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Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Who are the Abu Sayyaf?
Militant Islamic group the Abu Sayyaf is one of several guerrilla organisations involved in a recent resurgence of violence in the Philippines.

Previously a faction within the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), it split off in 1991 to pursue a more fundamentalist battle against the Philippine authorities.

Philippine soldiers
The Philippines army has been trained by US troops
In January, as part of its war on terror, the US sent troops to the Philippines to train and advise their Filipino counterparts for a crackdown on the group, which Washington says is linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

The US troops pulled out in July having completed their mission, but the recent kidnappings and beheadings in Jolo illustrate that the Abu Sayyaf is far from broken and continues to be a threat.

Afghan connection

The group, which began on the island of Basilan, operates in the south of the country, where other militants have been warring for almost 30 years for an Islamic state, independent of the mainly Christian Philippines.

The Abu Sayyaf - or "Father of the swordsman" in Arabic - was named after a mujahideen fighter in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where a number of its members fought against the Soviet-backed regime.

Muslim protest
Muslims protest in Manila - but some Moros have taken a more violent path

The Abu Sayyaf have been a painful thorn in the side of the administration of Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, terrorising the south of the country and a swathe of the South China Sea with kidnappings and murders.

The US and Filipino joint action has garnered some success, notably an attack in June 2002 on an Abu Sayyaf base that is believed to have resulted in the death of prominent leader Abu Sabaya.

But experts say that the group is amorphous and difficult to pick out, let alone crush.

Splintered groups

On the island of Jolo there are numerous armed groups who claim to be part of the Abu Sayyaf, even though they are not from the original group that formed in Basilan.

These groups are what Glenda Gloria, author of Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, a book on the group, describes as "lost commands".

Abu Sayyaf
The rebels have been linked to al-Qaeda

They are small, armed gangs roaming the island who lack the ideology, high-profile leaders or structure of the Abu Sayyaf based on Basilan.

Ms Gloria says the Abu Sayyaf are always willing to accept new fighters and franchises wanting to join their cause.

As a result the Philippines authorities could find they have something of a Hydra on their hands - a monster that springs a new head every time they cut one off.

Reign of terror

Hostage-taking is just the latest in a series of Abu Sayyaf actions which began in the early 1990s with a spate of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings of priests and businessmen.

In December 1994, the group bombed a Philippines Airlines plane on a flight from Manila to Tokyo, killing one passenger.

Abu Sabaya
Abu Sabaya is believed to have been killed

But most of its activities have centred on southern Mindanao.

An attack on the town of Ipil in 1995 left 50 people dead, and a grenade attack on a department store in Zamboanga in 1998 injured 60.

As well as suspected links with the mastermind behind the 1993 US World Trade Center bombing, Ramsi Yousef, Manila and Washington believe the Abu Sayyaf is connected to the man who tops America's most-wanted list, Osama Bin Laden.

Analysts say that the Abu Sayyaf has received arms and munitions from Afghanistan.

Religious war

Experts say the group - which is believed to have a core membership of about 200 - is trying to spark a religious war.

Commander Robot
Commander Robot: In charge of the hostage-takers

The Philippines Government says the Abu Sayyaf has been trying to evict Christians from Basilan Island.

The founder of the Abu Sayyaf - Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani - was an Islamic scholar.

He was killed in a clash with the Philippine Army in December 1998.

The Moros, who converted to Islam in the 14th century, have long resisted the Philippines' Catholic rulers, dating back to the Spanish colonial period.

The Abu Sayyaf is the most militant of the anti-Manila groups and wants an independent Islamic state in Mindanao - an impoverished region with an annual income a mere fifth of the national Philippines average.

Moderates are calling simply for the implementation of a planned 13-province autonomous region in the southern Philippines.

The MNLF - from which the Abu Sayyaf split - announced a ceasefire in 1996, and is pursuing talks with government officials.

A third group - the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which numbers around 15,000 fighters - had also been on ceasefire, but has now halted all dialogue with the government after military assaults on its camps.

See also:

06 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
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