Much of the world’s media and many of the prominent commentators and scholars on terrorism and conflict have concentrated their attention on the happenings in the Middle East—especially as it pertains to radical Islam. Although this geographic region is important, Southeast Asia—home to the largest Muslim country in the world and a hotbed of radical Islamic fundamentalism—has become equally significant in terms of terrorist activities.
This article analyses the activities of a few of the major Islamic fundamentalist organizations in Southeast Asia, principally: the MILF and its offshoots—the Abu-Sayyaf Group, and Jemmah Islamiya (JI). I also survey the relationship that these groups have had with Al-Qaeda in order to get a better sense of the extent of the group’s network in the region. These organizations are all related through their shared ideology of radical Islamic nationalism revolving around the preservation of Islamic culture in response to real and perceived aggression. In tracing the development of the struggle for an Islamic state in the Southern Philippines, I hope to shed light on the ideological basis of the terrorist organizations active in the region today. The Philippines conflict is an ideal subject for such a study in that it reflects a struggle of Islamic ideals against the imposition and influence of western values. In the Philippines, the source of this real or perceived aggression has traditionally been from Christian expansion and domination of an Islamic minority. The MNLF and the MILF serve as examples of how this Islamic Nationalism has evolved from a militant struggle into regional terrorism.
The insurgency in the Philippines puts into context the present day terrorist threat in all of Southeast Asia. The significance of the Philippines is illustrated by a recent International Crisis Group report which argues that: (1) the Philippines has become, since the mid-1990’s, a primary training ground for JI and a number of like-minded groups that are determined to acquire a military capacity, either to further their goals of establishing an Islamic state or to defend the faith against its enemies. (2) The lack of state capacity to effectively police borders and movements of people, money and contraband, particularly in the south, continues to the Philippines image as a zone of convenience for "lone wolf" operators and for cells of various jihadist organizations. (3) Operatives of jihadist groups—including in the past al-Qaeda—rely on the enabling environment of long-term separatist insurgencies in the Southern Philippines. The seriousness of the conflict in the southern Philippines should not be underestimated, especially because the presence of an Islamic insurgency within a state facilitates the ability of affiliated terrorist groups to carry out their activities through the presence of an established communication and logistic network. The root of the conflict in the southern Philippines is more precisely on and around the Moro-dominated island of Mindanao. The Moro people have responded to foreign and state repression with violence and rebellions, but during the 20th century this violence has become more organized—culminating in the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and eventually, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). These groups have engaged in terrorism against the Philippine state. The Moro people (the name is derived from the Spanish colonial era) are the multiple ethno-cultural groups who converted to Islam during the 13th century and remained culturally and religiously distinct from the Catholic-dominated central and northern provinces. The Moros fought Spanish colonialism and resisted American domination for almost half a century. More significantly, they have posed a serious challenge to the Philippine government through their guerrilla activities, which started in the late 1960’s during the Marcos Regime. The integration of Moroland into the Republic of the Philippines in 1946 necessitated the transfer of allegiance from traditional community ties to a larger state as a new political entity. The Moros, who are culturally distinct from the Christian Filipinos, continued to assert themselves as Muslims rather than Filipinos. Although the Moroland is rich with resources, the Moro people have suffered repression, violence and abysmal poverty, in their relations with the more populated and powerful areas of Luzon (the largest Philippine Island to the North). Islam has been an essential component of Moro society, which has long been governed by Islamic and traditional law, and religiously-inclined leaders. According to Wang Jong Yoo, who studied Islamization in the Philippines: Because of this strong religious inclination, the Moros have been less ready to absorb and adopt more modern ways of life, even after their inclusion into the Philippine nation. Many Moros regard the structure of the Filipino government, its code of laws and political ideas, as inconsistent with the Shari’ah (Muslim law). Their home of Mindanao and its surrounding islands, despite its abundance of resources, remains the poorest region in the country. There are fewer paved roads, hospital beds and lawyers per capita than anywhere else in the country, and telephone and utilities are a rarity. Recently, more infants died before the age of one in this region during the 1980’s than an any other region of the Philippines. Since the 16th century, the Spaniards tried to proselytize and convert the Islamic-Moros, also attempting to bring them under authoritarian control. The result was a series of rebellions by the Moros, who had traditionally been loyal to local Muslim sultans. This trend continued when