Abu Sayyaf, also known as the Islamic State - East Asia Province, is a jihadist separatist insurgency operating in the southern Philippine islands of Jolo, Mindanao, and Basilan. Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani founded the group in 1989 to spread the Wahhabi doctrine and establish an independent Moro Province (1). Abu Sayyaf is notorious for its terrorist acts including bombings, kidnapping, assassinations, and extortion. Despite being based in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf has managed to spread its influence on neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, living up to its name as the east Asian province of the Islamic State.
History & Foundations
The genesis of Abu Sayyaf can be traced all the way back to the 80s, when Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan alongside the International Islamic Brigade. After the conflict with the Soviets ended, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani formed an unnamed group in 1988. In 1989, Janjalani named the group Mujahideen Commando Freedom Fighters (MCFF) while breaking away from MNLF in the process (2). However, the group was eventually renamed into 'Abu Sayyaf' as an homage to the Afghan resistance leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, meaning “Father of the Swordsman”.
Under his leadership, Janjalani aimed to make Abu Sayyaf an organized and hierarchical jihadist organization in the Southern Philipines. The plan was to have a military arm called Mujahideen Al-Sharifullah with three armed divisions to execute terrorist attacks (3). Those three groups consist of a demolition unit, a mobile force team, and a propaganda team (4). Though in the 90s Abu Sayyaf successfully carried out attacks, Janjalani’s plan never fully came to fruition due to his death. Janjalani’s death marks a turning point for Abu Sayyaf as the insurgency's members then shifted their methods from traditional bombings and attacks to kidnappings, murders, robberies, and drug dealing.
Despite the unanimous consensus that Abdurajak Janjalani founded Abu Sayyaf, the group’s genesis has been disputed by many. One of the theories that sprouted during the 90s was that the military allegedly formed Abu Sayyaf to infiltrate the group’s ranks, in order to act as a puppet for the Armed Forces of the Philipines (5). Other sources, nonetheless, allege that the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) was the main source of Abu Sayyaf’s establishment with the support of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (6). All institutions said to be involved in Abu Sayyaf's formation have denied all allegations.
Objectives & Ideology
During the leadership of Abdurajak Janjalani, Abu Sayyaf focused on establishing an independent Moro Province while spreading Wahhabism in the process. Though still maintaining its religious ideology, the group experienced a shift in methods and goals after the death of Abdurajik Janjalani. When his brother Khadaffy Janjalani took over the reins, Abu Sayyaf started implementing tactics such as kidnappings and ransoms, signaling that their goals were more focused on financial profit (7). With this presumed shift in motivation, in the 21st century, Abu Sayyaf has been portrayed more as a criminal organization rather than an insurgency with political motives.
In 2014, the group published a video pledging its allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (8). They have officially established themselves as the East Asia province of the Islamic State.
Military Abilities & Approach to Resistance
Abu Sayyaf is considered to be one of the most violent terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia. Their tactics include bombings, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, and even drug trafficking. In regard to recruitment, the group utilizes money, fame, and protection against other ethnic groups as its primary recruiting tool (9).
During the leadership of Abdurajik Janjalani, the group regularly organized large-scale attacks and bombings. Most notably in 1995, Janjalani led Abu Sayyaf into the Ipil Massacre. Abu Sayyaf militants arrived in the municipality of Ipil on the 4th of April 1995 by boat and bus and, once they arrived, around 200 gunmen open fired on locals, strafed residential areas, robbed banks, held 30 people hostage, and burned the city center to the ground (10). The militants fled to the mountains, pursued by military commandos while looting farms and using civilians as human shields (11). In the aftermath, more than 100 people were killed, including the Ipil Police chief, and around one billion pesos were looted from eight banks (12).
Abu Sayyaf is also responsible for one of the worst terrorist attacks in the Philipines, having bombed the MV Superferry 14 in 2004 after it was perpetrated by a suicide bomber, killing 116 people including children (13). The attack was a form of protest against what the group perceived as the discrimination of Muslim communities in the Philippines.
One of the group’s more ideologically-driven operations took place in 2019 when they bombed a Roman Catholic cathedral in Jolo, Southern Philipines. The attacks were allegedly a response to the Armed Forces operations against the group and also the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (14). This attack prompted the President at the time, Rodrigo Duterte, to declare all-out war on Abu Sayyaf.
