“We Don’t Need Derna Anymore”: What the Battle for Derna Means for Libya’s Future

Andrew McGregor

June 29, 2018

The Southern Approach to Derna (Libyan Express)

Once an important Mediterranean port in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, the city of Derna is currently being leveled by artillery and airstrikes supporting a ground offensive led by 76-year-old “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. A former Qaddafi loyalist, veteran of Libya’s disastrous war in Chad and a one-time CIA asset, Haftar now seeks total control of Libya while acting as the commander of the so-called “Libyan National Army (LNA),” nominally the military wing of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), a rival government to the internationally recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) in Tripoli. The LNA is a coalition of former revolutionaries, Saudi-influenced Islamist militias and occasionally mercenaries who fight under Haftar’s direction.

More recently known as a hotbed of jihadist activity, Derna plays an important part in U.S. military history; in 1805 Consul William Eaton led seven U.S. Marines and several hundred Greek, Arab and Turkish mercenaries on a five hundred mile march from Alexandria to Derna, where his odd little army took the city from a larger Karamanli force in little more than an hour. It was the young republic’s first over-seas land battle and a notable success after the French had failed to take Derna five years earlier.

Today, however, Derna has become known as a hotbed of jihadist activity. Haftar’s campaign aims to bring an end to that, but the longer the LNA bombardment continues the less certain his political future becomes.

Derna and the Islamic State

Located on the coast near the green hills of the northeastern Jabal Akhdar region, Derna supplied over 50 fighters for the anti-American jihad in Iraq in the 2000s. In October 2014, a group of Islamist militants based in Derna (particularly dissident members of the Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) organization and took over many parts of the city despite the opposition of other Islamists with close ties to al-Qaeda. IS rule was marked largely by beheadings and other forms of public humiliations and executions.

Fighters opposing the IS within Derna formed the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Derna (Derna Mujahideen Shura Council – DMSC) on December 12, 2014. This group began to drive IS militants out of Derna in June 2015 even as the LNA imposed a loose siege on the city. The DMSC fought a merciless war against IS members responsible for murders and suicide bombings in Derna, frequently executing IS militants after obtaining their confessions (Libya Express, March 22, 2016).

In the meantime, the IS slaughter of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Sirte in February 2015 led to Egyptian airstrikes on IS strongholds in Libya, including DMSC targets in Derna. The DMSC declared they had “no relation with the IS in Syria and Iraq,” adding that they also had nothing to do with the IS beheadings of Egyptian Copts hundreds of kilometers away (Middle East Eye, February 19, 2015). Later that year an American F-15 airstrike killed IS commander Abu Nabil al-Anbari (a.k.a. Wissam Najm ‘Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi; a.k.a. Abu Mughira al-Qahtani) just outside Derna (BBC, December 7, 2015).

Neighborhoods of Derna (NGO Reach)

For a time the IS fugitives were able to establish themselves in the industrial suburb of al-Fatayih, but were eventually forced from there in April 2016, bringing the DMSC’s two-year campaign to an end (Libyan Express, April 20, 2016). Four days later the DMSC complained that since the IS expulsion Haftar’s small air force had mounted 12 airstrikes on civilian neighborhoods of Derna while failing to attack fleeing IS fighters who were dangerously exposed in open country (Libyan Express, April 24, 2016).

The Egyptian air force bombed Derna again in May 2017 as retaliation for an attack on Christians in central Egypt that was blamed on IS militants from Derna (BBC, May 26, 2017). The DMSC denied any involvement in the mass-killing, reminding Cairo that the IS had been expelled from Derna, while suggesting the accusation was an attempt to divert attention from the Egyptian government’s inability to tackle its own security crisis (Libyan Express, May 28, 2017). The LNA’s two-year-old siege of Derna was tightened in August, with residents describing it as “collective punishment” (Middle East Eye, August 7, 2017).

The Field Marshal

Inaccurate reports of Haftar’s imminent death in April after a medical evacuation to Amman and then Paris may have sparked a succession struggle within the LNA, possibly including the April 18 car bomb attack on Haftar’s LNA chief-of-staff, General ‘Abd al-Razik al-Nazuri (218 TV [Libya], via BBC Monitoring, April 18).