the United States took control of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, and power moved to the government in Manila. All of these actors were seen as “foreign enemies” by the Moros, who often engaged in small-scale violence against military incursions into the Muslim areas. White American bigotry expectedly played a determining role in shaping official and personal perceptions of the Muslims as with the other communities in the Philippines. Despite being aware of the major differences among Muslims, American authorities nevertheless accepted and even perpetuated the Spanish colonizers’ stereotype of their new subjects: Islamic, barbaric, backward, and led by self-serving strongmen whose powers were based on force. As the years progressed into the 20th Century, the Moro people continued to be denied the fruits of development and advances of the north. At the same time, the government in Manila profited from the extraction of resources in the south, without contributing to the economy in the region. One example of this exploitation has been the policy of Christian settlement in the Southern Philippines. Since the American Commonwealth period beginning in 1898, the central government has encouraged Christian Filipinos to “go south,” to settle and develop Mindanao. The government rewarded Christian settlers with land titles, while indigenous groups, who were unfamiliar with modern laws on private property, were evicted. Some journalists covering Mindanao for the American press likened the conflict to the winning of the American West. “The Christian settlers can be seen as Nebraska homesteaders, the mineral and timber magnates as the U.S. railroad magnates, and the Muslims, sad as it may be, as the Indians,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Kann in the early 1970’s. Under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, immigrant land claims were backed by vicious campaigns by government troops, police and armed fanatical militia groups. The ascent of Marcos to the presidency of the Philippines in November of 1965, was a watershed moment in the history of the Christian-Muslim conflict, because it was through his repression of civil society and de facto klepto-dictatorship that engendered the organized militancy and violence that erupted into warfare in the South. In a move to ensure that he retained power, Marcos set about drafting a new constitution that would give him unlimited powers and place no restrictions on how long he could stay in office. In response to protests and violence that followed, Marcos suspended the right of habeas corpus “for those persons presently detained or those who might be detained for crimes of insurrection or rebellion” and threatened to impose martial law to “liquidate the menace threatening the fabric of our society.” In September of 1972, Marcos declared martial law, closing down newspapers, radio and television stations, and took away all civil rights, eventually sending opposition leaders (such as Benigno Aquino) to detention camps. As Marcos’ rule progressed, his small band of cronies salted away billions of dollars. The regime was replete with corruption and favoritism, and was the main contributor to the crippling of the free market, corruption of judicial institutions, gross human rights abuses and a foreign debt exceeding US$26 billion. From interviews and reports with former members of the Philippine police, one gets a sense of the rampant corruption within Filipino institutions such as the police force. These reports from a police official who from 1964-1998, worked in Baguio City (summer Capital of the Philippines) in northern Luzon, revealed the extent of the blatant corruption plaguing the country: namely the pocketing of humanitarian aid by Marcos regime officials—money that was supposed to be spent on AIDS victims. In response to the policies of the central government in the beginning stages of Marcos’ presidency, Muslim groups in the south began to mobilize its population militarily. A new politically-organized Moro people, rallied by Moro intellectuals, armed with guns and a new Muslim nationalists ideology, began organizing resistance to the regime. In the westernmost provinces, where the Moro population still constituted a slim majority, the MNLF emerged in 1968, and exploded in numbers during 1972, when martial law began. At its peak, MNLF had between 20,000 and 30,000 armed members. The Philippine military was sent to Mindanao to put down the insurgency of the newly formed BMA. More than 50,000 peopled died as a result of government efforts to crush the rebellion. To counter MNLF successes in 1974, the Philippine military launched massive military operations against the MNLF, followed by diplomatic gestures for peace. The MNLF did not desire to take control of the Philippines or destroy Marcos’ military; they were primarily interested in achieving independence as evidenced by their stated goals: 1. Autonomy for the Muslim areas of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan within the framework of an Islamic state. 2. Withdrawal of all government troops in the troubled areas. 3. Return of all lands taken from the Moros 4. Proactive of Islamic laws and customs in Muslim areas. In order to achieve their goals, the MNLF formed with a political wing to take part in negotiations and to enact policy for the group. As both sides grew weary of the mutually destructive war, they began to seek non-violent avenues of resolution. The MNLF agreed to negotiation offers by Marcos and the result was the Tripoli Agreement on December 23, 1976, which provided for a ceasefire and the establishment of a thirteen-province area of autonomy in Mindanao and Sulu.
