Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)

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Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)

ALTERNATE NAME: Al-Harakar Al-Islamiyyah (Bearer of the Sword)

LEADERS: Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani; Khadaffy Abubakar Janjalani


AREA OF OPERATION: Mainly operates in the southern part of the Philippines; allegedly operates in Malaysia as well

STRENGTH: Several hundred (estimated)


Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is a militant organization that is based in the Philippines. Its mission is thought to be the establishment of a separate Islamic state in Mindanao, an island situated in the southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf literally means "bearer of the sword" in Arabic. Abu Sayyaf Group is also known as Al-Harakat Al-Islamiyyah.

The group claims that it was formed in the early 1990s after it split from Moro National Liberation Front. It was reportedly headed by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. Allegedly, ASG has links with a number of terrorist organizations around the world, including Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, as well as with Razmi Yousef, who was found guilty of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings in New York. The U.S. Department of State has formally listed Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization since 1997.


According to U.S. government statistics, Muslims form about four percent of the total population in the Philippines and are predominantly centralized in the south. Since the 1970s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), an Islamic separatist group, has been allegedly fighting for a separate Muslim state in Mindanao. Between the years 1986 and 1996, the MNLF negotiated with the Philippines government for a separate state. Eventually in 1996, Nur Misuari, the leader of MNLF, reportedly signed a peace agreement with the government in exchange for their separate state. However, terrorism experts report that some extremist MNLF members split from the group during the negotiation process and created their own unit, the Abu Sayyaf Group, in 1991. The group was formed under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, and was allegedly a more fundamentalist faction of the original MNLF.

The ASG is reportedly based in the Basilam Province of the Philippines and carries out its operations in that area, as well as in the neighboring provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (in the Sulu Archipelago region) located in the southern part of the Philippines. The group also allegedly operates on the Zamboanga peninsula, and has links in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines.


The group reportedly began its operations with the bombing of a ship in Zamboanga, the Philippines, killing several Christian missionaries.
An attack on the predominantly Christian town of Ipil in coastal Mindanao, the Philippines, left more than 50 people dead.
Founder and leader of ASG, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, died in a combat with the Philippine Army.
ASG came into the international limelight because of its alleged involvement in the kidnapping and subsequent release of foreign tourists in Malaysia after the delivery of a huge ransom.
ASG allegedly kidnapped three U.S. citizens and 17 Filipinos from a tourist resort in Palawan, the Philippines.
ASG reportedly bombed a passenger ferry in the Philippines, killing more than 100.
ASG claimed responsibility for bombings at public places in three cities in the Philippines.

Terrorism experts and monitor groups allege that the group started its terrorist activities in August 1991, with the bombing of a ship in the harbor in Zamboanga, and a grenade attack on Christian missionaries that reportedly claimed the lives of two women. The group began a continuous series of bombings and kidnappings that were reportedly targeted at the domestic level. Between 1991 and 1993, the ASG was thought to be involved in several grenade attacks and bombings at public places in the Philippines. After the death of the group leader Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in 1998, during a clash with the Philippine Army, the group seemingly split into several factions. After 1998, experts claim that the group forfeited its Islamic fundamentalist ideology and became involved in illicit money-making schemes by asking for huge ransoms for kidnapped hostages.

In April 2000, the ASG earned worldwide notoriety after it allegedly attacked a Malaysian diving resort near Borneo. Suspected ASG members kidnapped 10 western tourists, 11 resort workers, as well as several journalists and intermediaries and, after receiving a huge amount of ransom payments, most of the hostages were released.

In May 2001 the group allegedly attacked the Dos Palmas Resort near the Philippine island of Palawan. Around 20 people were held as hostages, including three Americans. The resort kidnappings initiated an intense attempt by the Philippine government to take on the ASG. According to the official Philippine Army records, at least 100 ASG fighters were killed in encounters between July and November 2001.

After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government increased its efforts against terrorist organizations all over the world, including the ASG. U.S. Department of State published reports stated that in October 2001, with the express intention of eradicating the ASG, the United States sent about two dozen military advisers to the Philippines. Furthermore the reports mentioned that the United States was considering increasing its financial aid to the Philippine military, along with additional weapons assistance, to combat terrorism in the region.

