Abu Sayyaf and its links to bin Laden
By Maria Ressa
MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim militant group based in the southern Philippines, has been dismissed by authorities as simply a band of criminals.
Analysts, however, believe the group's members are a strange mixture of mercenaries and ideologues, of kidnappers and Afghan war veterans.
It was formed in 1991 by a charismatic Filipino Islamic preacher, Abdurajak Janjalani, who had just returned from the war in Afghanistan against Soivet occupying forces.
Philippine police say in its first four years of operation, the Abu Sayyaf carried out 105 terrorist crimes: bombing a cargo ship, raiding villages, planting bombs and killing dozens of people.
Now it has been placed on the White House list of terrorist groups whose assets U.S. President George W. Bush wants to freeze worldwide.
Philippine authorities say although they believed the Abu Sayyaf was backed by international terrorists in the mid-90's, they are uncertain whether this homegrown terrorist group retains international backing.
What the group has become renowned for in the past two years is kidnapping for ransom.
After the death of its founder, the group's Islamic fundamentalists have been watered down by mercenaries.
Last year, the Abu Sayyaf received about $18 million in ransom for the release of its western and Asian hostages kidnapped from the Malaysian diving resort of Sipadan.
Soon after, it kidnapped more tourists, this time from a southern Philippine resort. Among the tourists are three Americans, one of whom the Abu Sayyaf claims they beheaded.
"Abu Sayyaf is advancing the brand of Islamic fundamentalism that is the signature of bin Laden," says former Armed Forces Chief and now Senator Rodolfo Biazon.
There are more concrete links. Several times over the past two years, the Abu Sayyaf has asked for the release of terrorist Ramzi Yousef in exchange for its western hostages.
Yousef, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had established a cell in the Philippines and trained members of the Abu Sayyaf between 1994-1995.
Yousef is a well-known disciple of militant leader Osama bin Laden.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in anti-terrorism investigations came in 1995 when police stumbled onto Yousef's safe-house in Manila.
His laptop computer contained coded information that gave investigators proof of the link between Abu Sayyaf and bin Laden.
"We were able to establish that all along, bin Laden has been directly supporting the Abu Sayyaf through Khalifa, his brother-in-law," says Avelino Razon, the former head of the Presidential Security Guard in 1995.
Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa lived in the Philippines from about 1987 to 1993.
During that time, he set up more than a dozen businesses and charities which, authorities say, funneled money not only to the Abu Sayyaf but also to the MILF, the Philippines' largest Islamic separatist group.
Although most of those organizations closed shop after 1995, authorities have renewed a search for financial links to bin Laden.
But looking for those ties may take a toll on the Philippines' Muslim minority.
"The financial ties would be through welfare organizations and that puts the Philippine government in a bind," says author Glenda Gloria, "Because how do you distinguish now welfare from actually financial assistance to terrorism."
That is the same challenge faced by authorities around the world as they attempt to shut down bin Laden's intricate financial network.
But in the southern Philippines, there is a legitimate refugee problem, and some financial help comes to the Muslims through legitimate charities.
An additional problem for authorities: they can't move against suspected bank accounts held by the members of Abu Sayyaf until a money-laundering bill becomes law. That is expected to happen on September 30.
Tracing the Asian terror links
September 22, 2001
Asia fears mounting militant Islamic network
September 14, 2001
Philippines guards southern 'back door'
September 12, 2001
Philippines troops clash with separatists
September 9, 2001
Abu Sayaff Group
Philippines Government Info
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