After entering into negotiations, the MNLF lost nearly all of its members and military might—a true success for Marcos who, despite signing the treaty, failed to implement the agreement. The MNLF leadership still had faith in gaining rights and autonomy through non-violent means and political negotiations, but more radical members thought differently. A splinter group, led by Hashim Salamat, broke from the MNLF and became known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF refused to accept any accords or treaties between the Moro people and the Manila-based government. The main goal of the MILF is nothing less than the creation of a sovereign Moro Islamic State in the Southern Philippines. When the MILF was formed in 1977, its members numbered only a few thousand, and most of the group was composed of the more radical personalities within the MNLF, but this changed dramatically beginning in the 1980’s. Larry Niksch of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service, visited several regions of active insurgency during August of 1985. He gathered a great deal of data from government officials, military commanders, and civilians in Mindanao and the Negros. Niksch’s principal findings shed light on the rapid growth in membership of the MILF: Insurgency has grown rapidly in recent years against the background of a serious decline in popular confidence in the leadership of the authoritarian administration of President Ferdinand Marcos—a trend worsened by developments following the assassination of political opposition leader Benigno Aquino in August 1983—and the substantial real drop in popular living standards due to deteriorating Philippine economic conditions. After the assassination of Benigno Aquino, the MILF’s active membership exploded—eventually reaching fifty thousand members. Niksch reveals in his study that Aquino’s assassination, (believed to be planned by Marcos and carried out by his henchmen) along with deteriorating economic conditions, was one of the principal factors in the spread of insurgency in the Southern Philippines. Direct confrontation with state military forces did not last long and after a series of defeats, the group began to resort to terrorist attacks directed mostly against military targets (although in February of 2000, MILF guerrillas blew up two buses on board a passenger ferry at Ozamiz City, killing forty-five people). Since the beginning of this insurgency in the early 1970’s, it is estimated that over 100,000 people have been killed. The MILF continues to be a threat to the Filipino government, but recently, one of the most violent and dangerous of the Islamic organizations in the Southern Philippines, Abu-Sayyaf has made headlines in newspapers across the world. The terrorist group split from the MILF in 1991 under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, who was killed in a clash with Philippine police on 18 December 1998. His younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, has replaced him as the nominal leader of the group, which is composed of several semi-autonomous factions (closely resembling the cell-structure of Al-Qaeda). The group is actively anti-Christian, and advocates ethnic cleansing of Christians. Abu-Sayyaf has attacked Christian settlements, carried out massacres in churches and villages, and was even involved in a plot to kill the Pope. More recently, the group’s approximately 700 members have engaged in kidnapping of foreigners and tourists in exchange for high ransoms. It is clear that Abu-Sayyaf lacks the support of a large majority of the Muslims living in and around Mindanao. Their use of terror is seen by most MNLF and MILF leaders as counter-productive to the creation of an independent Islamic state, and with good reason—in February of 2003, 1,300 U.S. special forces soldiers were sent to Mindanao with the specific purpose of finding and destroying Abu-Sayyaf, and other militant groups in the southern Philippines. The Philippines case is especially significant because the Islamic insurgency in the South has been sufficiently powerful to limit state capacity in that region, thus serving as the prime example of Islamic nationalism in Southeast Asia. Like Muslims in other states in the region, such as Indonesia, the Moros of the southern Philippines have faced adversity in their struggle with the Christians in the area, and more recently over the influx of Western values. Because of the jungle terrain and inaccessibility of many parts of the southern Philippine islands, this insurgency has become decentralized, producing various enclaves controlled by local commanders with multiple allegiances to umbrella groups such as the MILF or the Abu Sayyaf.