Haftar’s bid for power is supported by Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been accused by the UN of providing military helicopters and other aircraft to Haftar’s LNA in violation of the UN arms embargo. There are also reports of Haftar seeking military support from Israel (The New Arab, July 27, 2017; Libyan Express, December 25, 2017; Middle East Eye, August 5, 2017),

Charges related to alleged LNA war crimes have been filed in France, the U.S. and the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Libya Observer, May 2). Haftar has refused to turn suspected war criminals in the LNA ranks over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and has even been charged with torture and murder himself in Paris (Middle East Confidential, May 3).

The Offensive Begins

As the LNA began to occupy the southern heights overlooking Derna in the third week of April, the DMSC appealed for reconciliation, extending “Its hand in peace” and declaring its members were “ready to be accountable for any injustices we are proven to have committed.” Oddly, the group suggested mediation through the offices of former Libya Grand Mufti Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani, one of Haftar’s most bitter and vocal opponents (Libyan Social Media, via BBC Monitoring, April 22). Instead, the seizure of the heights allowed LNA artillery spotters to direct more intensive fire onto targets within Derna.

Fighting on the Outskirts of Derna (Libyan Express)

On May 7, Haftar announced a final offensive to “liberate” Derna, even if “we have to evacuate all civilians from it” (Libyan Observer, May 7). A member of the Presidential Council, Muhammad Amari Zayid, described the offensive as a “war crime” that was being carried out to satisfy “personal ambitions” rather than serve the interests of the nation (Libya Observer, May 8). Zayid succeeded in meeting with the head of the Derna local council, who confirmed that Derna’s civil and military institutions were affiliated with the PC/GNA (Asharq al-Awsat, May 10).

On May 11, the DMSC reorganized as the Derna Protection Force (DPF), possibly to build a common cause with less religiously-driven fighters who nonetheless oppose Haftar and the imposition of his own form of strongman rule across eastern Libya. Some members of the DPF were formerly aligned with Ansar al-Shari’a, an Islamist militia close to al-Qaeda that dissolved in May 2017 after suffering heavy losses in fighting with the LNA and its allies (Reuters, May 27, 2017).  By May 15, LNA attacks had begun to strike civilian areas of Derna. Social media photos displayed indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas of Derna’a Wasat al-Bilad district, with local sources saying bodies (including those of women and children) could not be recovered due to shelling and airstrikes (Libya Observer, June 9).

Worried residents of Derna were not reassured by a video released by an LNA fighter in which the speaker warned they would be treated worse than the “Khawarij” (a derogatory reference to the Kharijites, a violent and despised extremist sect in early Islam); “We will demolish your houses; we will kill everyone, even civilians, we don’t need Derna anymore” (Libya Observer, May 17). This was followed by an announcement from Haftar’s “Information and Fighting E-Terrorism Unit” that they had a list of 21,000 “terrorists” they were seeking in the city of 125 to 150,000 people (Libya Observer, May 27).

Omar Rifa’i Juma’a Surur

A veteran Egyptian jihadist and qadi (religious judge), ‘Umar Rifa’i Juma’a Surur (a.k.a. Abu ‘Abdallah al-Masri), was killed in a May 21 airstrike on Derna, according to an LNA spokesman (Al-Wasat [Cairo], May 21; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 11). Surur was alleged to have acted as a recruiter of jihadis headed for Syria, Iraq and Egypt (Egypt Today, May 21).  Known for his strong opposition to the rival Islamic State, Surur was formerly a lieutenant of Egyptian jihadist Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy, an expert in tactics and weapons (Al-Arabiya, June 10). Two other militant clerics, Abu Zayd al-Shilwi and Abu ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam al-Awami, were killed the same day (Telegram Messaging via BBC Monitoring, June 11). The LNA also suffered losses; On May 22, the LNA announced the death in combat of 36th Brigade commander Brigadier ‘Abd al-Hamid Warfali during clashes southwest of Derna (Libya Observer, May 23).

