Human Rights WatchLives Destroyed: Attacks on Civilians in the Southern Philippines
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The Perpetrators

Members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) have claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on civilians in the Philippines, and are implicated in many others.

Both ASG and RSM are violent Islamist groups that emerged in the 1990s. ASG is primarily comprised of commanders and fighters who split off from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ethnic Moro Muslim insurgent groups with a decades-long history of fighting for independence from the Philippine government. RSM emerged independently but has forged strong ties with ASG; its members are made up primarily of Christian converts to Islam. (RSM members call themselves “reverts,” on the grounds that the Philippines was predominately Muslim before the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century; RSM members consider that they have “reverted” back to the Islamic faith.) Both groups claim to represent the approximately 4.5 million Muslims in the Philippines, the majority of whom live in southern Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago, Palawan, Basilan, and neighboring islands.

Both ASG and RSM are small in number, consisting of at most several hundred active militants. By most accounts, ASG and RSM forces are now largely confined to the island of Jolo, although they still move in other areas of the Sulu islands and the Zamboanga peninsula of Mindanao.

Both ASG and RSM are linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesian militant Islamist group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and other attacks on civilians within Indonesia. Members of JI have provided training for ASG and RSM members over the last five years, and a handful of JI members continue to take sanctuary and actively coordinate with remaining ASG and RSM forces in the southern Philippines. Two JI leaders implicated in the Bali bombings—Dulmatin and Umar Patek—traveled to the Philippines in 2003 and continue to work among ASG forces.

The question of these groups’ links to established Muslim separatist groups is more complex. Philippine government officials allege that elements of the MILF or MNLF have, in recent years, provided sanctuary or assistance for ASG, RSM, and JI members. Abu Sayyaf and the Rajah Solaiman Movement have stated their support for MILF and MNLF, although the two Moro groups do not publicly reciprocate this support.

MILF officials appear to have maintained links with JI and ASG operatives in the Philippines in the 1990s and as late as 2003. Since then, however, MILF and MNLF leaders appear to have largely cut ties with JI, denounced violence against civilians (and specifically ASG and RSM attacks), and provided active assistance to Philippine military forces in conducting operations against all three groups. It remains likely, however, that “rogue” MILF and MNLF commanders, and so-called “lost commands,” have continued to provide sanctuary and assistance to ASG, RSM, and JI members at various times in the last several years. Both Philippine government and MILF officials have suggested particular commanders who appear to have provided support for extremists in recent years, such as Amelil Umbra (aka Commander Kato), a MILF commander, and Habier Malik, a MNLF commander. It is not entirely clear whether the MILF or MNLF have the capacity to control the actions of these commanders.

MILF and MNLF officials have repeatedly emphasized that their political goals—securing an autonomous Muslim region in Sulu and Mindanao—differ significantly from the extremist aims of ASG, RSM, and JI. Abu Sayyaf, rather than seeking autonomy or independence, aims to push Filipino Christians out of Mindanao and the Sulu islands entirely, while RSM hopes to “restore” Islamic rule over the whole of the Philippines. Both groups voice support for the goals of JI and like-minded groups, which seek to weaken the governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Asian countries and—unrealistic as this might seem—work to establish a pan-Asian Islamic caliphate, or a pan-Asian component of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. ASG and RSM have also made statements indicating agreement with the aims of other violent Islamist groups outside of Asia, including the aims and pronouncements of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Yet ASG and RSM’s aims are not solely ideological or political. These groups have also been involved in numerous criminal extortion and kidnapping activities, and leaders have made large amounts of money on extortion payments and ransoms.

In the last two years, both groups have suffered military setbacks. With US assistance, Philippine military and police forces have captured or killed several of ASG and RSM’s top leaders, and pushed their activities out of Mindanao and Basilan. In October 2005, RSM founder Ahmed Santos was arrested, and in September 2006, top ASG leader Khadafi Janjalani was killed during military operations on Jolo island. Another senior ASG commander, Abu Solaiman, was killed in January 2007.

Yet both groups have continued their violent activities, carrying out numerous illegal bombings and killings in 2006 and 2007. ASG commander Albader Parad appears to have taken over major ASG operations in Jolo; other remaining ASG leaders include Radulan Sahiron, Isnilon Hapilon, and Abu Pula. As for RSM, the group’s main leader, Sheikh Omar Lavilla, remains at large, as well as Santos’ reputed successor, named Khalil Pareja. Since April 2007, there has been renewed fighting between Philippine military forces and ASG/MNLF forces in Jolo. As of May 2007, approximately 60,000 people were displaced around Jolo because of the hostilities.

The impact of this fighting on ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF is unclear. Even as joint U.S.-Philippine military forces track down fighters from ASG, RSM, and JI, the Philippine government, with Malaysia as a mediator, continues negotiating with MILF leaders for a peace agreement. The talks aim to harmonize MILF’s demands with the structure of the existing autonomous region in western Mindanao, and to create a new unified autonomous region in the southern Philippines. While the established MILF leadership is devoted to pursuing such a peace agreement, continued hostilities in Jolo may drive newer, extremist MILF elements to abandon the peace process and join ranks with ASG/RSM/JI and rogue MNLF forces.