Abu-Sayyaf (also known as Al Harakat or Al Islamiyya) committed its first major attack in 1991, when the group killed two Christian-American Missionaries. In addition, on April 1995, Abu-Sayyaf attacked the Christian town of Ipil where they killed more than 50 residents. More recently, in March of 2003, the group planted a bomb at the Davao City Airport in the southern Philippines, killing 21 people and injuring 150. Abu-Sayyaf’s first leader was Abdurajak Janajalani, a Philippine national who imbued his followers with a radical nationalistic form of Islam picked up in the international Islamist brigade in Afghanistan. He adapted this ideology to Southeast Asia, where jihad against the Manila government would bring an Islamic state in Mindanao. After his return from Afghanistan to the Southern Philippine island of Basilan, Janjalani formed the Abu Sayyaf from recruits who were MILF dissidents and/or former Afghan Mujahideen of Filipino descent. The group received most of its funding from Saudi charities, where the money was laundered by Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi businessman (and brother-in-law of Osama bin Ladin) who while residing in the Philippines provided organizational support to the group during its early years. This money funded Islamist training camps that were open to Muslim recruits from all over Southeast Asia. Kadaffy Janjalani, Abdurajak’s younger brother, graduated from one of these camps. The group’s first significant attack was on August 1991, where the group took responsibility for the bombing of a ship in Zamboanga harbor in the Southern Philippines and a grenade attack on Christian missionaries. The group’s operations in these formative years included a number of grenade attacks, especially against Christian churches and members of the Catholic community. After Abdurajak Janjalani’s was killed in 1998 in a shootout with Philippine security forces the group fragmented and partially lost the ideological foundation that had typified the previous leaders. Khadaffy and Ghalib Andang took over the leadership of Abu Sayyaf. The change in leadership also brought a change in strategy—where the group in large part switched their mode of operations from terror attacks against Christians, to kidnappings for ransom. After receiving a 25 million dollar ransom in 2000 from European countries (with the money coming from Libya), the group was able to procure more advanced weaponry, but group leaders also came to the realization that they could make significant financial gains from ransom money. The money also was used to recruit new members, estimated to be in the thousands. Because of the profitability of kidnapping and their departure from the group’s foundational ideology, scholars have argued that Abu-Sayyaf has become no more than a group of drug-addicted and eccentric bandits who are more intent on acquiring money than establishing an Islamic state. The group has been formally designated by the US State Department in 1997 as a terrorist organization, and US concern with terrorism in the region after 9/11 resulted in an influx of monetary and military aid to the Philippines. In a mission that lasted from January-July 2002, the US government sent advisors to train and assist Filipino soldiers in combating the Abu-Sayyaf. The mission however failed to destroy, or even, damage, the group and its operational capabilities. Abu-Sayyaf has resided in the Southern Philippines, especially on the island of Mindanao, but the group has ventured as far as Malaysia. Abu-Sayyaf does not enjoy the popular support that the MILF receives from the Muslims of the Southern Philippines but they have been know to distribute ransom money throughout villages in the region. From 2000-2002, the group engaged in a series of kidnappings of Philippine Christians and foreign nationals (especially missionaries). In the month of May in 2001, the group kidnapped 20 people, beheading one American from California and in June and August of 2002, the group engaged in several more beheadings and kidnappings. The Abu-Sayyaf maintains an awkward relationship with the MILF. The core of the MILF leadership, having publicly denounced terrorism as a tactic, has attempted to distance itself from Abu-Sayyaf. But it is evident that regional MILF leaders have colluded with the Abu-Sayyaf in various localities in the Southern Philippines. Furthermore, the Abu-Sayyaf and elements of the MILF administer various training camps throughout the region (where JI recruits have been sent to participate in courses). This cooperation between terrorist organizations lends itself to the possibility that terrorist operations carried out by these various groups are similarly coordinated; at the least, the mutual cooperation in training sheds light on the strength of a terrorist network that spans Indonesia and the Philippines. What has appeared to have happened in the Southern Philippines, is that various MILF commanders have broken away from the MILF or have passively or actively assisted the Abu-Sayyaf. Although some of these commanders seemed to have acted independently, many of them are thought to be taking orders from the MILF central command, which has been accused of ordering local commanders to commit attacks in order to gain a better position at the bargaining table with the Manila government. The MILF has publicly denounced terrorism, and in order to retain its legitimacy, it has labelled those MILF commanders who work with or carry out operations with the Abu Sayyaf “lost commands.” The two years between 2001 and 2003 seem to have been the bloodiest in terms of victims of Abu-Sayyaf terror in the Southern Philippines. The group had killed more than 300 government soldiers and kidnapped at least 140 people (16 of which were killed), according to a recent US Pacific Command Report. Currently the group’s size is hard to determine, but the estimated strength of the committed, core members is estimated to be around a hundred, while the affiliated members could approach several hundred to a thousand. The fluidity of the group’s membership and the difficulty of gaining access to its members or its leadership (the organization’s base of operations, near Basilan in the Southern Philippines is a dense and nearly inaccessible jungle) makes it extremely difficult to acquire accurate information on the group’s exact numbers.
