For an instant last week, it appeared that Manila had trapped the group—offering the prospect of ridding the country for good of this band of seafaring bandits who work with the zeal of holy warriors. On June 3, more than 5,000 soldiers had the outlaws cornered in a hospital at Lamitan, a town on Basilan island, about 900 km south of Manila. All the army had to do was tighten the siege and the guerrillas would have been forced to surrender the hostages they had plucked from an island resort a few days before. But commanders dropped the ball big time. Sometime before dawn the following day, the 200 Abu Sayyaf fighters escaped through the rear wall of the hospital and church compound. One Lamitan woman, awakened by the sound of footsteps in the lane, peered out to see the guerrillas stalking by. "They just walked away with their hostages," she later said. "Nobody challenged them."
Abu Sayyaf's stroll to safety revealed the military's ham-handedness—the commander who botched the siege was fired—and indefinitely prolonged the hostages' deadly peril. Moreover, it proved that Arroyo's frequently reiterated rhetorical resolve was not enough, and that Abu Sayyaf is likely to continue to be a plague on the country for a long time to come. It's a cruel group: after their escape last week, the kidnappers beheaded two Filipinos—a cook and security guard seized in the raid on the Dos Palmas tourist resort in the western province of Palawan. Speaking by sat phone to a local radio station, group commander Abu Sabaya said they had also decapitated one of the three American hostages, Californian Guillermo Sobero, although the army said it has no proof of that killing. The group knows the jungle intimately—far better than Manila's men in uniform. For days, the army had no idea where the group was. "The jungle is so dense in there that if you lob in mortars, they just explode harmlessly high up in the forest canopy," says former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan. "And these Abu Sayyaf guys are unbelievable sharpshooters."
The Abu Sayyaf is also fragmented, having split into three factions after the military killed its founder-leader Abdurajak Janjalani in 1998. That exacerbates Arroyo's challenge. Even if her government manages to capture the current rebels, there are two more outfits ready to kidnap and kill in the future. "It was easier to deal with them when they had a single leader—and an ideology," says a Basilan politician. "Now, these guys are in it for the money, and there's no stopping them."
Commander Abu Sabaya vowed last week to kill the remaining hostages quickly, including American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham, if the army didn't cease its pursuit. "It would be a pity if you provoke us," warned the rebel spokesman. "We will behead the whites."
Despite the threats, the President is holding firm. Arroyo, say her advisers, wants to keep Abu Sayyaf on the run. The last time the group took hostages from a tourist resort—21 were seized in April last year on Sipadan, a famous diving site on the Malaysian coast—they collected an estimated $25 million in ransom. But even before the Sipadan raid, the name Abu Sayyaf raised alarm among Western intelligence agencies. Abu Sayyaf kept surfacing in connection with various plots by Islamic terrorist Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, now serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City. Both Yousef and Abu Sayyaf founder Janjalani may have received training in the early 1990s at a commando camp near Khost, in Afghanistan. It was run by a professor of Islam Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf, whose belief in the strict Wahabi interpretation of Islam found him favor with many wealthy Saudis, including Osama bin Laden, No. 1 on America's list of most dangerous terrorists.
At Khost, Janjalani made up for his diminutive size with ferocity and his oratory, honed at Islamic universities in Libya and Syria. He reverentially appropriated Sayyaf's name (which means "swordsman" in Arabic) for his group back home. In 1991, Abu Sayyaf struck its first blow by killing two American evangelists in a grenade blast in Zamboanga. This was followed by a string of kidnappings, massacres and extortion operations. Cassette tapes of Janjalani's jihad sermons began circulating, and other gangs of Moro brigands in the Sulu islands—who specialized in running drugs and guns, kidnapping and growing marijuana—accepted Janjalani as their chief. Abu Sayyaf's increasing notoriety attracted the notice of fellow comrades-in-arms from the Afghan war. Bin Laden's brother-in-law and trusted aide, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, set up the Al-Maktum university in Zamboanga, a 30-minute boat ride from Basilan island.
Another Afghan jihad graduate also turned up: bomber Ramzi Yousef. Philippine police sources believe Yousef may have tried to recruit Abu Sayyaf for two bloody schemes in 1995: the assassination of Pope John Paul II in Manila and a plan to plant bombs on U.S. airliners flying out of the Philippines. Plagued throughout his terrorist career by clumsiness, Yousef managed to set fire to his apartment just a week before the Pontiff's arrival, and police found timing devices, 12 fake passports and a business card belonging to bin Laden's brother-in-law, Khalifa. There is no evidence, local police sources say, linking Abu Sayyaf to these failed terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, Abu Sayyaf claimed credit for the June 1995 bombing of a Tokyo-bound Philippine Airlines flight, which police believe was a dry run for Yousef's plan to down U.S. aircraft.
Janjalani was shot down by police in 1998. Since then, say Philippine counter-terrorism experts, Abu Sayyaf's ties with international Islamic terrorism may have broken. At the same time, leadership of the group splintered into two main factions: the first, which is currently holding the hostages in Basilan, has a figurehead in Janjalani's younger brother, Khadaffy. But the real chief is Abu Sabaya, a former media communications student who worked in Saudi Arabia before gravitating to the Afghan training camps. A cleric familiar with the group's history says that Abu Sabaya, whose real name is Ahmad Salayudi, was banished from the Afghan camp for troublemaking.
The other faction, based in the Sulu islands, is led by Galib Andang, nicknamed Commander Robot for the mechanical way he dances. Addicted to shabu (methamphetamines) and married to at least two of his female ex-kidnap victims, Andang directed the Sipadan raid. He is also known to be generous: so much of the Sipadan ransom spilled over onto his native island Jolo that the dollar fell among local traders from 50 pesos to 25. Another Sulu island commander is Raddulan Sahirun. In his 60s, Raddulan wears two revolvers around his waist like a fast-draw artist, even though he is missing an arm. Manila Security experts claim that these two commanders might either reinforce the hostage-takers on Basilan island or throw the Philippine government into greater disarray by attacking another tourist beach resort and grabbing more hostages. Either way, Arroyo's soldiers may have blown their best chance to finish off Abu Sayyaf. It's an opportunity that may not repeat itself anytime soon.