Nonetheless, Haftar announced on May 24 that the end of “four consecutive years of holy struggle” was approaching in Derna, while proclaiming he had ordered his men not to “harm the city’s residents or their property” (Middle East Monitor, May 24). The LNA commander also called on the families of DPF fighters to pressure their kinsmen to abandon arms in the struggle against the LNA and seek the “fair trial” being offered (Reuters, May 25).

Egyptian airstrikes coordinated with the LNA struck central Derna and the Fatayeh industrial zone on May 26, 2017, followed by claims to have destroyed the DPF headquarters (Libyan Express, May 27, 2017; Middle East Eye, May 29). Drone attacks and heavy shelling forced the DPF to withdraw from al-Fatayeh on May 29 even as Derna’s local council issued an appeal to all local, regional and international organizations to open Derna’s port for humanitarian assistance, describing conditions as “disastrous” (Anadolou Agency, May 28; Libya Observer, May 29).

The LNA Enters Derna

By June 1, the LNA claimed to have taken al-Fatayih and the heights overlooking the Bab al-Tobruk district of Derna (Middle East Eye, June 1). Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani took to Libyan TV to describe the attack during the holy month of Ramadan as “preposterous.” Urging all Libyans to support the citizens of Derna with civil disobedience if necessary, al-Ghariani declared that “What is happening in Derna is not a war on terrorism, but a war on all Libyans in order to subdue them” (Tanasuh TV, via Libya Observer, June 2).

The attacking force consisted of four battalions of LNA troops, with two battalions working their way into Derna from the west and two from the east, beginning on June 4. Troop movement is directed by the ‘Umar Mukhtar Operations Room under the command of Major General Salim al-Rafadi. The troops are strengthened by elements of the al-Sa’iqa Special Forces brigade and supported by artillery and warplanes belonging to the LNA, Egypt and the UAE (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 5). France, which aided Haftar in his three-year siege of Benghazi, is reported to have secretly provided Haftar with a newly-obtained Beechcraft King Air 350 reconnaissance airplane for work over Derna (Libya Observer, June 3; Libyan Express, November 1, 2016). Publically, France is promoting a peace process intended to lead to presidential and parliamentary elections in December.

At the forefront of the LNA offensive is Wanis Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa Special Forces. Bukhamada insists his unit is “fighting members of terrorist groups operating under a variety of names… Libyan fighters… must resolve their issues with the Libyan state through the courts… As for foreign fighters, they have no place in Libya…” (Al-Wasat via BBC Monitoring, May 20). LNA forces captured Derna’s security chief, Yahya Usta ‘Umar, on June 8. Though appointed by the GNA, Haftar’s representatives described ‘Umar as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist (Libyan Express, June 8).

With the LNA having developed a reputation for the mistreatment and even murder of prisoners, Haftar announced he had asked his troops to “respect legal procedures relating to prisoners” during the battle for Derna (AFP, June 5). By June 8, the LNA claimed to control of 75% of the city, with Haftar setting the final stage of the conflict in religious terms during a speech to his troops: “After four years of holy struggle against the Kharijites, we are close to the liberation of Derna” (Egypt Today, June 8).

By June 12, the LNA claimed to control the port and all the rest of the city save for an inner core of some 10 km², where fighting was described as “very heavy” with LNA losses due to desperate DPF suicide attacks (Middle East Monitor, June 12; Libya Herald, June 12). Mines and IEDs have taken the largest toll on LNA attackers.

LNA Brigadier General ‘Abd al-Salam al-Hassi insisted that LNA forces would protect the lives and property of Derna’s civilian population, though reports from inside Derna described civilian deaths under bombardment and an inability to retrieve victims under constant fire (Libya Herald, June 6; Libyan Express, June 7). Another LNA official dismissed reports of Egyptian troops participating in the assault on Derna as an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to diminish the significance of the LNA’s impending victory, though he did acknowledge “high-level coordination and cooperation” with Egyptian officials (Asharq al-Awsat, June 10).

