After years of fighting the government from hidden jungle bases in Mindanao, an al-Qaida-linked bandit group is facing a new adversary: fellow Moro insurgents who can match their guerrilla battle tactics and are eager to regain their lost stature by fighting the widely condemned terrorist group.
The emerging enmity between the Abu Sayyaf bandits and the Moro rebels could bolster a decade-long campaign by the Philippines and Western countries to isolate the al-Qaida offshoot, which remains one of the most dangerous groups in Southeast Asia.
In their first known major clash, Abu Sayyaf gunmen battled rebels from the larger Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in fighting early last week, leaving at least 22 combatants dead in the mountainous jungles on Jolo Island. A Moro rebel was beheaded—the Abu Sayyaf’s signature act.
Bonded by blood ties and war, the two armed groups had coexisted for years on Jolo in a predominantly Muslim region, where abject poverty, guns and weak law enforcement have combined in an explosive mix to fuel their rebellions and pockets of lawlessness.
The trouble began after the MNLF rebels—seeking to regain their former dominance in the region—tried to arrange the release of several hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf, including Jordanian TV journalist Baker Atyani and two European tourists. When the Abu Sayyaf commanders refused to free the hostages, the MNLF launched an attack.
The MNLF rebels are now trying to rescue the captives and end the Abu Sayyaf’s reign, Moro commander Khabier Malik told The Associated Press.
“We breathe the same air, speak the same language and live and fight in the same jungle,” Malik said by telephone. “We’re a bigger force and we cannot allow this small group to reign with this brutality.”
For years, a shadowy alliance is believed to have existed between the groups. While the MNLF signed a limited peace deal with the government years ago, some Moro commanders are suspected of giving sanctuary to Abu Sayyaf men and carrying out kidnappings for ransom with them.
“Collusion between the Abu Sayyaf and MNLF members—many of whom are relatives—on Jolo is a major reason large swaths of the island have been essentially ungovernable for years,” said Bryony Lau of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank.
The government “should consider whether the recent clash has shifted relations between them in a way that could make it easier to isolate senior figures of the Abu Sayyaf,” Lau said.
But the rift offers no easy answers for the Philippines. Weaning the Moro rebels from hardened militants would mean a true government alliance with the rebels, some of whom are suspected of involvement in attacks on civilians and government forces.
Walking a tightrope amid the clashes, President Aquino said the Moro offensive was not sanctioned by his administration.
But government officials also are not trying to stop the fighting, presumably hoping each group weakens the other.
Police and soldiers have simply set up checkpoints to seal off the area around the fighting, trying to keep it from spilling into other rural areas.
Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan said he would allow the MNLF attacks to continue, at least for now.
“They’re cleaning their ranks. These kidnappers are either their former members or one of their own,” Tan said.
The MNLF spearheaded an underground movement in the early 1970s for a separatist Islamic state in Mindanao. But it dropped its secessionist goal when it accepted limited autonomy for minority Muslims in the Roman Catholic-majority nation’s south, prompting key guerrillas to break away, including a Libyan-educated radical, Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, who established the Abu Sayyaf.
So long as Janjalani lived, the Abu Sayyaf dedicated itself to fighting for an Islamic state in Mindanao. But after he was killed in a clash with government forces in December 1998, the Abu Sayyaf descended into terrorism and then resorted to banditry.