Intitially, Abu-Sayyaf had strong links to Al-Qaeda. The current relationship is much less clear, but what is certain is that much of the group’s funding had traditionally come from sources directly linked to Al-Qaeda. The foundation for the relationship between the two groups began in the late 1980’s, when Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, laundered money through Islamic charities in the Philippines (namely the International Islamic Relief Organization), to Abu Sayyaf founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. According to the Center for Defense Information, “It was during this time of close association with Khalifa and the Al-Qaeda network that Abu Sayyaf began plotting its two biggest endeavors — assassination of the Pope during a visit to the Catholic Philippines, and a plan to hijack and blow up 12 U.S. civilian airliners in a single day”. Apart from financing of the group, Al-Qaeda operative Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, worked with Abu-Sayyaf operatives in a 1995 plot to blow up 11 airliners over the Pacific Ocean. In addition to these financial and operational-level links, many of the regular members of Abu-Sayyaf have ties to Al-Qaeda through training camps in Afghanistan. This includes as many as 20 operatives who were in the graduating class of a Mazar-e Sharif camp in 2001; and in Zamboanga City, on the Southern Philippine Island of Mindanao, Abu Sayyaf members interacted with members of Al-Qaeda. Although these events do not directly show that Abu-Sayyaf is an operational part of the Al-Qaeda network, it is clear that the groups have a relationship that goes farther than simple communication. US State Department sources have stated that there continues to be evidence of a relationship between the two groups, and in 1996 CIA director John Deutch discussed the likelihood that Abu-Sayyaf has acquired and will continue to develop ties to foreign terrorist organizations; but evidence of systematic cooperation after 1996 is still lacking. Despite these findings, the Philippine government maintains that Abu-Sayyaf remains linked to Al-Qaeda. Philippine government officials have pressed this even further after the May 2004 arrest of Khair Malayan Mundus—a suspected Al-Qaeda militant. Mundus had studied Arabic in Saudi Arabia and had been arrested by intelligence agents in Zamboanga. Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita commented in a news conference that, Mundus was a “direct intermediary of al-Qaeda funds,” (amounting to around 63 thousand dollars) that were given to Khadaffy Janjalani for terrorist operations. Jemmah Islamiya and the broader Islamic Terrorist Network Jemmah Islamiya (JI), like other Islamic terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia, is imbued with a radical Islamic nationalist ideology. The organization (which should be more accurately labelled as a network of smaller organizations) stepped up its training and recruiting efforts in the late 1990’s, leading to an attack against the Philippine Ambassador to Indonesia in August 2000, the infamous Bali bombings on 12 October 2002, the bombing of the Jakarta Marriott Hotel in August 2003. JI has also been held responsible for a March 2003 bombing of a wharf in Davao City in Mindanao that killed 16 people. According to recent reports, between 1999 and 2000, JI held a series of three meetings attended by members of other small and radical Muslim groups from around the region, including Thai and Bangladeshi organizations. This was known as the Rabitatul Mujihadeen. This sheds light on JI’s true structure: an overarching organization that coordinates and interacts with a plethora of radical Islamic cells in the region. The JI organization consists of four districts or territories (mantiqis), which are in turn made up of several branches (wakalahs) headed by regional leaders. One of the most notorious of JI’s attacks was the Christmas Eve bombings of December 2000—attacks which involved the delivery of more than thirty explosive devices throughout a vast amount of territory. The level of sophistication and coordination of both the Christmas and the Bali bombings gives us an insight into the complexity and operational effectiveness of JI’s terrorist network. JI membership is spread throughout Southeast Asia, but the largest cells are present in Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia (specifically Java, Sabah, and Sulawesi), the Philippines (especially the southern Island of Mindanao), and Australia. The organization has stated its intention of creating a pan-Islamic federation of states in Southeast Asia, which would include Indonesia, Singapore, the southern Philippines (Mindanao and the surrounding islands), and Thailand; and JI has actively reached out to other Islamic organizations in Thailand, Burma and other countries in the region. The organization was founded by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in Malaysia in 1995, with strong ideological roots in Egyptian Islamist radicalism. In addition, the group was extraordinarily anti-Christian (which is most likely a product of the Christian missionary efforts in Southeast Asia). After the formation of the group, the bulk of attacks have been against Christian targets, but after the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the group seems to have become more focused on striking at American interests in the region—a shift that has been verified by interrogations of members of JI’s leadership. After Sungkar’s death in November of 1999, Ba’asyir (now under arrest) became the formal head of JI until he was succeeded by Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali). Most of JI’s leadership derived their organizational skills and ideological foundation from relationships formed with other radical Islamists during the Afghan War. In