SANDAKAN, Malaysia — Relations between the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are souring as the Filipino rebel factions increasingly differ on strategy for the pursuit of a homeland for indigenous people and the broader Islamic community.
The pair occupy the tiny island haven of Jolo in the Sulu Sea where sources said the more conservative MNLF are increasingly irritated by an escalation in violence in the region baring all the hallmarks of the Abu Sayyaf.
“The MNLF is up the hill and the Abu Sayyaf is down the hill and that’s the way they prefer it,” one long-time observer with links to the MNLF said. “They don’t want to meet and many locals associated with MNLF would rather be off the island at the moment.”
That sentiment was echoed here in Sandakan as well as up and down the northeast coast of Borneo, where thousands of Filipinos have arrived and are waiting out an upsurge in violence, fearing the Abu Sayyaf are re-emerging as a force to be reckoned with.
A command conference of MNLF leaders was recently held on Jolo, with more than 1,000 senior members re-affirming a peace deal granting limited autonomy that it signed with the Philippine government in 1996. Not everybody agreed with that deal when it was signed. MNFL defections helped fill the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf while the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) emerged and continued the push for an independent homeland on neighbouring Mindanao. (See today’s WPR briefing.)
Another agreement was reached last year with Manila, but was scuttled by the Philippine Supreme court in August. Since then the bloodshed has erupted in waves, with the Abu Sayyaf claiming responsibility for its signature bombings of civilian targets and high profile kidnappings, including Red Cross workers.
A Mindanao source described the attitude of the Abu Sayyaf toward the MNLF as, “Mind your own business. I protect you and you protect me. Anyway we are fighting the same enemy here, and the only difference is we make a little money at the same time by taking people hostage.”
Often dismissed as bandits and extortionists, Abu Sayyaf rebels have an unsavory reputation for their role in a spate of kidnappings and murders of Western tourists, beginning on the Malaysian island of Sipadan in 2000.
They were also closely linked with regional terrorist outfit Jemaah Islamiyah as well as al-Qaida, while the MNLF enjoyed a formal relationship with the much respected Organisation of Islamic Conference.
“There is also another generation of younger kids coming along. They have no education, no jobs, and no money and they more closely identify with the Abu Sayyaf,” the MNLF source said. “These young men are making a lot of people nervous. The next generation of militants has arrived.”