A report by Swiss-based NGO Reach detailed extensive damage from the siege to Derna’s roads and its water, electric and sewage systems. Schools, mosques and bridges have been bombed and those attempting to escape the destruction faced harassment or violence at checkpoints if they managed to get through networks of mines and snipers. [1] Shortages of food and medicine have been exacerbated by daily shelling and airstrikes while access to water and electricity remains intermittent at best.

Conclusion

It is likely that Haftar’s decision to turn away from his march on Tripoli to consolidate his rear in Cyrenaïca was strongly influenced by his supporters in Egypt, France and the UAE, all of whom regard Derna as a dangerous spawning ground for Islamist militants.

As the battle for Derna rages on, the international community looks away, having no particular objection to the elimination of this long-time Islamist hotbed despite the similarity of Haftar’s tactics to those used by Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011. This time, there is no imposition of a “no-fly zone” or mobilization of the international community. Italy has stated its readiness to supply humanitarian aid if “access is granted by the parties involved,” but this and a call for restraint from the UN Security Council constitute nearly the whole of international concern for the residents of Derna (Libya Observer, June 2). While the LNA claims to be working towards supplying “liberated” areas of Derna, other observers warn of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” as the fighting continues (Middle East Eye, June 12). As the LNA commander is fond of referring to all his political opponents as “terrorists,” the question is whether the license given to him by the international community in Derna will apply to future attacks on Tripoli and other centers of anti-Haftar resistance.

It took three years for Haftar to take Benghazi, with repeated proclamations of victory routinely followed by reports of continued resistance. DPF fighters show little sign they are about to capitulate; rather than being “hours” away from total victory, as the LNA claimed on June 11, an extended period of urban warfare punctuated by deadly suicide attacks seems more likely. There is also a danger that the lightly-disciplined LNA fighters may commit abuses over time that could generate international disapproval. If this happens, it will have a serious impact on Haftar’s ability to bring western Libya under his control before the elections scheduled for December. For Haftar, a quick victory is essential – prolonged civilian suffering combined with the brutal realities of urban combat and a perceived inability to secure Derna could easily damage the aging Field Marshal’s political prospects and standing in the international community.

NOTE

  1. “Libya: Public services break down as conflict escalates in encircled city of Derna,” Reach, Geneva, June 5, 2018, http://www.reachresourcecentre.info/system/files/resource-documents/reach_lby_situationoverview_ra_derna_jun2018_0.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 29, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Terror in the Sulu Archipelago: A Profile of Filipino Abu Sayyaf leader Yassir Igasan

Andrew McGregor

June 8, 2018

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) of the southern Philippines has always found itself perched on a fine line between Islamic jihad and organized crime. [1] Active since the early 1990s, some factions of the group are devoted solely to kidnapping-for-ransom, though some leaders have tried to return the movement to its ideological roots as an organization formed to impose Shari’a and establish “a purely Islamic government” in the southern Philippines. [2]

War in Mindanao (South China Evening Post)

One of the ASG’s more religiously focused leaders is the shadowy Yassir Igasan, who stands out for his sheer survival skills in a movement whose leaders are notoriously short-lived. With a religious education in the Middle East and fluency in Arabic, Igasan was regarded as a potential leader of Islamic State forces in the region before he was reportedly wounded in the leg by an October 2017 artillery strike near the town of Patikul in the Sulu Archipelago. ASG prisoners informed Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) intelligence operatives that Igasan has not been seen in recent months, leading to speculation that he may have been killed (AP, May 5).

Map of the old Sulu Sultanate (Mkenology.com)

Igasan is a member of the Tausūg, the dominant ethnic group in the largely Muslim Sulu Archipelago, a chain of islands separating the Sulu Sea from the Celebes Sea and stretching southwest from the major southern Philippines island of Mindanao to Muslim Malaysia. Basilan and Jolo are the most important islands in the archipelago, which once formed the core of the independent Sulu Sultanate. The Tausūg have a strong warrior tradition and resisted occupation efforts by the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese. Many Tausūg feel little connection to the culturally and religiously different Filipino Christian majority and often regard efforts to establish the control of the central government in Manila as differing little from the campaigns of these earlier imperialists. Historically, the southern Philippines have shared a trading relationship and common Islamic culture with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia rather than the majority Christian islands of the north.