In February 2004, the ASG claimed responsibility for the bombing on the SuperFerry 14, sailing from Manila to Bacolod and Davao. This attack reportedly claimed the lives of more than 100 passengers. As of 2004, the Philippine authorities have asserted that the Abu Sayyaf Group is resurfacing with a vengeance and is allegedly shifting its focus again on its original ideology—to establish an Islamic rule in the southern Philippines.


The ASG was reportedly formed by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani with an aim to create a separate Muslim state in the southern Philippines. During the initial years of its operations, experts report that ASG was a more fundamentalist and aggressive faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Various studies on extremist groups also mention that some ASG leaders fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet war and were students and supporters of radical Islamic teachings. Janjalani, an Afghan war veteran, allegedly had close links with many other Islamic radical leaders (the group is suspected by the officials to have strong links with Al-Qaeda). It is alleged that the group was initially funded by Al-Qaeda, but as of 2005 it is largely self-financed through ransom and extortion money that the group has received as well as by the support from Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

Counterterrorism analysts have observed that the group has time and again kidnapped foreigners and subsequently negotiated for their release in exchange for ransom. In 1993, it was alleged that ASG gunmen kidnapped Charles Walton, a 61-year-old language researcher at the U.S.-based Summer Institute of Linguistics and freed him after keeping him hostage for twenty-three days. In 1994, ASG militants were also accused of kidnapping three Spanish nuns and a Spanish priest, on separate occasions, and in 1998, two Hong Kong men, a Malaysian national, and a Taiwanese citizen were kidnapped. Later in 2000, the group allegedly kidnapped several tourists from a resort in Malaysia and released the hostages after payment of a hefty ransom.

The group has also been accused by the Philippine authorities for seeking out minorities, such as Christians, and has been allegedly involved in various incidents involving shootouts and bombing of Christian-dominated towns. In 1995, several ASG members were allegedly involved in a shootout in a town of mostly Christians that killed more than 50 civilians and soldiers. The Philippine authorities also suspected the ASG of plotting to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his visit to the Philippines.

Terrorism experts charge the ASG with carrying out terrorist activities like bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and extortion from business companies and rich industrialists to pursue its goals. Government officials have alleged that several ASG members are trained to be experts in long-range shooting in diverse weather conditions. As mentioned before, they also claim that several ASG militants have received extensive military training at Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Intelligence officials report that the ASG has wide support in the southern Philippines, especially in the provinces of Sulu and Basilan. Also, the rough topography of that area makes it difficult for the armed forces to invade successfully. Additionally, the ASG is allegedly divided into multiple factions, with each faction operating autonomously, which also highly complicates the job for the Philippine military.



Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani was the founder of ASG and also led the group until his death in 1998, which according to the Philippine Army was a result of an encounter with the military in the village of Lamitan in Basilam Island of the Philippines. Janjalani was a former Islamic scholar who allegedly studied in Libya and Saudi Arabia, and also took part in the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s. Terrorism experts claim that he met and worked with Osama bin Laden during that time.

In 1990, Janjalani returned to the village of Tabuk in the Philippines, where he founded ASG. He reportedly established connections with a budding movement advocating strict Islamic fundamentalism, which was started by the religious leader, Ustadz Wahab Akbar. It is considered that these connections led to the formation of ASG as a fundamentalist disintegrated faction of the Muslim separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). It is alleged that the group was initially funded by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who is Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law.


Terrorism analysts state that after Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani was killed in 1998, a power struggle took place in the group, but eventually his younger brother Khadaffy Abubakar Janjalani took control of the group and arose as the new leader. He also reportedly goes by the alias of Abu Muktar and Khadafi Montanio.

Media agencies reported that Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in an air strike in November 2004 in Datu Piang, the Philippines. His body has never been recovered, and his death has not been confirmed. There have been rumors claiming that he is alive and clandestinely living either in the Philippines or escaped to Malaysia.

Though the basic aim of ASG remains the formation of a Muslim state in the southern Philippines, according to published intelligence reports, they deviated from their objectives to other criminal activities, such as kidnappings and bombings. Authorities claim that the ASG resorted to kidnappings, extortions, and robberies as the lure of money has made them digress from their goal of establishing Islamic rule over the Philippines. Media agencies and government authorities have reported that this greediness for money by ASG militants, as well as their random and targeted acts of terror against civilians, has cost them the support of native Muslims, who no longer sympathize with the organization. Terrorism experts indicate that the strategies and operations of the group often depend on the whims of the individual leader. Experts also suggest that there is a lack of discipline among the group members.

