The End of Abu Sayyaf: Philippines’ Victory over Militancy and Insurgency

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The Philippines continues to counter terrorism within its borders. The country’s armed forces persistently thwart terrorism. Recently, the country announced the total dismantling of the most lethal and violent group. Abu Sayyaf officially understood by the Islamic State as the Islamic State – East Asia Province, was a Jihadist militant and pirate body that observed the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. It was established in and around Jolo and Basilan islands in the southwestern region of the Philippines, where for more than five decades, Moro groups had been employed in an insurgency aiming to make Moro Province independent. 

The group was regarded as violent and was liable for the Philippines’ worst terrorist attack, the bombing of MV Superferry 14 in 2004, which massacred 116 people. On March 22, 2024, the Philippines reported that Abu Sayyaf had been “fully dismantled”, conveying an end to the decades-long jihadist insurgency.

The Philippine military has encountered Abu Sayyaf since the 1990s. Under President Duterte, the Philippine government pursued a peace agreement with the MNLF and MILF, but not the “bunch of criminals” in Abu Sayyaf. The Philippine military strengthened operations in 2003, following the detention of a Filipino-American who was alleged to have dealt illegal weapons to the group. The suspect was hit by US authorities as “one of the United States’ most wanted fugitives”. He was then expelled by the Philippine government to face legal action in the US.

On July 29, 2016, the military acquired control of an Abu Sayyaf fortress in Tipo-Tipo. The Philippine military pledged to destroy Abu Sayyaf. On August 25, President Duterte called the group to be “destroyed” after it decapitated a teenager. Following the incident, the Philippine military dispatched thousands of troops to fight and eliminate Abu Sayyaf. Filipino Army Major Filemon Tan stated, “The order of the president is to search and eliminate the Abu Sayyaf so that’s what we are doing”.Both MNLF and MILF began permitting to suppress extremism in Mindanao, which supports the peace process for both groups.

Philippine security forces also cooperated with Malaysia and Indonesia to maintain security in the Sulu Sea. The Indonesian government proposed to position army teams in Mindanao to undertake a major offensive against Abu Sayyaf. The Indonesian government hailed the Malaysian and Philippine armies to establish combined land seizures together on Mindanao, while at the same time urging the Philippine government to permit Indonesia and Malaysia military forces to penetrate Philippine territory. The Vietnamese military began to hold military exercises against Abu Sayyaf (known locally as “pirates” by the Vietnamese) following the recurrence of kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors. The Philippine military delivered one battalion to go against each subgroup. On September 9, following the discussion between President Duterte and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, an agreement was arrived to pursue the Abu Sayyaf. 

Some 20 Abu Sayyaf’s soldiers surrendered in Sumisip in September 2016. The day before, Philippine armed forces impounded 200 speedboats used by the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Zamboanga. President Duterte repudiated a proposal by Nur Misuari, the leader of MNLF to include Abu Sayyaf in peace talks. On September 27, another endeavour to smuggle weapons to Abu Sayyaf was stopped by the Philippine National Police in San Juan City. Four people were charged. By October 14, the Philippine military had undertaken 579 military operations, 426 of which were concentrated to “neutralise” group members. 54 concentrations resulted in 56 Abu Sayyaf members killed, 21 abdicated and 17 arrested.

In the aftermath of the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombings, President Duterte instructed an “All-Out-War” directive against the Abu Sayyaf Group, which conducted heavy ground operations, huge airstrikes, artillery bombardment in surrounding regions, the evacuation of civilians in other areas, and the composition of the 11th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. As a result, the group encountered significant resistance from the Philippine military, who persisted in their operation against them. The military did not relent until the group was dismantled.

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