According to AFP Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana, there are still somewhere between 300 to 400 Abu Sayyaf militants, most of them active in the Sulu Archipelago (Xinhua, March 27, 2018).

Early Career

Yassir Igasan (a.k.a. Tuan Ya) was born in 1972 on the volcanic island of Jolo. As a teenager, Igasan was one an estimated 300 to 500 Muslim Filipinos who joined the jihad against the Soviets and their communist puppet government in Afghanistan, though whether Igasan actually served as a combatant remains uncertain (Philippine Information Agency, October 3, 2008). [3]

Muhammad Jamal Khalifa in the Philippines (Asharq al-Awsat)

After his return, Igasan studied Islam at Darul Imam Shafin, a religious school in Marawi City founded by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal al-Khalifa. [4] During the late 1980s, Igasan worked as a Quranic studies instructor for Khalifa’s International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), one of a number of charities Khalifa used to divert legitimate charitable donations from the Middle East for use by Islamist militants in the southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf in particular. [5] Igasan’s close relationship with Khalifa would have provided an opportunity to study terrorist financing first-hand.

Abu Sayyaf Background

Abu Sayyaf was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani from radical members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim rebel group that was beginning to negotiate with the government. Like many of the movement’s early leaders, Janjalani was part of a local chapter of the Tablighi Jama’at, a global Islamist missionary group, and later joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. [6] It was there that Janjalani first met Igasanj, who joined the ASG in 1993. [7]

Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani

Abu Sayyaf announced its emergence with a wave of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations targeting Christians, Catholic clergy and churches. Unlike the older Muslim separatist guerrilla groups in the southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf was devoted to terrorist tactics from the beginning.

Abu Sayyaf’s aim was to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines that would no longer be dominated by the nation’s Roman Catholic majority. Funding for the group was initially provided by al-Qaeda, but kidnappings later became the main source of revenue. With ransoms for Europeans and North Americans in the millions of dollars, there is plenty of temptation for mediators and security forces to take a cut of these massive cash payments. The mayor of Jolo and a number of former hostages are among those who have accused certain Filipino military officers and civil officials of cooperating with Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping schemes in return for a slice of the ransoms (ABS-CBN News, June 17, 2016; Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 12, 2017). [8] When ransoms fail to arrive promptly, the hostages are typically beheaded.  Some ransoms have been paid in firearms, ammunition and other supplies (Straits Times [Singapore], May 20, 2015).

Abu Sayyaf has always struggled with a fragmented leadership due to rivalries, the difficulty of maintaining central control in a challenging physical environment and the steady elimination of its leaders by Filipino and American forces (American military assistance was provided for the battle against Islamist militants in the southern Philippines from 2002 to 2014). Abdurajak Janjalani was killed by Filipino security forces in December 1998. Igasan was considered a leading contender for the leadership position, but Abdurajak’s brother Khadafy was elected instead.

One of the strengths of the ASG is the close ties its various command groups maintain with local communities in which the fighters have close clan and family ties. The work of security forces is made difficult by the possibility that these communities benefit financially from ASG kidnappings in exchange for silence and logistical support.

Igasan in Abu Sayyaf

Abdurajak Janjalani’s death and a disruption of the al-Qaeda funding pipeline led to a period of decline for Abu Sayyaf in the late 1990s, during which Igasan returned to the Middle East for several years for further Islamic studies in Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. [9] He returned home but again traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2001, posing as an overseas Filipino worker. In reality he was organizing a new financial support network for Abu Sayyaf (Philippine Information Agency, October 3, 2008).  In the meantime, Abu Sayyaf had degenerated into a loosely knit group of kidnapping gangs known for their brutality.

