Philippines: Abu Sayyaf will pose major challenge for Duterte government

Filipino voters will be closely watching how president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is going to tackle terrorism after taking office. While militant groups like MILF and MNLF are warming up to him, the dreaded Abu Sayyaf Group seem to be in no mood to listen. Ignoring his warning, they have renewed their threats to kill hostages if the government fails to pay ransom    

PATIKUL, Sulu—Even as many Filipinos believe that the incoming president Rodrigo Duterte has the capability and political will to rein in the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the suspected Islamic State-affiliated outfit has rejected his warning to stop their terror acts.

Abu Sayyaf are demanding a ransom of P300 million for the release of each of the hostages

Abu Sayyaf militants are demanding a ransom of P300 million for the release of each of the hostages

In fact, the ASG countered him with a warning last week to pay the ransom they were demanding to prevent the deaths of the remaining eight hostages.

Earlier, they had beheaded a hostage, Canadian national John Ridsdel, and the act evoked condemnation from Philippine and Canadian governments.

Rommel Banloi, director of Terrorism Center Research, says the beheading of Ridsdel sent a message that the abductors had the capacity to become violent if their demands were not met.

The Abu Sayyaf are demanding a ransom of P300 million for the release of each of the hostages. A video clip on social media confirmed this.

Military spokesman Maj. Filemon Tan, Jr said they have not seen the video clip and the operations against Abu Sayyaf would continue.

Duterte apologized to the Canadian government over the beheading incident adding that the terrorists would be neutralized within six months after he assumes office on July 1.

Duterte is known for his tough stance in dealing with criminals. His affiliation with a death squad was responsible for the killing of more than 1,000 criminals.

Abu Sayyaf is said to have at least 400 heavily armed members. Civil Societies in Mindanao have called for an end to their terror attacks in Zamboanga City.

Rolly Pelinggon, national president of Mindanaoans for Mindanao, has called on civil societies in Mindanao to unite against terror attacks.

“We hope one day the Manila government will realize that education and equitable share of the government national wealth will be the solution to Mindanao’s conflict and not military,” Pelinggon told Asia Times.

Former navy officer and present Senator Antonio Trillanes alleges a nexus between the Abu Sayyaf Group and top military brass.

“This game of the generals is one reason why the Abu Sayyaf is getting stronger despite strong military presence in the region,” he said.

Trillanes ran for vice president as an independent candidate during the recent elections.

The Abu Sayyaf started as a religious youth group in the 1990s. Some of them were hired as mercenaries to fight for Afghanistan against the Russians. When they returned home and found no jobs for their livelihood, they began to indulge in extortion and kidnapping.

A decade later, the ASG was able to raise more than $50 million. To strengthen their base, they began to recruit more people.

During the recent presidential elections, two Islamic militant groups extended their support to Duterte.

One was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which calls Duterte “a true son of Mindanao.”

Early this year, Duterte visited Darampanan, the largest MILF camp.

The MILF, which has 14,000 fighters, is awaiting to join peace talks with the new government.

Another militant group which wants to make peace with Duterte government is Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its leader Nur Misuari actively campaigned for Duterte.

Misuari has been a fugitive since 2013 when the government linked him to 400 heavily armed MNLF fighters who took siege of Zamboanga, a city in Southern Philippines. The government deployed around 2,000 foot soldiers and elite special forces to contain that armed conflict. Some MNLF fighters surrendered and are facing rebellion charges in court. The military estimates that the MNLF has around 7,000 armed fighters and supporters.

A MNLF leader, on the condition of anonymity, told Asia Times that they are arranging a meeting between Misuari and Duterte after the latter takes his oath as president.

“Duterte is most likely to fly to Sulu to hold a possible peace talks with Misuari,” the leader said.

Duterte may also invite leaders of the New People’s Army (NPA) to the negotiating table.  He has offered them four cabinet positions.

NPA’s adviser Joman Sison on exile to Netherelands is coming to Philippines to hold peace talks with Duterte. Sison had sought political Asylum in the Netherlands in 1988.

Amid these positive signs, Abu Sayyaf remains a security threat in the restive region. In Patikul, a source told Asia Times that the group is still holding four Malaysian and four Filipino hostages.

Duterte views MNLF and MILF as legitimate revolutionary organizations. However, he has warned them that those operating to promote terror will be dealt with severely.

While some doubt Duterte’s capability to address the Abu Sayyaf, Mindanao’s sociology professor Adrian Semorlan says one cannot underestimate him.

What Duterte did in Davao as mayor to combat crime shows his leadership can do extraordinary things.

“So let us give him a chance,” Semorlan said.

Noel Tarrazona is Vancouver-based freelance journalist and is a senior analyst of wikistrat. He can be reached at ntarrazona@gmail.com

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