COMMENTARY: Addressing challenges posed by the Abu Sayyaf Group (7): Collusion with the Abu Sayyaf

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Seventh of 10 parts
26 May 2017

Whenever lengthy discussions of the Abu Sayyaf are undertaken, the matter of the possible collusion of persons in authority, whether they be military or police personnel or local government officials, with the ASG inevitably comes up.  Let us take a look at each of these in turn.

Military/Police Involvement

One bombshell that came out of the recent ASG incursion into Bohol was the arrest of a senior police official who was in the process of attempting to rescue one of the ASG members who had survived the initial encounters with the security agencies pursuing them.  This official claimed that she was actually trying to penetrate the ASG in order to learn what their plans were, but this was denied by the Director-General of the PNP who said no such infiltration plan had been sanctioned by the organization.

In June of 2016, the Mayor of the town of Jolo, Mayor Hussein Amin, alleged that some military personnel were getting a share of ransom payments being made in exchange for information and, by implication, protection.  Amin, who was formerly a Congressman, cited an investigation undertaken by Congress at the time he was a member, during which it was determined that the chief of military intelligence in Sulu at that time had benefited from the ransom paid for the release of a doctor who had been kidnapped in that province.  Amin asked that these allegations of collusion by some military personnel be investigated.[1]

Mayor Amin’s accusation is not without precedent.  One of the theories aired about the Abu Sayyaf during its early days was that it was a creation of the Philippine military, intended to disrupt the negotiations which were ongoing at the time between the Philippine Government and the MNLF.  In fact, the ASG was constrained to issue a statement in 1994 to categorically deny that it was a creation of the AFP.[2]

It also came out during the early years of the ASG that Edwin Angeles, Abdurajak Janjalani’s right-hand man and chief of operations of the ASG, was actually an undercover agent of the PNP and the AFP.  Despite attempts by some ASG commanders like Radulan Sahiron and even ASG co-founder Wahab Akbar to get rid of Angeles – even threatening to kill him – Janjalani defended Angeles and kept him within the organization until Angeles left on his own when it became clear his life was in danger if he stayed any longer.

There were a number of incidents which seemed to show how the AFP was aiding the ASG. There was, for example, the Tumahubong kidnapping incident in Basilan in March 2000 wherein some 50 students and schoolteachers were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf.  In a book written by journalist Jose Torres, several of the survivors recounted how they as a group, along with their ASG captors, passed by military checkpoints without being stopped or questioned despite the fact that an intensive manhunt had supposedly been launched for them.  Another incident was recounted by one of the female schoolteachers who had been detained in an area near where the top-ranking ASG leaders were staying.  The schoolteacher described how, on several occasions, she overheard Abu Sabaya talking on his cellphone and two-way radio asking what time it was expected that their camp would be attacked the following day.  As a result, the group evacuated the camp before the attacks took place and were therefore able to evade the pursuing government forces.[3]

“ ‘There was no mystery.  The bandits knew exactly when to move and when the military would attack.  They were always informed ahead of time,’ Marissa says.  During the 2000 kidnapping, for instance, the bandits and their hostages left Camp Abdurazzak midnight of April 29.  Bombs rained on the bandits’ lair on April 30, and later that day the military overran the camp.”[4]

Another baffling incident occurred in the course of the Dos Palmas kidnapping incident of 2001.  After the kidnap victims – 17 Filipinos and 3 Americans – were brought to Basilan from the resort island of Dos Palmas in Palawan, the ASG band entered the city of Lamitan and took over the Dr. Jose Torres Memorial Hospital.  The hospital was quickly surrounded by government troops and police personnel, with snipers on rooftops and helicopter gunships flying over.  Unexpectedly, soldiers who were guarding a back gate of the hospital were called for a “briefing” late in the afternoon, and it was through this back gate that the ASG and their hostages escaped.[5]

Sometime within the last three years, the author was asked by the family of a kidnap victim to assist them in assessing how best to secure the victim’s release.  In the course of working with the victim’s family, it came to light that the negotiator on the part of the ASG had indicated that should they come to an agreement on the ransom to be paid, they would want the exchange to be coursed through a particular military unit which the ASG specified, because they had already dealt with that unit in a previous kidnapping case in which the exchange was effected successfully.  While this did not necessarily mean that there was collusion between that military unit and the ASG, the very fact that a military unit was identified by the ASG as their desired conduit for payment of ransom was, to say the least, surprising.

LGUs

There has been less documentation of incidents indicating possible collusion of LGU officials with the ASG.

One of the cases documented involves the Lamitan siege cited earier.  In a news report filed by Arlyn de la Cruz, a journalist known to have had close ties with key leaders of the ASG during the early 2000s, de la Cruz states that the linkage with the military which resulted in the escape of the ASG band with their hostages from the Dr. Jose Torres Memorial Hospital in Lamitan was  facilitated by a top ranking local government official of Basilan.  De la Cruz’s account was based on a telephone interview she conducted with Abu Sabaya.  As per Sabaya, it was the LGU official who worked it out with the military commanders directing operations that troops be redeployed so that an escape route could be provided for the ASG.  When asked by de la Cruz why he did this, Sabaya is supposed to have replied, “Isn’t it obvious?  Money was the reason.  That official’s greedy.”[6]

De La Cruz also reported in the same article that at the hearings conducted in Lamitan by the Defense Committee of the House of Representatives, Fr. Cirilo Nacorda, Lamitan Parish priest, and local residents “testified that local government officials in the province were protecting the Abu Sayyaf.  Basilan Gov. Wahab Akbar was one of those mentioned by some of the witnesses.”[7]

