19 June 2008


Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:33:00 06/20/2008

MANILA, Philippines—The tale of betrayal that television journalist Ces Drilon and other ex-hostages hinted at after their release is chilling, because it raises the specter of official perfidy. But even the possibility that local officials or so-called pillars of the local community were involved in the kidnapping pales beside the revelation, made by Drilon and Sen. Loren Legarda, who helped negotiate the release, that the abductors were M I N O R S.

“They were VERY YOUNG—15 to 17 YEARS OLD,” Legarda told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, recounting her experience negotiating with them over the phone. “They cannot talk at length, they are not communicative and they have not been schooled.”

She recalled that Drilon and Jimmy Encarnacion, the ABS-CBN cameraman who was held captive for nine days, also told her that, at one crisis point, when their abductors seemed determined to behead Encarnacion, it was a 12-year-old who was holding the bolo.

After Drilon, Encarnacion and Octavio Dinampo, a professor at Mindanao State University, Jolo, who served as guide, were released, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita zeroed in on the disturbing aspect of the abductors’ extreme youth. “These are the younger people—probably the sons of some Abu Sayyaf organizers.”

They may or may not be, but of this we can be certain: They are the next generation of the Abu Sayyaf. When the bandit group reached the peak of worldwide notoriety in April 2000, with the daring raid on Sipadan (an island claimed by both Indonesia and Malaysia), Drilon’s kidnappers were only 8 to 10 years old. When another faction of the Abu Sayyaf swooped down on Dos Palmas resort in Palawan in May 2001 and abducted, among many others, the missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham, the boy who held the bolo was then only 5 years old.

How did they turn out this way?

Ermita, himself a former peace negotiator, ventured an answer: “... they think that they’re doing something to push forward the tenets of Islam. That is not true but that is how they’re oriented in the same manner that the followers of Bin Laden refer to the West as infidels.”

Valid, up to a point, but we should not commit the error of mistaking the Abu Sayyaf’s ruthlessness for religious or nationalistic fervor.

While it is true that the top leaders of the group—the Janjalani brothers, for instance, or the obnoxious Abu Sabaya—wrapped the mantle of religious devotion or pan-Islamism around themselves, the Abu Sayyaf, despite its name, has always been an opportunistic band, a bandit group. Many reports in its early years refer even to possible transactions with the military.

Opportunism is the real tie that binds the Abu Sayyaf, not an abiding fundamentalist commitment to the Islamic faith, not the ambition to forge an Islamic state in Southeast Asia.

The hundreds of millions of pesos that came its way in the early years of the 21st century explain the Abu Sayyaf’s organizational strength at that time; the ransoms that were paid for the foreign tourists kidnapped in Sipadan and then shipped to Sulu, or for the hostages who unaccountably escaped to freedom during the siege of the Lamitan hospital in Basilan, were funneled back into the underground economy. Indeed, the high-speed fishing boats that the Abu Sayyaf used in the Palawan raid were most probably bought using Sipadan ransom money.

The possibility that some leading personalities in parts of Sulu may have been involved in the kidnapping of Drilon and company (the Philippine National Police even says the personalities may have masterminded the abduction) needs to be seriously investigated. Fact must be separated from speculation. But that the possibility exists at all should not be a surprise. The Abu Sayyaf culture is opportunistic; it follows the money. Indeed, that cynical local leaders may exploit the new generation is not only possible but almost certain.

Flashback to last week: When the news of the Drilon kidnapping spread, it was reported that many young people in parts of Sulu were lining up to join the Abu Sayyaf. The common reason: They wanted to share in the bounty of the expected ransom.
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