Commentary: Abu Sayyaf, the kidnap gang
By Menardo Wenceslao
General Santos City (29 February) -- Although trying to present itself as an Islamist separatist organization fighting for the freedom of Muslims in the southern Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf terror group (ASG) always has been, and still is, primarily a criminal gang. One of its favorite crimes is the abduction of individuals for ransom, both Filipinos and foreigners.
ASG kidnappings have been taking place since at least 2000. A number of the victims were released after the payment of ransoms, while others were murdered, including by beheadings. Just recently, some of the kidnappers finally were brought to justice.
On 6 December, a Philippine court convicted 14 ASG militants for abducting 19 people in 2001 from the Dos Palmas resort island. Four others died in a prison breakout in 2005, and the only woman among them, Satra Tilao, was acquitted of all charges.
Marines have apprehended another ASG member thought to be involved in the Dos Palmas kidnappings. The troops found Teteng Mandangan, alias Abu Kudama, in Tawi-Tawi on 21 November.
The ASG chieftain at the time of the kidnapping was Khadaffy Janjalani, now dead. The bandits took their victims to the town of Lamitan in Basilan and hid out in a local hospital. Army troops besieged the hospital, trying to free the hostages. Some 40 army soldiers died in the operation. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Jonas Lumawag, a Marine Corps spokesman, Kudama is one of the original 85 charged but until now had evaded arrest. "His involvement in the Lamitan siege as one of the abductors was also confirmed by two witnesses," Lumawag said.
On 3 November soldiers shot and killed another suspected ASG militant wanted for kidnapping. The troops recognized Jamal Taib while on patrol in Maluso Township on southern Basilan Island. When the Special Forces unit approached him, he drew a weapon and was killed in the exchange of gunfire. Regimental commander Brigadier General Arturo Ortiz said Taib was also a follower of the late ASG chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani and was wanted for a string of kidnappings. The military had offered a reward of 150,000 pesos for Taib's capture, Ortiz said.
Not all the ASG kidnappings have occurred in the Philippines. In 2000, the group also abducted 21 Asian and European tourists from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. In June 2006, government agents on Basilan Island found one of the militants responsible for the Sipadan attack. Security agents raided Isabela City and captured Gudairi Mohamad, alias Garing Mohamad. "He was positively identified by two Sipadan victims now under the Witness Protection Program of the Department of Justice," said Captain Ritche Pabilonia, a spokesman for the Southern Command.
Father Giancarlo Bossi, 57, was abducted by ASG gunmen last June in the southern Philippines. He was the third Italian priest taken by ASG in the last 10 years. In October 2001, Father Guiseppe Pierantoni was kidnapped in Zamboanga del Sur Province but was rescued six months later during a military operation. In September 1998, Father Luciano Benedetti was abducted in Zamboanga del Norte Province. He was released 69 days later after his captors received a ransom from an unidentified source. Bossi was rescued by troops about six weeks after his abduction. There are no reports of a ransom being paid in his case.
The danger of kidnappings is not over. On 2 September, Basilan's vice governor, al-Rasheed Sakalahul, said many individuals in the public eye are receiving kidnapping threats from the Abu Sayyaf.
He said elected officials from provincial, city and municipal levels all are potential targets. ASG will go after anyone thought to be helping the military in its highly successful anti-terror operations. "The bandits believe that the mayors, the councilors and provincial officials are giving information or are helping the military," Sakalahul said.
Sakalahul, a former military man himself, said ASG's current weak state would make it difficult for the bandits to abduct any of the elected officials in Basilan. Still, he urged those with public positions in the province's two cities and nine towns to take special precautions against ASG kidnappers. He said businessmen and members of the media also are in danger. (MW/PIA SarGen) [top]