Khadafy Janjalani (circled) with Abu Sayyaf Militants

With US intelligence and logistical support provided by the U.S., the AFP mounted a major offensive against the group in 2002 that cost it many fighters, though AFP losses were also significant.  Khadafy Janjalani’s attempted to restore the group’s Islamist base, and under his guidance ASG returned to terrorist bombings in Manila and other majority Christian cities of the central and northern Philippines. [10]

Khadafy Janjalani was killed by the 3rd Marine Brigade in Sulu Province in September 2006. [11] In July 2007, AFP Lieutenant General Romeo Tolentino announced that the ASG had made Yassir Igasan their new leader. [12] Abu Sayyaf, however, never made it clear that Igasan had actually succeeded Khadafy Janjalani.

Igasan’s usefulness to the ASG has always been based on his Islamic education and his fundraising connections in the Middle East. These became of particular importance once the existing conduit through the IIRO was severed after a U.S. investigation of the group’s ties to al-Qaeda was launched (Reuters, July 22, 2009). Nonetheless, Igasan’s reputed knowledge of Islam did not result in greater credibility or support for the ASG, which was heading in the direction of greater violence and criminality at the same time as the far larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was moving towards reconciliation with the national government.

Filipino Marines claimed to have wounded Igasan and killed six other Abu Sayyaf members in 2014 during an operation on Jolo Island sparked by tips provided by locals (ABC/AFP, February 11, 2014). Other forces were at work that year, as Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in July 2014 and the MILF, with an estimated 11,000 fighters, signed a peace deal with Manila.

Igasan and the Islamic State Organization

In recent years, the jihadi landscape has begun to shift in the southern Philippines. MILF signed a peace agreement with the government in 2014 and now often acts as a mediator between Manila and various Islamic militant groups. While no longer fighting the government, MILF is not required by the agreement to disarm until an autonomous region is created in the Muslim south Philippines. MILF units are now deployed against non-signatory jihadi groups with fire support from the AFP, but they do not fight alongside the Filipino regulars as their tactics are very different; the AFP fights a conventional war of sweeps and containment, while the MILF guerrillas fight in a style very similar to their jihadi opponents (AFP, September 6, 2017; Tempo [Manila], December 21, 2017).

The introduction of the Islamic State organization led to further changes, with Abu Sayyaf working closely with the new group after ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon declared the ASG’s allegiance to the Islamic State in July 2014. By 2016, Hapilon had emerged as IS leader. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) (BenarNews, April 11). The shift from al-Qaeda influence to IS influence marked a greater emphasis on offensive jihad, with the IS organization ready to take its war to its “enemies,” including Europeans and North Americans unfortunate enough to wind up in the hands of the militants. [13]

The IS formed itself into four operational groups in the Basilan, Ranao, Maguindanao and Cotabato regions of the southern Philippines (Eurasia Review, April 6). Maguindanao is the base of the allied Jamaatul Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, led by Abu Turaifi (Esmael Abdulmalik), who left the BIFF to form his own movement.

Radullan Sahiron

When one-armed veteran ASG commander Radullan Sahiron began sending surrender feelers to the AFP in April 2017, Joint Task Force Sulu (JTFS) commander Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana speculated that Sahiron’s surrender could launch a leadership struggle within ASG between Igasan and another ASG leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan (Manila Bulletin, April 21, 2017).

However, this struggle was averted when ASG militants joined IS forces and the Maute Islamist group in May 2017 to seize Marawi, the capital city of the deeply impoverished Lanao del Sur province. The city was besieged by the AFP for five months as 1200 people were killed in the fighting, many of them militants. After months of shelling and airstrikes, much of the city was reduced to rubble.

Sabahan Amin Baco (Free Malaysia Today)

Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the later phases of the fighting in Marawi. According to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Igasan was one of three potential successors as head of the IS (Manila Times, March 13). The others included Abu Dar (aka Humam Abdul Najid, a survivor of the Marawi siege with strong ties to foreign terrorist groups, and Sabahan Amin Baco, a Malaysian member of Jemaah Islamiya (JI) involved in bombings in Sulu and Basilan. Baco was possibly wounded in Marawi in January; reports claim he escaped to Sulu to take refuge with his father-in-law, ASG commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, though the military claims he was killed but his body not recovered. Baco is also said to be working on an alliance of regional jihadi groups under the IS umbrella that would include the ASG (Manila Times, March 13; AP, January 17; Free Malaysia Today, November 27, 2017).

