Abu Sayyaf and the War on Terrorism

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Abu Sayyaf and the War on Terrorism


In the early morning hours of 27 May, a party of Abu Sayyaf gunmen raided the Dos Palmas beach resort located off Palawan Island, not far from the provincial capital of Puerto Princesa, and seized twenty resort guests and staff. The guests included three Americans: a Christian missionary couple working in the Philippines, and originally from Kansas, and Guillermo Sobrero, a naturalized American originally from Argentina and residing in California. The May 2001 raid was reminiscent of the attack in 2000 on a resort in Malaysia in which the Muslim group captured a number of European tourists. However, considering the distance of the Muslim southern islands from Palawan, the May 2001 attack was not anticipated. The raiders met no resistance and left behind a stunned and devastated resort staff.28

Although estimates vary, the 2000 raid on the Malaysian resort netted the Abu Sayyaf between US$15 and US$20 million dollars in ransom. As a result, their ranks swelled as young men in this extremely poor area of the country joined the Abu Sayyaf hoping to profit from the kidnapping trade. In addition to personal gain, the Abu Sayyaf's leadership used a substantial portion of the precious year's ill-gotten gains to purchase high-powered boats and sophisticated automatic weapons, all of which outclass the Philippine military's dilapidated and outmoded equipment. Due to the element of surprise and fast boats, the kidnappers easily evaded Philippine authorities and brought their victims to Basilan Island, their home base.

Very soon, however, events took a puzzling and controversial turn when on 2 June the raiders brought their hostages to a hospital in Lamitan town and took the medical staff hostage as well. Units of the Philippine military, including élite Army Scout Rangers and Counter-Terrorist Force, surrounded the hospital and it appeared that the Abu Sayyaf gang was trapped. All day the kidnappers and government forces exchanged fire, but that night the entire gang and most of their original hostages miraculously broke out of the cordon and escaped into the jungle. Local officials and the nation were incredulous, and the military's initial embarrassment was compounded when the town priest, Father Cirilo Nacorda, charged collusion between the local military commanders and the kidnappers. Captured hospital workers told Nacorda that they saw money change hands as a few wealthy Dos Palmas captives paid ransom and made a phony escape in the confusion. Eleven members of the town's volunteer police force corroborated the charges and said that a company of Scout Rangers abandoned their post at the back of the hospital in the late afternoon just as darkness was setting in.

The army angrily denied the allegations, and Macapagal-Arroyo spoke in defence of the military, but she quickly reassigned the commanding officers, even as the Senate prepared to hold hearings to investigate the accusations. Four hearing were eventually held in September, but reached no conclusion. Later in December, additional allegations by Senator Serge Osmena rekindled the controversy, and defence committee chair, Senator Ramon Magsaysay, Jr., promised to reopen the hearings once Osmena was prepared to present his evidence. While Nacorda's and Osmena's charges may never be substantiated, this is not the first time that the military has been implicated as colluding with the Abu Sayyaf. In 2000 some fifty-three Filipinos had been captured at the Claretian School of Tumahubong, Basilan, and they told remarkably similar stories.29

Ten days after their amazing escape from Lamitan, an Abu Sayyaf spokesman announced that American hostage Guillermo Sobrero had been beheaded. Not long after, a number of hostages gained their release after paying ransom, despite the President's "no ransom" policy. For the next few months, thousands of Philippine troops scoured the island occasionally encountering, and either killing or capturing some of the gang's members, but the rescue of the remaining hostages proved elusive. …

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