- The Neo Abu Sayyaf: Criminality in the Sulu Archipelago of the Republic of the Philippines by Bob East
The Neo Abu Sayyaf: Criminality in the Sulu Archipelago Of the Republic of the Philippines
Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2016. 136 pages.
Bob East is an independent researcher with a PhD in International Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. His previous works on the topic of criminality and the Abu Sayyaf include Terror Truncated: The Decline of the Abu Sayyaf from the Crucial Year 2002 (2013) and 472 Days Captive of the Abu Sayyaf: The Survival of the Australian Warren Rodwell (2015).
The question of whether fundamentalism can be used as an ideological smokescreen—purported end justifying means—for acts such as kidnapping, bombings, extortion, and murder has long been a subject of intense scholarly debate, more so in the case of scholars of conflict in the southern Philippines. East's The Neo Abu Sayyaf: Criminality in the Sulu Archipelago of the Republic of the Philippines queries whether the Abu Sayyaf Group's (ASG) activities in Basilan and the Sulu archipelago are a case of national terrorism, national insurgency, a combination of both, or something in between. East argues that in the early 2000s the ASG's poor leadership and eventual fragmentation caused its shift from having a primary ideological motivation to focusing on profiteering from a range of criminal activities. Hence, the term "neo" or "new" Abu Sayyaf. This position is neither novel [End Page 111] nor uncontroversial; such has been the stance taken by some members of the Philippine security establishment, scholars studying the region, and the mainstream media long before the book's publication. What is new, however, is the book's assertion that the shift from an ideological struggle to full-scale criminal profiteering was abrupt. From its original formation in the 1990s, the ASG by 2000 had already focused on kidnapping and extortion, with the original goal of self-determination taking a back seat (3).
The Neo Abu Sayyaf is a valuable attempt at synthesizing what has been a confusing array of publicly available information on the ASG, which corresponds to the increase in the amount of violence and criminality attributed to the group. On an almost weekly basis since the early 2000s, reports of clashes, kidnappings, and brutal beheadings have abounded in both local and foreign media (especially when foreign nationals are involved), making the issue too complex for the ordinary reader to follow. In addition, until recently no dedicated work has examined how the ever-changing ASG leadership structure has shaped its activities.
This book begins by reviewing the historical antecedents of the conflict in Mindanao by looking at how the Roman Catholic Church and a slew of policies of deliberate minoritization of Muslims by various colonial and Philippine administrations have contributed to Muslim resentment and consequently have influenced the ASG's choice of victims (32). While this argument is sound, the same cannot be said for the recent conduct of local Catholic prelates; the author fails to argue convincingly that their attitude remains salient in the ASG's decision to target Christians.
Chapters 2 to 5 flesh out the main argument: that the ASG has evolved from a group of separatists dissatisfied with the peace process between the Philippine government and the erstwhile separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to a band of wily but highly successful criminals. Chapters 3 and 5 provide a comprehensive listing of kidnappings and killings committed by the group as well as of dead ASG leaders, lieutenants, and their replacements, evincing both the level of attention that the Philippine state has placed on its activities and how dynamic and decentralized the ASG has been.
What is unclear, however, is the extent to which criminal activities have replaced the ASG's ideological aim and the abruptness of this shift. This issue places the book squarely within the huge debate about the relativity and exercise of epistemic power in using labels such as "terrorist" and "terrorism." [End Page 112] Although the book recognizes that the labels "bandits" and "terrorists" attached to the ASG gained currency only...