Very recently, the Sulu-based NGO Save Sulu Movement (SSM) issued a statement claiming that local government officials in the province were protecting the Abu Sayyaf  in exchange for “a lion’s share of ransom money”.[8]  In its statement the SSM said that it had “repeatedly informed authorities that the reason the ASG (Abu Sayyaf) is still active and even growing is because it is enjoying the protection of local officials.”[9]  The SSM also said that the ASG was being supplied weapons by “local politicians who can easily smuggle firearms or purchase it from the military itself.”[10]

The statement further said that former AFP Chief of Staff Ricardo Visaya had stated that LGU officials from governors, vice-governors to Barangay heads were protecting the ASG.  The SSM lamented why, if the authorities were aware of the protection being provided, “no village chief, mayor or governor…had been arrested or charged with ‘actually receiving ransom money in the guise of negotiations.’  ‘If the connivance is no secret to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, what have they done to stop it?’ the group said.”[11]

Last year, reports circulated in Sulu that a Barangay Chairperson was found with P6 million out of  a P30 million ransom payment that had been made for the release of a kidnap victim.  The. amount apparently had been deducted by the Barangay official before the payment reached the kidnap band.  It is generally known that it is an accepted practice within the “industry” for persons through whom ransom payments pass to “take a little something” for their efforts at facilitating and delivering the payment.

This writer’s own personal experience involved Basilan some ten years ago where I assisted a Crisis Management Committee working for the release of two hostages.  Having received reports that the group which had kidnapped the victims had been to a particular barangay, police officials went to interview the barangay officials who claimed that the reports were untrue and that the kidnappers and hostages had not been to their area.  Later on, however, it was learned that contrary to the earlier denial, the kidnappers had been in that barangay and that some of the barangay officials were in fact related to the leaders of the kidnap band.

It is also common knowledge that barangays where the kidnap gangs are based or which they frequent and where they hide their hostages, often are provided a share of ransom payments collected, both as a gesture of thanks for the assistance provided as well as to ensure that sanctuary and protection will continue to be provided in the future.  More often than not, the leaders of the kidnap bands have blood ties with the leaders and the residents of these villages.

Assessment 

It is difficult and unfair to outrightly brand an entire organization or institution on the basis of the actions of a number of individuals from within that group.  On the other hand, it must be admitted that it would not be surprising if there were in fact individuals within the organization or institution that undertook practices that violated the principles that their institutions stand for.  In such a case it is incumbent upon the leadership of the group to cleanse their ranks and ensure that principles of service are upheld.  Where collusion is clearly determined to have taken place, severe punitive actions should be taken to deliver the message that such betrayals of public trust will not be tolerated.  In short, military, police and civilian government officials found to be aiding and/or protecting the Abu Sayyaf should be identified and dealt with severely.

What needs to be watched out for, moreover, is whether attitudes in the civilian or security agencies have evolved to such a point where certain practices which normally would be considered taboo have in fact become accepted, where in fact these become the new norm – as in the case of “facilitators” taking a cut of ransom payments – and people no longer see anything wrong with these practices.  In such a case one could say that the cancer has spread to a near terminal stage and radical surgery – possibly even amputation — is required if the institution and the body politic which looks to this institution to protect it are to be saved.

TOMORROW: Community Support

[Vic M. Taylor, originally from Cebu, has been involved in various peace and development activities in Mindanao, particularly in Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) in the different positions he has held in government and the private sector over the last 50 years.
He started as an instructor at the Notre Dame of Jolo College after his graduation from the Ateneo de Manila University in the late 1960s.  Subsequently, he oversaw the Rehabilitation and Development Program for Muslim Mindanao during the early years of martial law under the Office of the President.
Within the last 16 years and upon the request of the families of some kidnap victims, Mr. Taylor assisted these families to help secure the safe release of five victims from the ASG.
Recently, he has been working with a private group that is assisting a community of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Zamboanga peninsula in bringing development projects to their area.
This series is a revised version of a paper written by the author for the Mackenzie Institute, a Canadian security think tank, in light of the execution of two Canadian hostages by the Abu Sayyaf last year]

 

 

 

[1] RJ Rosalado, “Jolo mayor:  Some military officers in bed with Abus for ransom”, ABS-CBN News, June 17, 2016, news.abs-cbn.com/nation/regions/06/17/16/jolo-mayor-some-military-officers-in-bed-with-abus-for-ransom.

[2] Samuel K. Tan, “The Juma’a Abu Sayyaf”, The Muslim South and Beyond”, (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2010), page 139.

[3] Jose Torres, “Into the Mountain:  Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf”, (Quezon City:  Claretian Publications, 2001), pages 147-148.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pekka Mykkanen, “Greed of Philippines Army elements may be a security hazard for U.S. troops”, Helsingin Sanomat, February 5, 2002, web.archive.org/web/20020214214344/http://www.helsinki-hs.net/news.asp?id=20020205IE2.

[6] Arlyn de la Cruz, “We Paid Official to Escape, Says Abu Sayyaf Leader”, Inquirer News Service, August 30, 2001, http://stevenwarran-backstage.blogspot.ca/2012/09/we-paid-official-to-escape-says-abu.html,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Julie S. Alipala, “Sulu execs conniving with Abus”, Inquirer.Net, May 12, 2017, http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/896219/sulu-execs-conniving-with-abus.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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