these mujihadeen training camps, the JI leadership forged ties with Osama bin Laden and Abu Sayyaf’s Janjalani, thus enabling them to maintain a network that facilities the coordination of terrorist attacks and operations within the region. The Bali plot, which left more than 200 dead was reportedly the result of decisions made during meetings in early 2002 in Thailand, where attacks against Singapore and soft targets such as tourist spots in the region were considered. In December 2001, Singapore authorities uncovered a JI plot to attack the US and Israeli Embassies and British and Australian diplomatic buildings in Singapore, and in June 2003, Thai authorities disrupted a JI plan to attack several Western embassies and tourist sites there. Investigations also linked the JI to bombings in December 2000 where dozens of bombs were detonated in Indonesia and the Philippines, killing 22 in the Philippines and 15 in Indonesia. The capture in August of Indonesian Riduan bin Isamuddin (a.k.a. Hambali), JI leader and al-Qaeda Southeast Asia operations chief, was extremely helpful in understanding how the terrorist network operates and where the group receives its funding. The coordination of such attacks suggests that membership of JI (either active or passive) could approach several thousand people. JI cells are present throughout Southeast Asia (especially in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and stretch as far as Pakistan. There is substantial evidence that JI is a part of a broad Islamic terrorist network with roots in Afghan training camps in the late 1980’s. Recently it has become clear that these organizations are increasingly coordinating their activities. In 2002 for example, Andrea Domingo, the Philippines Immigration Minister, commented that Jemmah Islamiya has joined efforts with Abu Sayyaf to unleash terror campaigns in Mindanao, Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. She further stated that there is ample evidence of coordinateded fund-raising activities and training of recruits. Domingo's comments were followed almost exactly a year later, in October 2003, by a statement by Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, who said that the Jemmah Islamiya has become the Philippines' "number one security threat," with the capability to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country. Arroyo's comments reflect the army's recent clashes with Jemmah Islamiya in the Philippines, where a member of JI's local leadership, Taufek Refke, was captured after about 40 JI members broke out of jail. Refke was connected to Abu-Sayyaf operatives in Mindanao. Even after the August 2003 capture of Hambali in Thailand, which temporarily disrupted JI operations and severed a major link between Al-Qaeda and the network, JI remains a substantial threat. The depth of the JI structure is only beginning to be understood (security organizations have succeeded in gathering information about the network through hundreds of captured operatives and cell leaders). The capture of various JI leaders and the disruption of individual cell activity does not affect the overall ability of the network to carry out operations, because there is no central organization to disrupt. This is not to say that the organization’s communication structure is not hierarchical; as previously mentioned, the terrorist network is held together by various commands that could be seen as the equivalent to modern military structures: with brigades, battalions, platoons, and squads. This hierarchical structure is designed to facilitate communication between horizontally linked units, in order to coordinate operations (such as the Christmas Eve bombings). Within this scheme, operational decisions are made locally and not under the direction of global terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. However, JI has been shown to be linked with Al-Qaeda in respect to the latter’s funding of regional terrorist activities and training camps. The core of the JI leadership underwent similar training in Afghanistan, with these trainees eventually becoming the trainers of Muslim radicals in both Indonesia and Mindanao through mutual cooperation with the MILF.
The cooperation between the MILF (and elements of Abu-Sayyaf) and Al-Qaeda began in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s with Salamat Hashim, an ethnic Moro from the Southern Philippines. Hashim developed international Islamist ties as a university student in Cairo. When he returned to the Philippines and became a leader of the MNLF, he maintained his ties to Islamic organizations in the Middle East, and developed a relationship with Osama bin Laden. Through these ties, Indonesian and Philippine Islamist fighters trained together in Afghanistan during the 1980’s, in camps funded by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who was Hashim’s classmate in Egypt. In 1994 they mutually agreed to establish a training camp for MILF recruits that would be run by JI. The military academy system, which began at Camp Hudaibiyah (having been run within the MILF Camp Abu Bakar in Maguindanao), continues today in that JI continues to send recruits to Mindanao for instruction. After years of keeping the communication channels open between Al-Qaeda, MILF and JI, Hashim coordinated offensives against the Philippine military and civilians in the Southern Philippines. After Hashim rallied his followers with a call to Jihad in 2000, and carried out bombing attacks against targets in Davao City and other localities. Hashim used his pre-existing ties with Al-Qaeda to facilitate the MILF’s acquisition of funding from during the early-1990’s in support of the MILF’s struggle for an Islamic homeland in the Southern Philippines. An agreement was forged whereby the MILF would accept Al-Qaeda trainers who would instruct local JI and MILF