Once the Islamists had been defeated in Marawi, President Rodrigo Duterte called on Malaysia and Indonesia to take stronger action against Abu Sayyaf, particularly in the Malacca Strait, a vital shipping lane where sailors are frequently kidnapped: “Blast them out of the seas to keep our shipping lanes open and safe. They have committed enough piracy there, enough money collected from ransoms” (AFP, October 20, 2017). Duterte has also urged China to help counter terrorism in regional waters, making reference to China’s participation in the campaign against Somali piracy: “I’m telling you, if we can’t do it, we’ll just have to call China to come in and blow them off just like Somalia (Philippine Inquirer, January 24).

Following the collapse of IS resistance in Marawi, most of the survivors created new strongholds in Maguindanao and Jolo, where ASG fighters and the AFP met in battle in March (Eurasia Review, April 6). In mid-May, a failed ASG ambush resulted in the death of two soldiers but also the death of 10 ASG militants and the wounding of a further 15 after an hour-long gun battle (BenarNews, May 14).

MNLF leader Yusop Jikiri, who survived an ASG assassination attempt in 2003, has provided the AFP with intelligence and hundreds of guerrilla fighters with intimate knowledge of the terrain in which ASG operates: We’d like to clean the name of Sulu and the Tausugs… I hope the Abu Sayyaf will stop kidnappings and all sort of criminalities to avoid any more bloodletting” (AP, January 17).

Conclusion

The Islamic State’s ill-advised attempt to hold territory (i.e. Marawi City) as the basis of a caliphate (a strategy that has failed elsewhere) has cost it in terms of leaders, arms, funds, fighters and morale. The ASG, as partners in this endeavor, has suffered in similar ways. At this time, ASG tends to operate as a series of generally cooperative but physically isolated factions with no clear central leadership. If Igasan has indeed been killed, it makes the ASG leadership picture even less clear, with the possibility of a final disintegration of the ASG into little more than a number of independent bandit groups operating from remote jungle bases under the thin cover of being nationalist/religious “freedom fighters.”

In the meantime, Duterte’s government remains committed to destroying the ASG. According to Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana, AFP chief-of-staff General Carlito Galvez Jr has issued orders to finish off ASG as soon as possible: “The target date is December if we fast track our operation [but] it can be done in two years” (Tempo [Manila], May 18).

Notes

  1. Abu Sayyaf = “The Sword Bearer”
  2. Samuel K. Tan: Internationalization of the Bangsamoro Struggle, University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Quezon City, 2003, p.96.
  3. Zachary Abuza, “Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf,” US Army College Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle PA, September 2005, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB625.pdf
  4. Taharudin Piang Ampatuan, “Abu Sayyaf’s New Leader: Yasser Igasan the Religious Scholar,” RSIS Commentaries, July 9, 2007, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/954-abu-sayafs-new-leader-yass/#.WvCMTpch3cc
  5. Zachary Abuza, “Funding Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Financial Network of al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 25(2), August 2003, pp. 169-199.
  6. Rommel C. Banlaoi: Philippine Security in the Age of Terror: National, Regional, and Global Challenges in the Post-9/11 World, Boca Raton, Florida, 2010, p.57.
  7. Ampatuan, op cit.
  8. Jose Torres: Into the Mountain: Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf, (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 2001), pp. 147-148; Victor Taylor, “Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 2,” MacKenzie Institute, May 7, 2017, http://mackenzieinstitute.com/addressing-situation-abu-sayyaf-group-philippines-part-2/.
  9. Ampatuan, op cit.
  10. Abuza, op cit, 2005.
  11. Bob East: The Neo Abu Sayyaf: Criminality in the Suiu Archipelago of the Republic of the Philippines, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2016, p. 80.
  12. Ampatuan, op cit.
  13. Victor Taylor, “Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 2,” MacKenzie Institute, May 7, 2017, http://mackenzieinstitute.com/addressing-situation-abu-sayyaf-group-philippines-part-2/.

 

This article first appeared in the June 8, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.