Islamic Studies Abu Sayyaf Group
Vivienne S. M. Angeles
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0146


The Abu Sayyaf, also known as Al-Harakat al-Islamiyah (Islamic movement), is one of several Muslim movements seeking to establish an Islamic state in the southern Philippines. However, their violent activities directed randomly at private citizens and lack of ideological grounding have generated questions on the nature and purposes of the organization. Stories on the genesis of the Abu Sayyaf vary, with some media reports asserting that it was created by the Philippine military as a way of infiltrating Muslim movements and others claiming that its founder was genuinely motivated to establish an Islamic state. Sources, however, are in agreement regarding Abu Sayyaf’s founder, Abdurazak Janjalani, a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who studied in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan and who left the MNLF because he felt that its chairman, Nur Misuari, was pursuing a secular path in the group’s quest for an independent Muslim state. Janjalani was also reported to have fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The name Abu Sayyaf, meaning “father of the swordsman,” was Janjalani’s nom de guerre, which, in turn, is derived from the name of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Janjalani’s mentor at a training camp in Afghanistan. While still organizing the movement in the early 1990s, Janjalani also preached at the mosques in Basilan and Zamboanga and those discourses are major sources of information on Janjalani’s ideological leanings. A major focus of his sermons was pursuing jihad fi sabil lillah (struggle in the path of God), including martyrdom, which he believed to be the only way to achieve a pure Islamic state. Janjalani demonstrated his anti-Christian sentiments in attacking Christian missionaries and launching campaigns against Christian symbols. He led the movement for less than a decade and was killed in an encounter with the police in 1998. His brother, Khaddafy Janjalani, took over the leadership but multiple factions developed within the group, especially after Khaddafy’s death in a clash with the military. In the 1980s, the Abu Sayyaf was reported to have received financial support from the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), which was run by Mohammad Khalifa, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden. In recent times, the Abu Sayyaf has gained notoriety for its tactic of kidnapping, especially foreign nationals, to secure ransom monies. The ransom payments fund the movement and its members. Studies show linkages of the Abu Sayyaf group with both al-Qaeda and the Jamiah Islamiah of Indonesia, in terms of funding and training, as well as with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. The United States lists the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist organization, and its operations, together with its transnational linkages, are major reasons that, since 11 September 2001, US military aid has been extended to the Philippines.

General Overviews

Works focusing on the Abu Sayyaf have multiplied in the last ten years. Banlaoi 2008, a compilation of essays on the group, was published online by the nongovernmental organization Philippine Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. Gunaratna 2001 provides a concise introduction to the Abu Sayyaf. Chalk 2001, Abuza 2003, and Gross 2007 look at the Abu Sayyaf within the context of separatist movements in Southeast Asia while Wadi 1996 and Tan 2003 situate the Abu Sayyaf within Philippine Muslim movements that aim for a separate state but employ different methods to attain a similar goal. Scholars writing on the subject use the same materials, including military reports that are at times conflicting. Ugarte 2008 explains that this reliance is due to the lack of primary sources concerning the Abu Sayyaf, particularly on the organization and ideology of the group. The death of Abu Sayyaf’s founder, Abdul Razzak Janjalani, in less than a decade after the group’s formation and the fact that most of his discourses in his native Tausug language have neither been translated nor published further exacerbates the problem of sources.

  • Abuza, Zachary. Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

    Provides general information on the Abu Sayyaf as one of the radical groups operating in Southeast Asia and notes the group’s transformation from “parochial jihadis” to international terrorists. Also discussed are state responses to terrorism.

  • Banlaoi, Rommel. Al-Harakatul al-Islamiyyah: Essays on the Abu Sayyaf Group. Quezon City, Philippines: Philippines Institute for Political Violence and Terrorism (PIPVTR), 2008.

    Includes four previously published essays that have been revised and updated. Looks at the evolution of the Abu Sayyaf within the context of terrorism in the Philippines. Useful for both undergraduates and graduate students studying the movement.

  • Chalk, Peter. “Separatism and Southeast Asia: The Islamic Factor in Southern Thailand, Mindanao and Aceh.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 24 (2001): 241–269.

    DOI: 10.1080/10576100116748

    A comparative study that views armed separatism in Southeast Asia as displaying similar local causes. Aceh is seen as the most volatile of the three cases, which will have long-term implications for the members of the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) and the region.

  • Gross, Max L. A Muslim Archipelago. Washington, DC: National Defense Intelligence College, 2007.

    Provides the historical contexts in which insurgency in four countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand) developed. The chapter on the Philippines discusses the approaches of Philippine presidents, from Marcos to Arroyo, to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and Abu Sayyaf. Good comparative introduction for undergraduates and nonspecialists.

  • Gunaratna, Rohan. “The Evolution and Tactics of the Abu Sayyaf Group.” Jane’s Intelligence Review (July 2001): 29–32.

    Useful introduction to the Abu Sayyaf, including beginnings, activities, foreign linkages, financial networks, and activities.

  • Tan, Samuel K. Internationalization of the Bangsamoro Struggle. Quezon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, 2003.

    Offers a “tentative” assessment of the origins, objectives, ideology, and method of struggle of the Abu Sayyaf using Abu Sayyaf documents and pronouncements. The first edition of the book was published in 1995 and the present edition includes a chapter on the Abu Sayyaf. The bibliographic essay should have been updated.

  • Ugarte, Eduardo F. “The Alliance System of the Abu Sayyaf, 1993–2000.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31 (2008): 125–144.

    DOI: 10.1080/10576100701812902

    Uses Thomas Kiefer’s theoretical framework for analyzing the alliance system of the Abu Sayyaf. Notes issues regarding the use of intelligence reports that, at times, depend on the purposes of the issuing agency.

  • Wadi, Julkipli. “Philippine Political Islam and the Emerging Fundamentalist Strand.” Social Science Information 24 (January–June 1996): 26–34.

    Views the Abu Sayyaf within the context of Philippine Muslim movements and considers it as constituting a fundamentalist strand.

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