However, some intelligence experts are of the opinion that with the recent bombing of the passenger ferry in February, 2005, responsibility for which is claimed by ASG, the group is possibly coming back to its original objectives. Media reports speculate that the group is returning to its Islamic fundamentalist ideology and is using the familiar weapons of terror, such as bombing and assassination, to achieve its ultimate goal of establishing an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines. Authorities dealing with terrorism in the Philippines report that there is new evidence that indicates that the group is evolving into a stronger version of its original self. Studies have shown that the ASG is setting up an assassination squad known as Fisabillilah, or the Path of God. Several terrorists laden with explosives, and allegedly members of the ASG, were captured by the Philippine authorities in 2004.

Abu Sayyaf Men Sentenced to Death

Seventeen suspected members of the Islamic rebel group Abu Sayyaf have been sentenced to death in the Philippines. The men—four of whom were tried in absentia—were found guilty of kidnapping four people on the southern island of Basilan three years ago.

This is the first wide-scale conviction of suspected Abu Sayyaf rebels.

One of the smallest of the Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf is notorious for taking hostages.

The 17 defendants were convicted of kidnapping three nurses and a general hospital worker in June 2001.

Only 13 of the accused were in court. The other four, who escaped from a detention centre in April, were sentenced in absentia.

Separate trial

The court heard that the rebels had raided a hospital in the town of Lamitan to get medicine, and had taken hostages when the building was surrounded by Philippine government soldiers.

The month before, Abu Sayyaf militants are also said to have kidnapped 20 Philippine and American tourists from a beach resort.

Two of the nurses were freed after months of captivity, whilst the hospital worker managed to escape.

The third nurse and an American hostage were killed in a military rescue operation in July 2002.

The militants had earlier beheaded another American.

A separate trial in Manila is dealing with the abduction and deaths of the Americans.

Aileen Marie Gutierrez, a state prosecutor, said the decision to sentence the 17 men to death showed that "justice still works" in the Philippines.

"This is a strong signal that government is determined to wipe out terrorism in the south," she told Reuters news agency.

Abu Sayyaf, which is said to have links with al-Qaeda, has been weakened in recent years.

But the rebels remain active, despite frequent operations by Philippine troops trained and advised by elite U.S. soldiers.

Source: BBC News, 2004

Intelligence reports assert that the ASG continues to plan terrorist attacks in the Philippines, including bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and terrorist actions against civilians and U.S. interests, to foster its political, religious, and ideological objectives. Philippine government officials claim that the ASG is the most aggressive faction of MNLF.


Abu Sayyaf has been blamed by the Philippine government for several acts of terror conducted at various places in the country, including bombings and kidnappings.

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)


The ASG is primarily a small, violent Muslim terrorist group operating in the southern Philippines. Some ASG leaders allegedly fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet war and are students and proponents of radical Islamic teachings. The group split from the much larger Moro National Liberation Front in the early 1990s under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who was killed in a clash with Philippine police in December 1998. His younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, replaced him as the nominal leader of the group and appears to have consolidated power.


The ASG engages in kidnappings for ransom, bombings, beheadings, assassinations, and extortion. The group's stated goal is to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago (areas in the southern Philippines heavily populated by Muslims) but the ASG has primarily used terror for financial profit. Recent bombings may herald a return to a more radical, politicized agenda, at least among certain factions. The group's first large-scale action was a raid on the town of Ipil in Mindanao in April 1995. In April of 2000, an ASG faction kidnapped 21 persons, including 10 Western tourists, from a resort in Malaysia. On May 27, 2001, the ASG kidnapped three US citizens and 17 Filipinos from a tourist resort in Palawan, Philippines. Several of the hostages, including US citizen Guillermo Sobero, were murdered. During a Philippine military hostage rescue operation on June 7, 2002, US hostage Gracia Burnham was rescued, but her husband Martin Burnham and Filipina Deborah Yap were killed. Philippine authorities say that the ASG had a role in the bombing near a Philippine military base in Zamboanga in October 2002 that killed a US serviceman. In February 2004, Khadaffy Janjalani's faction bombed SuperFerry 14 in Manila Bay, killing approximately 132, and in March, Philippine authorities arrested an ASG cell whose bombing targets included the US Embassy in Manila.


