Rebel warns Abu Sayyaf thrive on conflict

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am

Chasing the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf with more military troops will only inject new life into an already dying movement, warns jailed Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari.

Not so, the Armed Forces of the Philippines says, because now it has a tried-and-tested battle plan.

Last week, in his first extensive interview since being jailed in 2002 while on trial for rebellion, Misuari said the solution to exterminating the southern Philippine extremist group was to simply let it be because now, 'they are dying slowly a natural death'. Besides, he added, 'I don't know if the Abu Sayyaf still exists or only in the minds of some people'.

Misuari knows the Abu Sayyaf well since the backbone of its leadership were members of his former rebel movement who broke away after Misuari dropped his demand for Muslim independence and settled for autonomy.

Misuari blames the Abu Sayyaf for upsetting his development plans during his five-year stint as governor of the Muslim Mindanao autonomous region.

But the jailed governor said 'billions and billions of taxes of the people' are now being spent needlessly to root out the Abu Sayyaf from its jungle lairs in Jolo Island in the south.

He said such intensified operations could in fact 'swell the ranks' of the extremists because these failed to take into account the warrior culture of the Tausug tribe to which he and most Abu Sayyaf members belonged.

It was customary for a Tausug to fight 'because of sympathy' for their slain fellow tribesmen, Misuari said.

'They have relatives from distant places [who come over to fight] and they don't care what kind of crimes have been committed,' he said.

'That's the culture of the people,' he stressed.

To Misuari, killing Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani did not really mean much even though Armed Forces chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon hailed the deed as having 'neutralised the centre of gravity of terrorism in the Philippines'. 'That [death] is meaningless,' he said.

'He [Khadaffy] was a simple young man - not an ideologue and not that literate - [whom] they picked off the street. They can always make another,' he said, but refused to say whom 'they' referred to.

A military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Bartolome Bacarro, agreed with Misuari's assessment that the Abu Sayyaf was in its death throes. However, he said, unlike Misuari 'we would like to fast-track the dying'.

Colonel Bacarro conceded that despite Janjalani's death last year, the ranks of the rebel band had swelled once more to 400 'because of recruitments'.

At its peak, the group had more than 1,000 members.

Colonel Bacarro expressed confidence that the military could discourage recruitment of fresh members by adopting in Jolo the 'Basilan model', referring to a neighbouring island where the Abu Sayyaf once sowed terror with kidnapping and beheading activities.

In Basilan, the military successfully 'eliminated the armed threat then infused community-oriented programmes by building schools and roads', Colonel Bacarro explained.

Now, he said, 'we want to show that the fruit of having peace and order in a certain area would be beneficial' especially to the youth of Jolo, who were the targets of terrorist recruitment.

Ustadz Sharif Zain Jali, a key Misuari aide, welcomed the promised infrastructure projects but said the underlying premise was flawed because the indigenous tribes of Basilan were markedly different from the warlike Tausug.