A recent offensive on the jihadist outfit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines by the country’s Armed Forces has opened new information for the counterterrorism experts around the world. According to reports, Abu Sayyaf activities are being shifted from the shore to maritime space.
According to media reports, in the predawn hours of November 3, a boat with seven Abu Sayyaf members left a small island in the Sulu archipelago on suspected kidnap for ransom mission. Locals had seen the group of unfamiliar men the day before and informed the security services. Armed Forces intercepted the vessel in the darkness – fired from helicopters and finally was able to eliminate all of the seven members of the jihadist group.
For any such operations on the maritime space, it is essential to have assets such as modern patrol vessels, aerial surveillance gears, and remote sensing systems. Another critical component is the role of civilians at sea and in coastal communities as a source of human intelligence.
Since 2015, 54 percent of conflict incidents involving Abu Sayyaf have occurred on Jolo Island. Over the course of the last year that has increased to 67 percent. However, the militants in this incident were intercepted operating off of Sulare Island, roughly 14 kilometers southwest of Jolo Island. Sulare is a very small island of only a few square kilometers. It is largely flat with a lagoon that covers a large portion of its surface area. Satellite imagery shows a small number of buildings and several small vessels along one section of the shoreline. The November 3 operations against ASG men left indications of a changing geographical distribution of the activity of this notorious jihadist outfit.
According to Jay Benson is the Indo-Pacific project manager at Stable Seas, a nonprofit research organization focusing on issues of maritime security and governance – as the group becomes increasingly vulnerable on Jolo, it may seek to broaden its area of operations and target civilians across a broader geography. Subsequent incidents, such as the interdiction of a vessel carrying ASG members with small arms and explosives off of Zamboanga City by the Philippine National Police (PNP), suggest an even further geographic dispersion of ASG’s maritime operations. This may heighten the risk of potential attacks in maritime and coastal areas across the Bangsomoro.
ASG members suffering from starvation and family pressure
This month, two senior Abu Sayyaf (ASG) operatives and 13 followers of the Daesh-linked militant group in the southern Philippines surrendered to the authorities.
A report by the Sulu-based Army 11th Infantry Division (11ID) identified them as Alvin Yusop (Arab Puti) and Barahim Nurjahar.
The duo belonged to factions formerly led by slain ASG senior leaders, Radulan Sahiron and Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, both of whom were on the US global terror list.
Yusop was allegedly involved in major ASG kidnapping operations and was one of Malaysia’s most wanted men for his involvement in cross-border crimes in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone.
Brig. Gen. Ignatius Patrimonio, 1102nd brigade commander, said Yusop’s family convinced him to surrender after his mother suffered a stroke.
“He (Yusop) also wanted to change for the better for the sake of his four children,” Patrimonio said.
Meanwhile, Nurjahar, who was with Sawadjaan’s group, had allegedly led the kidnapping of the Sulu mayor’s sister, while Col. Antonio Bautista, 1101st Brigade commander, said the military had long been hunting for him.
“The presence of government troops drove out Nurjahar from his stronghold and caused him to starve. Realizing that his struggle made no sense, he approached the Moro National Liberation Front Jikiri faction, who then linked him to us for his proper surrender,” Bautista said.
Others who surrendered included two of ASG senior figure Apoh Mike’s sons, Muarip Adja, alias “Arip,” and Hatimil Adja, also known as Timmir.
Timmir was reportedly present when Sawadjaan — the designated Daesh emir in Mindanao — died in July from bullet wounds sustained during an encounter with government forces.
If starvation and family pressure are truly forcing Abu Sayyaf members in giving-up their notorious jihadist activities and surrender to the authorities, it definitely should be good news for the Philippines as well as the neighboring countries. But in my personal opinion, we should not expect ASG men to follow the path of surrender of a few of their members. Instead, with the financial and logistic help from its sympathizers and patrons from Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, ASG will continue its notoriety and joining of ISIS fighters in this group would only complicate the ongoing anti-terrorism drive of the Philippines authorities.