Severed Heads

A grizzly photo on the front page of today's Philippine Daily Inquirer's made me gulp and think about where I'm heading tomorrow. It was a 1-megapixel image spread over 7 columns of the seven, headless bodies found in Jolo. They actually weren't found. The Abu Sayyaf apparently took the time to deliver the heads to an Army camp in the town of Parang. Maj. Gen Rubenn Rafael, the head of the Army's Task Force Comet in Jolo, said in the newspaper that an Abu Sayyaf commander named Albader Parad ordered the abductions to try to squeeze a ransom out of the provincial governor, but then decided to kill them in retaliation for the death of one of the group's members.

The picture showed 7 bodies resting side by side in the back of truck, hands bound behind them. All were barefoot, and headless. No blood or mangled tissue was visible in the photo. The bound hands and shoeless feet, however, were enough to conjure up images of what must have happened in the final moments of their life, and after their death. A picture that gory, blood or no blood, may not have made it onto the front page of a US daily. In most cases it's not necessary. But this was a shocking tragedy that needed a shock value photo.

These guys were just civilians working on the Sulu governor's road project. Two were teenagers. All were Catholics who went south to hunt for jobs because they couldn't find them in Zamboanga. Catholics represent a tiny minority in Jolo-maybe 5 percent of 700,000 people and live in fear because many of the Abu Sayyaf's victims in neighboring Basilan have been Catholic priests and school teachers.

There was a time that I empathized on a cerebral level with one or two of the Abu Sayyaf's baseline grievances-that Muslims in the Philippines have gotten a raw deal. But there is no way I can even consider it as a grievance anymore. Abu Sayyaf relinquished their right to harbor any grievances because of their twisted methodology and ideology.

Abu Sayyaf did claim to have a legitimate ideology once. Formed by Abdurajak Janjalani in the early 1990's, the organization, whose name in Arabic means "Bearer of the Sword", argued that Filipino Muslims needed an independent state on the island of Mindanao because of their different culture, history, and religion. Filipino Muslims make up roughly 6 percent of the national population and are collectively known as the Bangsamoro.

True, the Bangsamoro have been shafted left and right. The Spanish tried to convert them with the Bible and the gun for 350 years, the Americans built schools to pacify support for organic resistance to colonial rule, and the first Filipino governments after World War II encouraged tens of thousands of Catholics from up north to move south and buy up all productive land. The problem is that most of this land belonged to Muslims and was not titled on paper. Many leaders were duped into trading land for rum, a few coins and cans of sardines. So 600 years after Islam arrived in Mindanao via Arabian and Indian trade routes, Muslims in the southern Philippines are a minority in their own homeland.

The more mainstream Moro National Liberation Front once demanded secession from the country but settled for a half-ass form of autonomy in 1996. This model for partial self-rule now appears to be breaking down given what is happening with offensive against Habier Malik's men. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the third and strongest of the Islamic insurgent groups in Mindanao, also fought for independence at one point. It still fight occasionally, but has been engaged in on-again off-again peace talks to come up with some other solution to the issues in Mindanao aside from token autonomy.

I'll write more about this later. Back to the notorious ASG.

By 1995, Abu Sayyaf found other ways to finance it's dream of independence for Mindanao. It began to mix very conservative Islamic doctrine with a criminal survival-at the point of a sword. Kidnap for ransom thus became their tool of terror and sustenance. Abu Sayyaf staged regular mass abductions on the smaller island of Basilan in the mid-to-late 90's, ransoming off some victims and killing the others. Bishop Martin Jumoad, a Dioscena priest who lives in the provincial capital of Isabella City, estimates that the extremist group murdered well over 50 people in Basilan where he has headed the island's Catholic prelature since 2001.

This was also the time that al-Qaeda made some inroads with Janjalani, a former who Afghanistan mujahid. Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama Bin Laden's brother-in-law, married a local Tausug woman and decided that Abu Sayyaf might be the perfect guinea pig to test out its model of jihad in a remote part of the world. In her book "Seeds of Terror", former CNN correspondent Maria Ressa writes that he funneled Bin Laden money through his networks of NGO's to the likes of Janjalani, hoping that they would make perfect bombmakers. A few became bombmakers, but more became kidnappers.

After Janjalani got killed by police in 1998, Abu Sabaya took over the reigns of leadership. Sporting sunglasses and chanting "Allahu Akbar" in front of the world's video cameras, Sabaya brought the group into international limelight when his men kidnapped more than 20 tourists from a nearby Malaysian island and brought them to Jolo. They were eventually ransomed off. Within a year, Sabaya's men had found another group of victims. This time in Palawan. However, he struck out on the ransom deal because the bandits unknowingly stormed a hotel that houses 2 American missionaries who had no money anyway. Nevertheless Sabaya dragged this poor couple and several other Filipino hostages through the jungles of Basilan for a year. He beheaded several of them, including a third American named Guillermo Sobrero. Gracia Burnham eventually got out but her husband Martin was killed during a rescue attempt.

A recent Altantic article by Mark Bowden asserts that US forces, who came to Mindanao at the request of the Philippine government in 2001, used their advanced military hardware to track Abu Sabaya in the for quite a while. CIA involvement, bags of reward money, shady informants and a spy satellite or two helped pinpoint Sabaya's movements. After years of turning kidnapping into a cottage industry, this bad boy ended up getting killed in a surprise sea-borne gunfight off the coast somewhere.

According to American and Filipino officials, Abu Sayyaf doesn't have much of a presence in Basilan anymore. Constant military pursuit and a lack of civilian and financial support forced them to abandon this stronghold and head three hours south to Jolo where they are now running into the same problems. Khaddaffy Janjalani, Abdurrak's younger brother, and Abu Soleiman were killed within the last year.

Sadly, Abu Sayyaf severely tarnished the image of Filipino Muslims among Catholics who don't discern between legitimate organizations and and ragtag criminals. Prejudice has a long history in this part of the country. It got worse once Sabaya claimed to speak on behalf of the Bangsamoro. Most Catholics I've spoken to in Basilan say they don't trust Muslims. And most Muslims say this desperation has clearly bogged this group down. So much so they are willing to ruthlessly kill a group of young men who couldn't even afford to pay rent or send their kids to school. For what? Certainly not the money because the provincial governor initially ignored their $100,000 ransom demand. Attention maybe…Or they got sick of getting stung by mosquitoes and attacked by two determined armies.

I think I should reiterate though that all Muslims down in Jolo are not bandits and bolo-wielding, M-16 toting sickos. Only 200 of them are, and they're running out of ideas-and apparently bullets-to justify a cause that was corrupted a long time ago.