operatives in terrorism (where they would have otherwise not been able to make the trek to Afghanistan or Pakistan for training). Although it is difficult to quantify the Al-Qaeda presence in Southeast Asia, there certainly has been a recent resurgence of Al-Qaeda operatives in the area. For example, when Abdullah al-Rahim al-Nishiri was arrested in Yemen in early-October 2002, the senior Al-Qaeda operative was reportedly on his way to Malaysia. Al-Qaeda’s financing of Southeast Asian terrorist organizations has been disrupted by the freezing of assets through international efforts, yet Saudi funding of such organizations continues. Much of this funding comes from charities, which are very active in the region. Although JI has traditionally received both financial and ideological support from Al-Qaeda, the organization plans and coordinates its operations locally, thereby communicating through a regional network. After September 11th, the group underwent a strategic change in operations—attacking western and US targets rather than focusing on their goal of creating an Islamic state in Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Southeast Asia was already evident in the early 1990’s when Ramzi Youssef (the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing) formed a cell in Manila and began recruiting in the Philippines and the surrounding countries, including Malaysia. This Al-Qaeda cell coordinated activities with MILF commanders and appears to have operated throughout the 1990’s, but the November 2001 arrest of two Palestinians and a Jordanian who were allegedly members of this Al-Qaeda cell reveals that Al-Qaeda’s presence in the Philippines had been greater than many have imagined. It should also be noted that from the interrogation of the suspected cell members, it was determined that the operatives had been communicating with MILF leadership. As previously mentioned, the Southeast Asian Islamic fundamentalist network developed from relationships forged in Mujihaddin camps in Afghanistan during the late 1980’s. It was in these camps that ideas regarding pursuing jihad as a means to the expansion of an Islamic empire (dar a-Islam) were promulgated. The soon-to-be leaders of JI, MILF, Abu Sayyaf and other Islamic fundamentalist organizations, took these ideas and applied them to an Islamic nationalist struggle in Southeast Asia with the ultimate goal of a pan-Islamic federation in the region. Abdurajak Janjanlani, for example, fought alongside members of the current bin-Laden network. After operations in Afghanistan, JI leaders (through funding by bin-Laden), set up training camps for MILF recruits on the Philippine Island of Mindanao. Furthermore, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, JI leadership in January 2000, hosted two of the September 11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur: Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi. The report went on to say that, “JI consulted with al-Qaeda about a proposed plan to blow up U.S. installations and other foreign targets in Singapore in 2000, a plan that was discovered through videos and other documents found in Afghanistan after the Taliban fled.” One of the suspects arrested for the 4 March 2003 bombing of Davao Airport in Mindanao—himself a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group—told interrogators that the MILF and JI “had a standing agreement wherein the MILF will accommodate JI fighters in the former’s camps and in return, JI will help MILF guerrillas in conducting bombings in any targeted area until such time that Mindanao can attain its independence.” The importance of the bombings of the Davao International Airport should not be underestimated, because it is very likely both the JI and the MILF/Abu-Sayyaf were involved with the planning and coordination of the attack. Although the extent of the relationship between the two groups is unknown, there have been several allegations of recent MILF/Abu-Sayyaf and JI cooperation. The most notable such allegations came after the arrest in April 2004, of MILF member Sammy Abdulagani, who, after confessing to being involved in a plot to bomb ports in Mindanao, told interrogators that he received his orders from JI. In addition to information received from the capture of Abdulagani and others, the International Crisis Group, claims that the JI and the MILF jointly operate training camps, and also continue to plan and carry out joint activities.
The relationship between Al-Qaeda, the MILF/Abu-Sayyaf, and the Jemmah Islamiya, began in the 1980’s where many of the group’s leaders and financers participated in fighting and training in Afghanistan. These ties were maintained through the exportation of such training camps to the Southern Philippines, where recruits from many Islamist organizations were able to develop bonds with members and leaders of fellow terrorist organizations. The Southern Philippines, with its history of insurgency and Muslim struggle against Christian and Western domination proved to be the ideal host environment for the global Islamic terrorist groups that operate in modern times. Over the last two decades, the depth in coordination of terrorist activities by these affiliated organizations has waxed and waned. After September 11th, the operatives and financier’s affiliated with Al-Qaeda have been on the run, much of their funds frozen; and thus the extent of Al-Qaeda coordination of activities in Southeast Asia has substantially dwindled. What is clear however is that the framework for training, and the communication and coordination network established in the early 1990’s remains today. JI and Abu-Sayyaf/MILF continue to train their recruits together, and for the last several years, they have coordinated attacks, which serves to reflect the enduring strength of the terrorist threat in Southeast Asia.
