A new deadline to wipe out Abu Sayyaf

AT the start of 2017, President Duterte,  then  just a few months in office, gave the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) six months to neutralize the Abu Sayyaf. The  notorious  group had just kidnapped a German yacht owner after killing his wife in the waters around Sulu and was now demanding ransom. Earlier in 2015, the Abu Sayyaf had kidnapped three foreigners and a Filipina in the Davao Gulf, then killed two of the foreigners, both Canadians. It was then said to be holding about 20  other hostages of various nationalities, all for ransom.

The deadline for the presidential order was June 30, 2017, but the AFP drive was overtaken by the  siege of Marawi on May 23. On that day, forces of the Maute Group, supported by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),  seized the city center in a war that was to rage in the next five months as the whole of Mindanao was placed under martial law.

Early this  month , the Abu Sayyaf  was again in the news. After kidnapping two policewomen in Patikul, Sulu,  on April 29, the outlaw group reportedly released them in Talipao, Sulu.  Their relatives paid R2.5 million for their release, down from  an original demand of R5 million,  according to one source, after negotiation by a leader of the Moro National Liberation Front.

Government forces in Sulu have now been given a new deadline to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf – December this year,  seven months from now. Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, said  the  deadline was issued by the new Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff Gen. Carlito Galvez at  a command conference  in Zamboanga City last Wednesday.

Ten Army battalions have been deployed in Sulu  and  an additional battalion is coming from Marawi. These forces, together with units of the Philippine National Police (PNP), now led by its new chief, Director General Oscar Albayalde,   will mount the new campaign to wipe  out  the Abu Sayyaf.

Mindanao has long been a problem area for the government, with two major groups – the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – having mass support. The Duterte administration is well on  the  way to ending  age-old problems with  them with the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

There are, however, many smaller outlaw groups which have been thriving in Mindanao. The Abu Sayyaf is perhaps the most notorious of them, with  kidnapping for ransom  as its forte. The initial effort of the Duterte administration to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf in 2017 was thwarted by the Marawi rebellion of the Maute Group.

But now, with that operation over and with the new chiefs of  the AFP and the PNP, government forces should be able to put an end to this group which has gained international notoriety  because of its foreign kidnap victims, and carry  out at long last President Duterte’s  order to wipe it out.