Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is Abu Sayyaf back?

Philippine military closes in on hostage-takers

A spate of kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf raises concerns that the Islamist militants are regrouping under new leadership

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor
Security and Terrorism update
February 23, 2009

• A summary of global reports on an issue in terrorism and security.

The Philippines military said over the weekend that it has cornered a militant group that has held three Red Cross workers hostage in the jungle for more than a month.

Just a few years ago, the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf was thought to be a spent force, after they were targeted in a successful US-backed military campaign. But a spate of kidnappings in recent months has fueled concerns that the militants have regrouped under new leadership.

In the latest incident, a Sri Lankan peace activist was abducted on Feb. 13, one of 10 hostages now in Abu Sayyaf's hands.

The three aid workers were kidnapped Jan. 15 on the island of Jolo, part of an island chain in the Philippines' deep south that's long been a hotbed for Islamic militancy. (Click here to see a map of the region.)

Agence France-Presse reports that the military has trapped Abu Sayyaf kidnappers and their Red Cross captives in a 1.5-square-mile area of jungle, and is weighing its next move.

"We have a range of options from the most benign to the most violent – that is the final military option," [Military chief Gen. Alexander] Yano told reporters.

"We are dealing here with lives and one of our main objectives is really to safely recover the hostages alive."

Swiss national Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni, and Filipina Mary Jean Lacaba were abducted by gunmen while returning from inspecting a water and sanitation project at a prison in Jolo.

The Mindanao Examiner reported that Abu Sayyaf wants to swap its three Red Cross hostages for some of its 135 members now jailed in metro Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf has demanded the pull out of troops in Indanan before it can negotiate with the government.

Gov. Sakur Tan of Sulu province, who heads the task force working for the safe release of the hostages, rejected the kidnappers' demand and called on the Abu Sayyaf to free their captives unharmed. Tan said the government will not pay ransom to the kidnappers.

In a separate operation, the military also announced it had isolated an area on the restive island of Basilan where Abu Sayyaf kidnappedwas holding three public school teachers who were kidnapped on Feb. 7, according to the Business Mirror.

"They [Abu Sayyaf members] were just circling around their base camp as we have already surrounded them. However, we could not just hit and hit them because we might endanger the victims," [Commodore Alex] Pama said....

Pama said the spate of kidnappings in Sulu and Basilan have stretched out military forces in Western Mindanao.

An Associated Press report cited a confidential government report as saying that Abu Sayyaf had raised $1.5 million in ransom last year, and had grown slightly in numbers, to 400.

The rebirth of Abu Sayyaf raises renewed fears of terrorism. So far Abu Sayyaf has focused on raising money through kidnappings, but it is likely to pursue high-profile assaults to reassert its stature as a terror group, the report noted. Abu Sayyaf has also allowed foreign militants, mostly members of the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, to make the region their home.

"As long as they are there, they can provide safe haven for Jemaah Islamiyah where they can train the next generation of bombers and terrorists. That's why they're a threat," said Col. William Coultrup, who heads the U.S. counterterrorism forces in Mindanao.

The US military began to take a keen interest in Abu Sayyaf after it kidnapped 20 hostages – including three Americans – from a resort area in 2001, according to a recent Weekly Standard article. Later the US sent a few hundred troops to the Philippines to provide counterterrorism training, equipment such as night goggles, and intelligence from unmanned aerial vehicles.

That assistance helped the Philippines military hunt down and kill Abu Sayyaf's leadership and drive remaining fighters to remote islands.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor in December, a US official blamed the renewed violence on insufficient security following that campaign.

One US official explained, "If you withdraw too quickly without leaving appropriate law enforcement to maintain order, you leave a vacuum."

US officials and analysts say fighting Abu Sayyaf and other terrorists here is a long-term mission with no clear end in sight. They number as many as 200, with another 200 to 400 "lurking in the wings," says Scott Harrison, managing director of Pacific Strategies and Assessments.

"It's immune to destruction. If the [counterterrorism] efforts are successful, their numbers just contract. People bury their weapons, disappear back into the villages, wait for the dust to settle, and then recoup themselves to various degrees. But they are by no means destroyed," he says.

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