President Rodrigo Duterte strikes his signature pose with officers and personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines during his visit at the Kuta Heneral Teodulfo Bautista Headquarters in Jolo, Sulu on Dec. 14, 2019. RICHARD MADELO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

“We are the wrong tool to address the Abu Sayyaf Group problem,” Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said in one of the journalism lectures organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) this month for university students.

Zagala, spokesman of the Philippine Army, spoke the truth, one of basic principles he had learned from attending strategic communications courses in the United States. He shared the views of Jordanian journalist Baker Atyani that local government officials hold the key in ending lawlessness on the southern island of Jolo.

Atyani, who has interviewed Islamist militant leaders, like the late Osama bin Laden of al Qaeda, spent about 18 months in the jungles of Patikul from mid-2012 until December 2013 under captivity by a group under Hatid Hajan Sawadjaan, a sub-leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Sawadjaan’s group pledged allegiance to the Middle East-based Islamic State in 2018 after Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged “emir” of the local branch of Islamist militants, was killed in Marawi during a five-month conflict.

However, Atyani believes the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines is far from being an Islamist. “They know very little about Islam, they are only after money,” he told the annual Teodoro Benigno Journalism lecture, organized by foreign correspondents in Manila.

The Abu Sayyaf Group did not even listen to a prominent Egyptian preacher who had appealed to them to free Atyani. The preacher sent a message in Arabic that was translated into Tausug. Atyani said the leader of the Abu Sayyaf did not pay attention to the appeal, saying “I don’t care, I need money.”

Atyani said the Abu Sayyaf group even ambushed a party of the Nur Misuari-led Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that tried to rescue him. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had also unsuccessfully tried to free him. Sawadjaan’s group even refused to heed orders from Radulan Sahiron to transfer him to his camp in Patikul, Atyani added.

Sahiron is a local folk hero and lost an arm fighting for the MNLF in the 1970s. Two decades later, he broke away from Misuari’s group when the MNLF agreed to talk peace with the government, and joined the Abu Sayyaf, which was organized by another former MNLF rebel, Basilan-based Abdurajak Janjalani, who saw action in Afghanistan in the 1980s .

Sahiron rose to prominence in the 2000s when the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 Western tourists and Malaysians working for a resort in Sipadan. The United States State Department has placed a bounty of up to $1 million on his head. He is the only remaining Abu Sayyaf leader with a bounty in the southern Philippines.

Atyani went to the southern Philippines to film the Abu Sayyaf for a documentary about the Muslim problem in the country. But, instead of getting a story, he became the story. His experience with the Abu Sayyaf Group in Patikul could give the Philippine government a lesson on how to address the lawlessness in the south.

The Abu Sayyaf continued to operate in the south unhampered because of some push and pull factors. The communities around the group provided protection because the people were either related to the armed group or got benefits from illegal activities. Those who were not related and benefit from the group cooperated out of fear.

Outside the communities, Atyani said, the group got some protection from local government officials, who hired them as bodyguards during elections or as members of a private army group to intimidate, threaten or attack political foes.

Atyani also suspected the Abu Sayyaf had support from some corrupt police and military forces, who supplied them with ammunition. He saw crates of bullets with marked with “Government Arsenal” inside rebel camps. “These people cannot fight, cannot move around and operate without support from some local officials and from the communities,” he said.

Atyani also observed that there was under development in the area where the Abu Sayyaf operated. There were no opportunities for the people to grow and improve their lives, and the children lacked education and basic health services. There were no roads and he never saw a television set during his captivity. “They do not know what’s happening around the world, they know some names but they have little understanding of everything.”

When Janjalani organized the Abu Sayyaf Group in early 1990s, it had an ideology. It was Islamist. After his death in the late 1990s, the group became lawless and engaged in criminal activities, like extortion, kidnap-for-ransom and becoming guns for hire. “They became mercenaries, they became an Abu Sayyaf Group for everyone who had money to manipulate them. They will fight for you as you have money to support them,” Atyani said.

Atyani believed that the Abu Sayyaf was not a genuine Islamist militant group. The Islamic State had no direct link with them. It had no ideology. Its activities were un-Islamic. It only copied the practices of Islamic State in the Middle East. It was pure banditry, employing brutal and violent, terrorist activities.

If local officials only did their jobs, the lawlessness in the south would be addressed effectively. If the conditions that enabled the Abu Sayyaf to exist are addressed, there will be no peace and order problem in the south.

Just like fighting the communist insurgency and street crimes, including illegal drugs, the Abu Sayyaf problem can be defeated. Inequality, injustice, ignorance must be eliminated. Government must be visible and working.

Zagala was right. The military cannot solve lawlessness alone. Soldiers are trained to fix and fight but the conditions that fuel rebellion must be handled by the civilian government. As long as the government is absent in far-flung, remote and undeveloped communities, the vacuum will be filled in by lawless groups that only understand the power of the gun over reason.

As long as the people do not see and feel the presence of the government in their communities, lawless groups – whether the New People’s Army, the Abu Sayyaf Group and even drug syndicates – will persist.