Abu Sayyaf (also known as Al Harakat al Islamiyya) ranks as the most prominent of a number of Islamic separatist groups operating in the southern Philippines. It seeks an independent state, free of the remainder of the Philippines (which is largely Christian), and follow an ethos of radical Islamic teaching similar to those of many Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
It began as a splinter group, breaking off from the larger Moro National Liberation Front (which has since ceased its activities following a negotiated treaty with the Filipino government) in the early 1990s. Under the leadership of Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, it launched a recurring campaign of bombings, kidnappings, political assassinations, and extortion. Its first large-scale operation involved an amphibious assault on the town of Ipil, followed by a string of widely publicized kidnappings and bombings. Janjalani died in battle with Filipino police in 1998, and was replaced by his younger brother Khadaffy.
Under the young Janjalani, Abu Sayyaf began to move away from its religious motivations, acting more out of profit and adopting tactics closer to those of traditional criminals. In May of 2000, it seized a diving resort in Sipadan in Malaysia, claiming multiple hostages before fleeing to a stronghold on another island. Similar incidents continued throughout the early years of the 21st century, including the abduction of American tourists from a Philippine resort in 2001 and the destruction of Superferry 14 in 2004, which killed 116 people. Khadaffy Janjalani died during a gun battle in 2006, and Filipino authorities exhumed his body buried in the jungle a few months later. No one is entirely certain who controls the group now, though the State Department considers Radullan Sahiron (known as Commander Putol) and his son Ismin Sahiron (known as IS) the likely candidates.
The State Department estimates that about 400 people belong to Abu Sayyaf, mostly scattered among the southern islands of the Philippines. Its internal structure remains a mystery, though it emphasizes semi-autonomous factions who can act more or less independently of each other. Under the Janjalanis, Abu Sayyaf enjoyed close ties with Sheikh Mohammed who belong to Al-Qaeda. It receives funding from a variety of radical Islamic groups-most prominently Jemmah Islamiya in nearby Indonesia, but also from Middle Eastern groups as well. Its movement towards overt criminal activity under Khadaffy Janjalani may have stemmed from a need for more financial resources.