The Abu Sayyaf, whose name means "Bearer of the Sword", was founded in 1991 under the leadership of Abduragak Abubakar Janjalani. Janjalani had studied in Libya and Saudi Arabia before training as a mujaheddin and fighting the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. It is at this time that the U.S. said he first met and worked with Osama Bin Laden.
In 1990, Janjalani returned to the Philippines and formed Abu Sayyaf from a radical splinter faction of the Muslim separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The Abu Sayyaf is believed to have been funded by al-Qaida in the early 1990s and bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, reportedly met directly with the group in its early years. The organization also has alleged ties to Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of coordinating the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
According to Abu Sayyaf, the group is fighting for a sovereign Islamic state in the southern Philippines. To fund its efforts, they have kidnapped Filipino and foreigners for ransom. Due to those acts, the Philippine government sees the group more as a band of pirates than a true political movement.
At its peak in 2000, the Abu Sayyaf was said to have close to 4,000 members. Numbers dwindled last year, and this January the government claimed that the recent military crackdown has reduced the group to less than 100 active fighters.
After a wave of small-scale bombing incidents and kidnappings between 1991 and 1994, the Abu Sayyaf launched its first full-scale attack in 1995. In April 1995, Abu Sayyaf gunmen destroyed the center of the predominantly Christian town of Ipil in the southern region of Mindanao, taking 30 hostages and killing 53 civilians and soldiers. The group also reportedly planned an assassination attempt on the pope when he visited that same year.
In 1996, the Abu Sayyaf grew in number after a peace agreement between the government and the MNLF, in which the MNLF renounced the goal of an Islamic state, led disgruntled separatists to join the more radical Abu Sayyaf.
In December 1998, the group's leader Janjalani was killed in a fight
with police on Basilan island. A power struggle ensued within the group,
with Janjalani's brother, Khadafy Janjalani, eventually emerging as
the new leader.
After a period of relative inactivity as Janjalani gathered power, the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 58 people from a Basilan school in March 2000. Later that year the group drew international attention with the abduction of 21 hostages, including 10 foreign tourists, from a Malaysian diving resort. The hostages were freed when Libya paid over $20 million in ransom. The Libyan money attracted thousands of new Abu Sayyaf supporters and financed the purchase of new arms and equipment, some reportedly more sophisticated than that of the Philippine military arsenal.
On May 27, 2001, in a second raid, the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 hostages, 17 Filipinos and three Americans, from the Dos Palmas resort on the Philippine island of Palawan. One of the American hostages, Guillermo Sobero, was murdered by the group last year. Current president Gloria Arroyo has refused to negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf, instead ordering an all-out military campaign against the rebel group.
The historical ties between the Abu Sayyaf's and al-Qaida, as well as the suspicion that the group still receives funding from bin Laden's network, has led to increased scrutiny and to the involvement of U.S. troops in the region. The Abu Sayyaf continues to hold hostage two American missionaries and a Filipino nurse.