Military operations will continue against the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group in the southern Philippines to defeat the Islamic State-inspired militants, officials said Monday, claiming the enemy’s strength has been weakened with over 350 members neutralised since last year.
Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Jr, Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief, said they are “winning the war” against the Abu Sayyaf not only because of the intensified military offensives but also due to the support of local government officials and the residents.
“We have made great strides in accomplishing our mission to significantly defeat the capability of the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi provinces,” he said. “We were able to strategically control the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi waters and prevented the series of high-profile kidnappings in the tri-boundary of the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.”
The Abu Sayyaf group gained international notoriety after abducting 21 people, including Western tourists, at a posh resort in Sipadan, Malaysia in 2000.
WesMinCom: Abu Sayyaf hostages now down to ninehttps://t.co/Wt6krodJpH
— Yahoo Philippines (@YahooPH) February 1, 2018
In 2016, it was blamed for the spate of kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors at the porous sea border that prompted the three neighbouring countries to intensify maritime security cooperation.
The United States has long classified the Mindanao-based Abu Sayyaf Group as a foreign terrorist organisation.
Last May 23, Abu Sayyaf chieftain Isnilon Hapilon, the designated emir of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and the Maute brothers attacked Marawi City in a bid to establish a “wilayat” or Islamic province there.
The five-month war displaced more than 350,000 civilians and killed some 1,100 individuals, mostly Islamic militants including Hapilon and the Maute brothers.
Due to the Marawi siege, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire island of Mindanao under martial law. Congress granted Duterte’s request to extend military rule in Mindanao until the end of 2018, whose constitutionality has been challenged by critics before the Supreme Court.
In asking for the extension, the strongman cited the security threats posed by the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups.
Galvez said that from Jan 1, 2017 to date, at least 150 Abu Sayyaf members have surrendered as state forces employed constant military pressure against the Islamic militants in the island-provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Westmincom data also showed that 128 Abu Sayyaf members were killed while 80 others were arrested during different operations in the entire 2017. Government troops also recovered and seized at least 223 firearms from the Abu Sayyaf bandits last year.
Duterte had earlier gave the military a June 2017 deadline to finish off the Abu Sayyaf, but the war that erupted in Marawi “hampered” it as troops were deployed there, Galvez said.
Galvez urged the estimated 300 remaining Abu Sayyaf members to return to the fold of the law and become productive members of society with the help of the government.
“The government, in coordination with the Ulama (Islamic scholars), has prepared rehabilitation programs to those who have surrendered to ensure that they do not go back to their (wrong) beliefs,” the official said in a statement.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), said the regional government has poured funds to develop infrastructure, including farm-to-market roads, and livelihood projects in areas with Abu Sayyaf presence to encourage the militants to give up their firearms.
Hataman said the ARMM regional government last year launched a psycho-social and livelihood intervention for Abu Sayyaf surrenderers to help them start fresh lives.
“We hope these initiatives will encourage other Abu Sayyaf members to lead mainstream lives,” the governor said.