MANILA, Philippines–It’s now Abu Sayyaf versus Abu Sayyaf in Sulu following the massacre last Monday of 23 people, mostly civilians, during the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the monthlong fast of Ramadan.
A source in the military intelligence identified the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) sub-commander responsible for the massacre as Sibih Pisih, who was accompanied by 10 other ASG members based in Talipao.
According to the source, Pisih planned the attack in retaliation for the death of his son early this year as a result of an operation conducted by militiamen identified with Talipo Vice Mayor Tamrin Tulawi.
The source said the root of the rift was election-related as the ASG-backed candidate lost to Tulawi and the elected vice mayor helped the military in the operations against the ASG. In one of the operations, Pisih’s 18-year-old son was killed.
The son is not a member of the ASG and is considered as part of its civilian support group, the source said.
“He vowed to seek revenge for the death of his son,” the source said in Filipino.
Pisih allegedly warned civilians in the area not to ride vehicles with militiamen on board.
After months of planning, Pisih reportedly found an opportune time to stage the ambush. Even with the civilians on board two passenger jeeps, he and his men staged the attack in Barangay (village) Maybahay in Talipao.
What Pisih did not know is that six of the civilians on board were relatives of another sub-commander of the ASG based in Tanum, identified by the source as Said Gani, also known as Amah Maas.
Maas’ own core group of at least 15-20 armed men are now hunting Pisih and his men who have already fled the area and are believed to be on Patah Island.
The situation poses a problem with the leaders of the ASG, still headed by Raddulan Sahiron as amir and chief of staff. The source said Sahiron cannot take sides since both Pisih and Maas are two important sub-commanders in the ASG.
“Both sub-commanders are important in the ASG since they are the ones in charge of the actual staging of kidnapping, thereby, funneling funds to the group,” the source said.
The bad blood between Sibih and the militiamen of Mayor Tulawi is what is referred to in Tausug as pagbanta, the equivalent of rido or clan wars in other parts of Muslim Mindanao.
“If the son of Pisih was not killed, it was just an ordinary encounter with the militia of the mayor. But since his son was killed, he threatened to avenge the murder and this is the beginning of the pagbanta,” the source said.
The military based in Sulu is aware of the looming pagbanta between two ASG sub-commanders. While this may appear to be a new development favoring government forces, the effect on the civilian population could be far more devastating than an ordinary encounter between ASG and government forces, according to the source.
“More civilians are expected to be affected and it is not clear what Raddulan will do to prevent the war among his men,” the source said.
A special task group was created to gather more evidence on the ground, according to Chief Supt. Noel de los Reyes, police director for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Red Cross weighs in
A separate team was also sent to Sulu by Camp Crame from the office of the Philippine National Police-Director for Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
Meanwhile, Philippine Red Cross chair and former Sen. Richard Gordon denounced the bloody massacre, the victims of which were mostly women and children.
“It is unacceptable that our government seems to be unable to control the spate of violence in our country, particularly in Sulu where kidnappings and killings occur so frequently,” Gordon said.
He said instances of kidnappings involving victims here and abroad have gone unabated for decades to the embarrassment of our nation.
“It is time that the money sent to ARMM, which by the way is the poorest region in the country, be accounted for. Many young people in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi have not gotten an education or afforded opportunities which would help provide hope and a future for them instead of going up to the mountains and inflict crime and violence to the community,” Gordon said.