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Commentary: Acts of desperation

General Santos City (27 February) -- Kidnapping for ransom has long been a business practice of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a thug-like band of terrorists operating essentially on Jolo and Basilan, but attacking innocent civilians throughout the Philippines.

The hey-day of Abu Sayyaf's money-making was in the 2000 to 2002 period, during which it kidnapped no fewer than 140 people, including foreign journalists and tourists and Christian missionaries. One operation alone, the kidnapping of 21 vacationers at Sipadan, Malaysia, resulted in a Libya-brokered deal that paid US$16 million in ransom.

With this money, Abu Sayyaf was able to purchase weapons, communications equipment and vehicles. It was also able to expand its membership from roughly 600 to 1,000 men.

The hey-day did not last long, however. The war on terror ramped up and got serious. Abu Sayyaf long had philosophical and operational ties to Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda, and its leadership believed in the goal of a caliphate over Muslim areas in Southeast Asia and eventually over the entire world.

Because of unrelenting focus on isolating this group, Abu Sayyaf is now a mere shadow of its former self. Estimates of its strength at present are thought to be around 300 men. Split up into small groups, they mostly operate on the run. The leadership is fractured, uncertain, and given to squabbling. Still true to its history, though, it is out there conducting kidnappings, although they now appear to be acts of desperation rather than organizational fundraisings. Three Abu Sayyaf kidnappings have occurred this year, and the revenues have been meager.

This is probably what the future holds. Abu Sayyaf will continue to do what it knows how to do, but it will do it less well and with less chance of success. The small units into which it has degenerated will not be able to communicate with one another, and rivalries will likely fester and grow.

The notion that Abu Sayyaf's sense of entrepreneurship is not dead comes from Anselmo Avenido, head of the Dangerous Drugs Board, who said in a press interview earlier this year that discoveries of marijuana fields on Jolo and Basilan suggest that Abu Sayyaf is getting income by guarding the fields and protecting drug lords.

This illustrates the basic fact that Abu Sayyaf will do whatever it can to survive. It's up to the government, with whatever allies it can persuade, to see to it that Abu Sayyaf does not rise again, that it is destroyed once and for all. (MW/PIA-SarGen) (PIA) [top]

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