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Notes 1. “Southern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process,” ICG Asia Report, No. 80, 13 July 2004: pg. 2. 2. Tan, Samuel k., Moro Secessionism in the Philippines, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. V, No. 2, 1987. 3. Abubakar, Carmen, Moro Nationalist Movement: The Quest For Self-Rule. Mindanao Life, Vol. III, No.3, Ad Enterprises: Davao City, 1989. 4. Che Man, W.K., Muslim Separatism, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1990, p. 44. 5. See National Statistical Coordination Board, 1991 Philippine Statistical Yearbook, (Manila: October 1991). 6. See 1990 Philippine Almanac (Aurora Publications, Manila: 1990) 7. Roth, Russel Muddy Glory: America’s ‘Indian Wars’ in the Philippines, 1899-1935, 1981 Massachusetts: the Christopher Publishing house, pp. 136 and 151. 8. Goodno, James B., The Philippines: Land of Broken Promises (London: 1991), p. 241 9. Asia Watch, “Bad Blood: Militia Abuses in Mindanao, The Philippines.” Published by Human Rights Watch: New York, 1992. 10. Lyons, John and Wilson, Karl, The Philippines Revolution: Marcos and Beyond. Kangaroo Press: Australia, 1987. p. 108. 11. Ibid. 109. 12. The Philippines Revolution: Marcos and Beyond. p. 111. 13. Interview with former Filipino Police Inspector, UC Berkeley, March 17, 2003. (he asked that his name be withheld) 14. Ibid. p. 241. 15. Noble, L.G., “The Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines,” Pacific Affairs. Vol. 49 No 3 (1976), p. 412; see also Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 June 1975. 16. “Attention Shifts to Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” Janes’ Intelligence Review, April 2002, pp.20-23. 17. Niksch, Larry A., Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the Philippines, Prepared for the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate by: The Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division- Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, 1985. 18. Lopez, A. 1998, The Marcos Cronies Come Back, Asia week, 31 July, pp. 20-3. 19. Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2001. United States Department of State, May 2002. 20. Shmitt, Eric, “1,700 GIs to Combat Filipino Rebels,” San Francisco Chronicle, Section A., February 21, 2003. 21. “Southern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process,” ICG Asia Report, No. 80, 13 July 2004: pg. 1. 22. Niksch, Larry, “Abu Sayyaf: Target of Philippine-U.S. Anti-Terrorism Cooperation,” CRS Report For Congress (the Congressional Research Service). The Library of Congress, January 25, 2002: pg. 3. 23. see Emily Clark’s argument regarding the transformation of Abu Sayyaf in: Terrorism Project: In the Spotlight-Abu-Sayyaf. The Center For Defense Information: Washington D.C., March 5, 2002. 24. ICG Southeast Asia project Director, Sidney Jones, 2004 report (www.ICG.org). 25. It should be noted that I will label these “lost commands” or instances of MILF and Abu-Sayyaf cooperation as simply: MILF/Abu-Sayyaf. 26. US Pacific Command-www.pacom.mil 27. Clark, Emily, TerrorismProject. 28. Ibid. 29. “Al-Qaeda Financier for Abu Sayyaf Nabbed in RP,” Agence France-Presse: May 14, 2004. 30. Mydans, Seth, “Bomb Kills 16 Near Philippine Hub,” San Francisco Chronicle, Section A 11. March 5, 2003. 31. Abuza, Zachary."The State of Jemmah Islamiya and the Future of Terrorism in Southeast Asia." UCLA Asia Institute: 2004. 32. Indonesia Backgrounder: How the Jemmah Islamiya Terrorist Network Operates, International Crisis Group Asia Report No. 43: 11 December 2002. 33. Federation of American Scientists: Intelligence Resource Program May 2004: http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/ji.htm 34. Manila Star, October 25, 2002, By: Rey Arquiza. 35. "Jemmaya Islamiya is top national security threat-Arroyo", October 25, 2003 Copyright 2003 by Agence France-Presse. 36. “Jemmah Islamiya in Southeast Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous,” International Crisis Group: 26 August 2003 Asia Report N°63, Jakarta/Brussels. Pg. 1. 37. ICG Report No. 80. Pg. 4. 38. Ibid 13. 39. Ibid. 7 40. Abuza, Zachary."The State of Jemmah Islamiya and the Future of Terrorism in Southeast Asia." 41. Spaeth, Anthony, "Rumbles in the Jungle", Time Asia, 4 March 2002; and ICG Philippines Backgrounder. 42. Ibid 29. 43. Ibid. 44. “In terror pact – city airport, seaport bombings part of plot”, The Mindanao Times, 16 April 2003. From ICG Report No. 80. Pg. 16. 45. Regalado, Edith, “JI Suspect Says Indonesian JI Terror Group Lined With MILF,” The Philippine Star, 27 April 2004. 46. ICG Report No. 80. Pg. 25.