Duterte’s call to violently engage with the group overturns his previous position that he was open to peace talks with militant leaders. He even went as far as to confess he admired Abu Sayyaf for still fighting for a cause, particularly for the Bangsamoro people. However, the group has lost a lot of trust by killing people, especially the recent increases in beheadings.

Previous Philippine leaders made similar vows to eradicate Abu Sayyaf and failed, even with help from the country’s military ally, the United States. Critics say the Muslim terrorism and secessionist problem keeps recurring because many think Muslims in Sulu will eventually decide to live in peace with the other Filipinos; and that they will keep their word. This consensus remains elusive.

A few months ago Abu Sayaff expressed a desire to communicate with Manila and to hear their grievances. However, analysts explain the forces should not stop the fight just because the Muslims decide it is time for peace talks to resume. Only if Duterte declares “martial law” in Sulu can the government military truly wipe out the group. Duterte, so far, shows no interest in this drastic and bloody course of action.

Is this because he knows that government troops might suffer more casualties because they have many difficulties with finding locations, logistic support and intelligence networks? The answer to this problem is about more than superior firepower or troops; it needs words as well as actions.