[Jakarta, 22 December 2022] Extremist violence in Basilan and Sulu, strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the southern Philippines, has decreased substantially since the 2017 Marawi siege. In the past, various ASG factions, driven by a desire for status, income, and revenge, have shown a remarkable ability for regeneration after military crackdowns. This time, ASG members may have changed their calculus in light of a 2017 shift in military strategy that has focused more on incentives for surrender and reintegration of ASG fighters than on combat alone.
Decline in Violence by the Abu Sayyaf Group and Ongoing Risks, the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), examines factors that led to the decline of ASG-related violence and assesses the implementation of the surrender and reintegration programs for ASG members in Sulu and Basilan provinces.
“The Philippines government is confident that the ASG is on its last legs,” says Deka Anwar, IPAC researcher, “but it is too soon to know where the surrenderees will end up or how many of them will remain inactive. It would be a major mistake to write them off as no longer a threat.”
After the Marawi siege in 2017, intensified military operations killed or captured prominent ASG leaders from both kidnapping and pro-ISIS factions. This led to a marked decline in violence, first in Basilan and then in Sulu. However, previous declarations of victory against the ASG based on incident counts proved premature. In 2014, the U.S. and Philippines Joint Special Operation was also pronounced as a success following a similar drop in violence, only for the ASG to regroup a few months later and resume deadly attacks.
Three things set these new efforts apart from failed crackdowns against the ASG in the past. First, a global decline in ISIS may make it difficult for the group’s ideological factions to seek new recruits or obtain funding from abroad. Second, the peace process with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has progressed much further, making it harder for ASG fighters to seek shelter within rebel strongholds. Third, unlike past efforts that focused on eliminating the ASG as a criminal group, this time, military operations are being followed through with a much broader effort to deal with it as a social entity, by encouraging surrenders and offering alternative livelihoods to former combatants.
As of late 2022, more than 350 ASG members in Basilan and 896 in Sulu have surrendered to the military. A majority of surrenderees in Basilan have been enrolled in reintegration programs facilitated by the local government, with support from non-government actors and international donors. Those who have given up arms in Sulu are confined in various military cantonments across the province, waiting for benefits promised to them.
So far, these factors have managed to prevent the ASG from regrouping. However, the risks of resurgence remain due to the lack of a legal framework guaranteeing the safety of ASG surrenderees who have standing warrants against them; the military’s dominant role in managing reintegration programs that is creating friction with the police and local governments; and uncertainty over availability of funding.
“The question is what would happen to the ASG surrenderees once these programs phase out?” says Anwar. “Without sustainable livelihood assistance, they would be exposed to the risk of recidivism or joining other ASG factions that are still conducting sporadic attacks.”