A recent operation that the group executed was the kidnapping of four Indonesian citizens for ransom. The victims were kidnapped in Tambisan Lahad Datu, Malaysia, on the 16th of January 2020 and held hostage until being rescued on March 18th, 2021 (15). These kinds of tactics have been one of the main sources of the group’s income. What they get out of it can range from $650,000 USD to $16,000,000 USD, giving it their needed funding for weapons, drugs, and resources for future endeavors.
International Relations and Alliances
Since Abu Sayyaf’s genesis, the group has been establishing local coalitions in Jolo’s numerous districts. Specifically, the group has received support from the municipalities of Patikul, Talipao, and Indanan.
Abu Sayyaf also has ties with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian terrorist organization responsible for the Bali bombings. The two groups share the same jihadist ideology despite having completely different approaches to resistance. The two groups' cooperation comes in the form of arms trading, money, logistical support, and the provision of safe havens for each other’s members (16). According to international terrorism expert Professor Rohan Gunarathna, Abu Sayyaf has collaborated with Jemaah Islamiyah on many operations. He even claims that Jemaah Islamiyah taught Abu Sayyaf members how to make bombs (17).
In recent years, as aforementioned, Abu Sayyaf has also pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State (declaring themselves as the Islamic State East Asia Province in 2014). Since then, the group’s kidnappings and attacks have been in the name of the Islamic State.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - FABE, A. P. (2013). The Cost of Terrorism: Bombings by the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines. Philippine Sociological Review, 61(1), 229–250. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43486362
(2) - Ibid
(3) - Banlaoi, R. C. (2006). THE ABU SAYYAF GROUP: From Mere Banditry to Genuine Terrorism. Southeast Asian Affairs, 247–262. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27913313
(4) - Eduardo F. Ugarte (2008) The Alliance System of the Abu Sayyaf, 1993–2000, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 31:2, 125-144, DOI: 10.1080/10576100701812902
(5) - Banlaoi, R. C. (2006). THE ABU SAYYAF GROUP: From Mere Banditry to Genuine Terrorism. Southeast Asian Affairs, 247–262. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27913313
(6) - Ibid
(7) - FABE, A. P. (2013). The Cost of Terrorism: Bombings by the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines. Philippine Sociological Review, 61(1), 229–250. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43486362
(8) - Kalicharan, V. S. (2019). An Evaluation of the Islamic State’s Influence over the Abu Sayyaf. Perspectives on Terrorism, 13(5), 90–101. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26798580
(9) - Smith, S. A. (2015). Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Case of the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep09456
(10) - “Scene of Carnage in 1995 Now Peaceful Community (Food for Thought by Manny Piñol).” Mindanao Journal, 1 Apr. 2022,
(11) - Castello, J, (1995, April). “Gunmen Raid Philippine Town, 100 Dead”. Times-Union. 12 “Scene of Carnage in 1995 Now Peaceful Community (Food for Thought by Manny Piñol).” Mindanao Journal, 1 Apr. 2022.
(12) -“Scene of Carnage in 1995 Now Peaceful Community (Food for Thought by Manny Piñol).” Mindanao Journal, 1 Apr. 2022,
(13) - “The 2004 Superferry 14 Incident: Hope Bigger than Fear.” SUNSTAR, 2 Mar. 2019, www.sunstar.com.ph/article/1795053/cagayan-de-oro/feature/the-2004-superferry-14-incident-ho pe-bigger-than-fear. Accessed 15 Feb. 2023.
(14) - Press, Associated. “20 Dead after Bombing of Cathedral in Southern Philippines.” Thediplomat.com, 29 Jan. 2019,
(15) - “Konsulat Jenderal Republik Indonesia Davao City Republik Filipina.” Kementerian Luar Negeri Repulik Indonesia, 2019,
kemlu.go.id/davaocity/id/news/11917/penyelamatan-4-wni-sandera-abu-sayyaf-kidnapped-for-ra nsom-oleh-aparat-keamanan-philipina-di-south-ubian-dan-barangay-kalupag-provinsi-tawi-tawi. Accessed 15 Feb. 2023.
(16) - Smith, S. A. (2015). Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Case of the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiyah. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep09456
(17) - Armandhanu, Denny. “Jejak Hubungan Abu Sayyaf-Jemaah Islamiyah.” Internasional, Oct. 2014,
www.cnnindonesia.com/internasional/20141017153800-106-6737/jejak-hubungan-abu-sayyaf-je maah-islamiyah. Accessed 15 Feb. 2023.