The notorious Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines remain a threat to tourism in the region one year after their abduction of mostly foreigners holidaying in neighboring Malaysia, officials say.
Following a massive military assault, all the foreigners from the 21 hostages taken from the Sipadan island resort exactly a year ago on Monday have been freed.
But the Abu Sayyaf rebels continue to lurk for prey from their base in the remote island of Jolo facing the extensive Sulu and Celebes Seas.
As the Philippine government marks the anniversary of the Sipadan abductions with a pledge to “annihilate” the Abu Sayyaf, the bandits remain well-entrenched in Jolo island and even continue to taunt Manila with their open defiance.
Officials familiar with the protracted negotiations that led to the release of most of the hostages last year said the Abu Sayyaf would remain a threat unless impoverished Jolo was developed to rid itself of a generations-old “gun culture.”
“The Abu Sayyaf is just a name. You take them out, another group of successors will rise because there are many guns and bandits in Jolo,” said Ernesto Pacuno, alias Commander Dragon, who nearly lost his life in an ambush while negotiating for the release of the hostages.
“Besides, I don’t think the army would be able to destroy them,” said Pacuno, a retired police colonel who once served in Jolo.
“The problem is an endless cycle because they enjoy mastery of the terrain and the villagers protect them,” he said.
Pacuno advised the government to speed up the implementation of livelihood projects in Jolo, only minutes by speed boat from Malaysia’s Sabah state, a popular tourist destination.
The Abu Sayyaf took the hostages from Sipadan off Sabah last year and brought them to Jolo, from where they again took more foreigners, including journalists covering the kidnapping saga, and locals as captives.
It is believed huge ransoms were paid for their release. Only one hostage, Filipino scuba diving instructor, Roland Ullah, remains in Abu Sayyaf custody.
None of the Abu Sayyaf leaders have been caught even though the government launched a military drive to get them at all costs. In fact, some warn, the group could emerge stronger if unemployed youths join them to eke out a living.
Without jobs to keep them busy and guns easily accessible, the young men in Jolo would likely join the Abu Sayyaf rebels, Pacuno predicted.
Officials say the Abu Sayyaf rebels enjoy strong mass support in far-flung Jolo towns where they are revered as modern day Robin Hoods by the poor villagers, a situation that has made tracking them down next to impossible.
In a broadcast over local radio last week, Abu Sayyaf leader Abu Sabaya boasted they had bought military hardware and that 10 soldiers were no match for a single rebel.
Amid the military assault, the Philippines has asked Malaysia to monitor its borders as fleeing rebels could seek refuge there.
The United States, one of whose citizens was freed this month from Abu Sayyaf captivity, is also not taking chances. Its State Department has asked Americans to steer clear of island resorts off Sabah, saying they were vulnerable to Abu Sayyaf raids.
Marine commander Colonel Renato Miranda acknowledged that winning the support of Jolo’s local communities was the key to crushing the Abu Sayyaf.