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Philippine Rebel Tactics Shifted After Chief Died

Group Now a Band of Kidnappers, Locals Say


By Thomas Fuller    International Herald Tribune

JOLO, Philippines - When Abdurajak Janjalani was killed by the police in a shoot-out 17 months ago, many here thought the reign of terror that he presided over for almost a decade - the bombings, kidnappings and massacres - was over.

''Now my people can live in peace,'' Wahab Akbar, governor of nearby Basilan Province, said when he saw Mr. Janjalani's bullet-riddled corpse in December 1998. ''It is the end of the road for Janjalani. It is over, thank Allah.''

But today, with 21 hostages held in the hills behind this seaside town and other captives held on a nearby island, the movement that Mr. Janjalani left behind has shown its resilience, leaving the authorities here with a very basic question: Who are the remaining fighters and what do they want?

Mr. Janjalani, a Libyan-educated Islamic preacher, was the movement's ideological backbone, who fought for the creation of a separate Muslim state carved out of the Philippine archipelago.

While he was still alive, the group took on Mr. Janjalani's nickname, Abu Sayyaf, which means ''Bearer of the Sword'' in Arabic but is also a play on words referring to Mr. Janjalani's son, whose name is Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf also means ''Father of Sayyaf.''

A former rebel who knew Mr. Janjalani in Libya, Ibrahim Omar, said he was considered ''brilliant'' in school there and was admired by like-minded Filipino students, who believed in the creation of a separate state for the country's Muslims.

But since Mr. Janjalani's death, the Abu Sayyaf group has evolved into a disorganized, ragtag militia of professional kidnappers motivated by ransom money more than religious fervor, residents and officials on this island of coconut groves and fishing villages say.

Two weeks after abducting the 21, mostly foreign, hostages from a Malaysian diving resort, the group has yet to present its formal demands.

Yet it continues to kidnap local civilians - shopkeepers, schoolchildren and a bank teller who was released during the weekend - all the while eluding the thousands of Philippines security forces sent here to find and destroy them.

Abu Sayyaf's demands have been consistent, officials say.

''They have always resorted to financial considerations for the release of these hostages,'' said Abdusakur Tan, governor of the island. ''These people will snatch anyone they think will produce money.''

In the past, the group is believed to have received funding from sources outside the Philippines. According to the U.S. State Department, the group has ties to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi man alleged to have masterminded the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of organizing the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

But today, the group's main funding is believed to come from ransom money, according to Candido Casimiro Jr., the superindendent of police of Sulu Province. ''In the 1990s, millions of dollars were paid out for ransoms,'' he said.

Officials and local residents say the Abu Sayyaf group today is made up of a core of veterans and scores of younger fighters. The group is now led by Mr. Janjalani's brother, Khaddafi, who is said to be a weapons expert and is based on nearby Basilan Island.

Nelsa Amin, the head of the local hospital and one of the few people who has visited the 21 hostages and their captors, describes the group of kidnappers as ''mostly teenagers.'' The veterans, Mrs. Amin said, often squabbled in her presence.

Some of the youngsters are believed to be hired guns. According to the police superindendent, the group often hires local residents to help guard its hostages, a practice he calls ''local employment.''

''When the ransom comes in, they get some it,'' Mr. Casimiro said.

Yet police and military officials say the group is well-armed and fierce in battle.

''Although they are considered a lawless element, they are fighting like a military force,'' said General Narciso Abaya, who commands units in the area where the hostages are being held.

''They are very determined and ready to die,'' says Nur Misuari, a former rebel leader who signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996 and is now the governor of a four-province Muslim autonomous region. ''That is their asset.''

The heavily armed group is believed to have purchased some of their weapons from corrupt members of the Philippine Army and police force.

''We have 78,000 members of the armed forces and 129,000 Philippine national police,'' Mr. Casimiro said. ''They are not all angels.''

Some experts say the links between Abu Sayyaf rebels and the police are shadowy. Eliseo Mercado, a Roman Catholic priest who is president of Notre Dame University on Mindanao Island and a specialist in Muslim affairs, says he believes Khaddafi Janjalani is a police ''asset'' used by the government to give the Muslim cause a bad name.

''They appear and disappear usually when there are troubles to add to the confusion,'' he said of the Abu Sayyaf group. ''Their origin is dubious and mysterious.''

Mr. Mercado said Khaddafi Janjalani's escape from police detention in 1995, after being arrested and brought to police headquarters in Manila, lends credence to the notion that he is, or was, a police ''asset.''

Despite the various theories about the Abu Sayyaf group, several of its recent statements seem ideologically driven.

Last month, Abu Sayyaf rebels holding several dozen schoolchildren and teachers hostage, demanded the release of Muslim extremists held in U.S. jails for the World Trade Center bombing.

''We are warning the United States that if they ignore our demands, we will kill every American who sets foot in this province,'' said Abu Ahmad Salayuddin, a spokesman for the group.