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MAY 5, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 17 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

A Past Traced In Terror
Abu Sayyaf's short but violent history
By PENNY CRISP and RAISSA ROBLES Manila

Its name means Bearer of the Sword. Its short history can be traced in blood. Abu Sayyaf is thought to have emerged in the southern Philippines in the early 1990s, via the late Islamic scholar Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. A charismatic figure with a public-school education, Janjalani studied Islamic jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia, received military training in Libya and fought guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. An advocate of a "pure" form of Islam, he disapproved of TV, movies, dancing, songs on radio, even laughing with bared teeth. His was a voice in the wilderness among Muslim Filipinos, who had been moderate Sunnis for centuries.

But Janjalani attracted young Muslim scholars newly returned from the Middle East, plus those disillusioned with older, "mainstream" separatist leaders seeking an independent Muslim state in Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf - a nom de guerre of Janjalani that the group came to be known by - announced its intentions in 1992 when members bombed a wharf in the southern city of Zamboanga. The group followed up with attacks on Zamboanga airport and several Catholic churches.

Sources say that in principle, Janjalani disapproved of killing innocent people. According to Basilan governor Wahab Akbar, Janjalani's followers were authorized to kill only soldiers. But that apparently did not stop Abu Sayyaf from quickly progressing to atrocities against civilians. In 1995 the rebels shot dead at least 54 residents of Ipil, Zamboanga del Norte, and razed the entire town.

In 1998, Janjalani was killed in a gun battle with police. Four months after his death, his younger brother Khaddafi took control. Khaddafi is an expert not in Islamic jurisprudence but in explosives. From an initial band of 20, Abu Sayyaf swelled to 600 men by the time of Janjalani's death. Akbar says that today, the terrorist group is thought to number about 200 armed men, with an equal number of unarmed sympathizers.

Conspiracy theories abound regarding Abu Sayyaf. Some think the military initially used the group to give the separatist cause a bad name and create divisions among Muslims. Some even say elements within police and military, dissatisfied with President Joseph Estrada, are allowing Abu Sayyaf to continue to underline what they see as Estrada's lack of control. Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado emphasizes that the government is not negotiating directly with the rebels.

Whatever the case, it seems that Abu Sayyaf is not without a soft spot for glamour. After kidnapping the teachers and children on March 20, group spokesman Abu Ahmad Salayuddin delivered a warning on nationwide radio that the hostages would be beheaded if the government did not send film star Robin Padilla to negotiate. The bad-boy actor may have converted to Islam, but he remains better known for his amorous quests than for his piety. The elder Janjalani must be turning in his grave.

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