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Analysts Probe Whether Abu Sayyaf Has Pledged Allegiance To ISIS


And I'm Steve Inskeep with questions about the loyalties of an extremist group. The group is in the Philippines. Reports say that the militant group has killed a Canadian hostage today, after a ransom payment was not made. Back in April, this same group beheaded another Canadian. The hostage takers are from a group called Abu Sayyaf, a onetime affiliate of al-Qaida. Some now say the group is leaning toward the Islamic State. Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It'd be easy to dismiss the Abu Sayyaf as common criminals, the remnants of a once formidable group hunted down by U.S. special forces and the Philippine army after 9/11. It would be easy, but it might be a mistake.

SIDNEY JONES: Yes, it's been a mistake for a long time to write them off.

SULLIVAN: That's Sidney Jones. She tracks Southeast Asia militant groups as director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. Yes, the Abu Sayyaf was driven from their stronghold on the southern island of Basilan, she says, but then they came back.

JONES: After fracturing into about seven different factions, some of them began moving back to Basilan. And now when we're looking at where ISIS support is strongest in the southern Philippines, it's actually on Basilan, the site of the U.S. triumphant victory in eradicating Abu Sayyaf forces.


SULLIVAN: In January, four militant groups banded together to declare their allegiance to ISIS in the slickly produced video that shows a well-armed line of soldiers marching through the jungle, swearing their fealty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


ISNILON HAPILON: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: One of the men who spoke was Isnilon Hapilon, one of Abu Sayyaf's longtime leaders still wanted by the U.S. government.

MARIA RESSA: He was always their ideological leader. He's the guy who declared allegiance to ISIS. And he's been made the leader of four other groups now preparing to become a wilayah or a province of ISIS.

SULLIVAN: Maria Ressa is with Rappler in Manila and the author of a book about Southeast Asia terror groups. And, says Sidney Jones in Jakarta...

JONES: Unlike Indonesia, the Philippines ISIS supporters actually control territory on Basilan, which raises the prospect - this could turn into a regional training center. It raises the prospect - this could be a refuge.

SULLIVAN: And that territory? They seem to be willing to fight to keep it.


SULLIVAN: In April, the Philippines armed forces got mauled in a pitched battle with Islamist militants on Basilan, a fight the militants claimed to have captured on this video. At least 19 soldiers were killed. Five rebels died. And in this and other recent battles, not all the rebel dead were Filipino.

BOOGIE MENDOZA: There was a Moroccan who was killed in Basilan. There was an Indonesian killed in (unintelligible). There was a Malaysian killed in Basilan also and others.

SULLIVAN: Boogie Mendoza is a former police general with lots of counterinsurgency experience in the southern Philippines. To this day, he says, his government still won't admit ISIS exists in the country, that the old actors have new friends. Maria Ressa.

RESSA: If you think about ISIS as a virus, the virus is here. And if the conditions that are conducive to the growth of this virus remain, then it will grow.

SULLIVAN: Nobody is suggesting ISIS will eventually overrun the southern Philippines. But Ressa says that doesn't mean the local wannabes aren't a threat here and in neighboring Indonesia. There hasn't been a mass casualty attack in the region for more than a decade. The last, the 2004 SuperFerry bombing in the Philippines - more than 100 people were killed. The culprit? Abu Sayyaf. For NPR news, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.

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