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Foreign hostages guarded by ehavily armed Abu Sayyaf followers [Photo by Jose Enrique Soriano]FOR ALL the warring it has done in the name of Islam, however, the Abu Sayyaf has not gained much respect from many Muslim Filipinos. It is not difficult to see why; the prolonged hostage situation in Basilan alone has dislocated more than a dozen Muslim barangays. It doesn't make sense, residents there argue, for a rebel group with political objectives to put to undue harm the lives of their supposed network of supporters.

Even the government is torn on how it should view the group. Under the Ramos government, the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) then headed by Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Libarnes described the Abu Sayyaf as no more than a kidnap gang. The Philippine National Police (PNP) insisted otherwise, saying the group reflected the so-called Islamic resurgence sweeping the world.

The PNP would say the Abu Sayyaf enjoyed links with international Islamic militants banking on the financial pipeline of Osama bin Laden, branded by the United States as the biggest funder of "Islamic terrorism." But asked to explain why the group would resort to kidnapping, police and military intelligence agents would say the Abu Sayyaf was always in dire straits and badly needed funds to feed its troops.

With President Estrada at the helm, the government looks at the Abu Sayyaf as part of a single Muslim movement fighting the state through armed struggle. Says Armed Forces chief Gen. Angelo Reyes in Asiaweek's May 19 issue: "We count them as one. The MNLF is the faction that talked peace with the (Ramos) government, the MILF is the faction that wants to establish a separate Islamic state but wants to talk to the government, while the Abu Sayyaf is the faction that wants to establish a separate Islamic state through terror."

But Reyes could either be feigning ignorance or staging a cheap propaganda stunt to put all the bad and the good eggs in the Muslim rebel movement into one basket. For all indications point to this: the Abu Sayyaf does not know what it wants. It does not know where it wants to go, or how to articulate the problems of Muslims in Mindanao well beyond what had already been articulated by other Muslim rebel groups. It is like an errant child who had been spoiled and who is now taking a big spanking from authorities.

In the sensational kidnapping of a priest and other civilian hostages in Basilan, for instance, the Abu Sayyaf first demanded that movie actor and Islam convert Robin Padilla negotiate with them. When Padilla arrived at Camp Abdurajak, Abu Sayyaf members lined up to have his autograph. The kidnappers did not demand any ransom, only rice and food. They did not say either if they had political demands.

Abu Sabaya [Photo by Charlie Saceda/Asiapix]In Jolo, where another Abu Sayyaf faction has been holding a group of largely foreign captives, the demands have been as confusing. At first, the rebels' spokesman, Abu Sabaya, said they wanted money. Then they sweetened this demand with politics: implementation of fishing laws and the obsolete 1976 Tripoli Agreement between the Marcos government and the MNLF. Later, they asked for the intervention of Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Then they asked to meet face-to-face with Reyes and PNP chief Panfilo Lacson.

But it is not only the Abu Sayyaf that has been hemming and hawing. So too have state authorities—or at least that is how it appears to some people. For Herminio Montebon, though, there may be another explanation. A councilor of Basilan and a Christian, Montebon recalls that at the height of the hostage crisis, about 3,000 soldiers formed a seemingly impregnable dragnet around Camp Abdurajak. But the kidnappers were able to escape anyway and walk for four days and four nights to the nearby town of Lantawan. In an interview, Montebon said: "Ang tanong ng mga civilians dito—Muslim at Kristiyano —paano nangyari yon...baka may direktor ito (Civilians here—Muslim and Christian—have been asking how that happened…maybe there's a 'director' here)."

What no one is debating, however, is that for a group that used to be limited to the "retail" side of the kidnapping industry, the Abu Sayyaf has gone big-time. To be sure, if its founder were still alive, he may have a hard time recognizing it, and not only because of the international attention it has managed to grab in the last few months.

A Filipino journalist allowed to interview the foreign hostages on Jolo island recalls talking to a few hard-core, Afghan-trained fighters from among the kidnappers. But he also remembers that he, along with other journalists, was stripped of all his valuables upon entering the bandits' camp. One of their Abu Sayyaf guides took a fancy on his watch and simply took it off his wrist. Says the journalist: "What can you do in that kind of a situation? I just told him he's got to take care of it because it's a gift from my wife." He also left behind in the camp his tape recorder, instamatic camera, and a pair of Nike rubber shoes—returning to the capital town of Jolo in borrowed slippers.

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