Estimated to have 200 to 500 members.


The ASG was founded in Basilan Province and operates there and in the neighboring provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in the Sulu Archipelago. The group also operates on the Zamboanga peninsula, and members occasionally travel to Manila. In mid-2003, the group started operating in the major city of Cotobato and on the coast of Sultan Kudarat on Mindanao. The group expanded its operational reach to Malaysia in 2000 when it abducted foreigners from a tourist resort.


Largely self-financing through ransom and extortion; has received support from Islamic extremists in the Middle East and may receive support from regional terrorist groups. Libya publicly paid millions of dollars for the release of the foreign hostages seized from Malaysia in 2000.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

National Security Adviser to the Philippines, Norberto Gonzales, commented on the bombing of a passenger ferry in 2004 that killed more than 100 people: "Because of the nature of the wreck, half-submerged in the bay, it will be difficult for investigators to prove 100% that it was Abu Sayyaf. But the overwhelming evidence points that way, and I'm certain they were the ones behind the attack."

In February 2005, Abu Sayyaf allegedly set off simultaneous bombs across three cities in the Philippines. In a phone call to the local radio station, an Abu Sayyaf spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack and said, "Our latest operations—planned and executed with precision by the gallant warriors of Islam—is our continuing response to the Philippine government's atrocities committed against Muslims everywhere." Philippine President Arroyo retaliated by saying, "More than ever, we must not pull back but move forward to wipe out the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf." She further stated, "The evil of terrorism has only one aim. It is to rule with absolute power and absolute force."

A joint statement issued in May 2003 by President Bush of the United States and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines reaffirmed their commitment to destroy the Abu Sayyaf Group once and for all. Toward that end, both leaders agreed to hold another joint military activity in the near term, in which the United States will provide support to ongoing Armed Forces of the Philippine-led operations against the ASG. In a speech during the Joint Session of Congress in the Philippines, Mr. Bush remarked, "My government and your government pursue a common objective: We will bring Abu Sayyaf to justice. And we will continue to work together, along with our friends in Southeast Asia, to dismantle Jamaah Islamiya—the terrorist network, as well as other groups that traffic in violence and chaos. As we fight the terrorists, we're also determined to end conflicts that spread hopelessness and feed terror."


The U.S. Department of State formally designated Abu Sayyaf a terrorist organization in 1997, which allowed the government to freeze any assets the group had in the United States. Following the September 11 attacks, the United States sent about 650 troops with the objective of training and advising Philippine soldiers to confront the Abu Sayyaf militants armed with the knowledge of latest warfare techniques and technological know-how. (That mission ended in July 2002.)

The ASG has reportedly expressed displeasure toward the Arroyo administration and has continued to conduct various terrorist attacks throughout the Philippines with the aim of toppling the government. Filipino officials claim that the ASG has made significant links to the deadliest Southeast Asian terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiya (JI), along with Al-Qaeda.


Web sites

ABC Asia Pacific. "Cause and Effect—Profiles of Terrorist Groups." 〈http://abcasiapacific.com/cause/network/sayyaf.htm〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

Federation of American Scientists. "Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)." 〈http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/asg.htm〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). "Profile: Abu Sayyaf." 〈http://www.pbs.org/newshour/terrorism/international/abu_sayyaf.html〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

South Asia Analysis Group. "ABU SAYYAF: The Cause for the Return of U.S. Troops to Philippines?" 〈http://www.saag.org/papers5/paper417.html〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base. "Terrorist Group Profile: Abu Sayyaf Group." 〈http://www.tkb.org/Group.jsp?groupID=204〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

Council on Foreign Relations. "AbuSayyaf Group—Philippines, Islamist Separatists." 〈http://cfrterrorism.org/groups/abusayyaf.html〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

The U.S. Embassy at Manila. "U.S., Philippine Presidents Announce Boost to Bilateral Ties." 〈http://usembassy.state.gov/posts/rp1/wwwhr006.html〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

Office of the Press Secretary, Malacanang, Philippines. "President George W. Bush's Speech during the Joint Session of Congress." 〈http://www.ops.gov.ph/pgwbvisit2003/speeches.htm〉 (accessed September 14, 2005).

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