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The Pull Of Terrorism: A Philippine Case Study

Rommel C. Banlaoi


There are many explanations on why young persons join terrorist organisations. One focuses on pull factors that strongly draw the youth to enter organisations that promote political violence and terrorism. These pull factors maybe ideational or material and are utilised by a terrorist organisation through an effective recruitment strategy. Examining the Abu Sayyaf Group, a terrorist organisation operating in the Philippines, this study argues that a nuanced understanding of these pull factors are essential for a comprehensive grasp of terrorist threats emanating from this group and for the formulation of an effective counterterrorism policy.


All terrorist organisations have many ways in which they manage to draw people to their side. They have “magnets” to attract members, especially young recruits, to join their groups.

But the processes by which young persons are pulled to join terrorist organisations are not yet widely understood in the academe, policy-making world, the media and the broader public. Though existing scholarly literature on terrorism have already identified several pull factors of terrorism (Sobek and Braithwaite, 2005), none of these, however, may be applied generally to all terrorist organisations because the behaviors of terrorist groups vary from country to country (Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2002). Some terrorist groups may have shared common experiences that cut across national boundaries. But vigorous social science investigations indicate that behaviors of terrorist organisations differ in historical context, socio-cultural milieu, politico-economic setting, specific intentions, exact targets, and even particular tactics (Davis and Cragin 2009; Cordes, et. al., 1985). Thus, grappling with the pull of terrorist is better understood on a case-to-case basis.

This paper is an attempt to describe the processes by which young persons are pulled to join terrorist groups, using the Philippines as a case study; this paper examines the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a terrorist organisation operating largely in the Southern Philippines, concentrating on ASG’s recruitment methods and strategies in pulling the youth to become involved in terrorist activities.

This paper contends that there are ideational and material factors that pull the youth to join the ASG. A nuanced understanding of these ideational and material pull factors are essential for a comprehensive grasp of the ASG threat and for the formulation of a policy to counter the threat posed by this terrorist group.

The Pull Factors of Terrorism

There are many factors that pull young people to terrorist groups. These pull factors can be ideational and material, that are mutually reinforcing. Ideational factors may be in the form of ideology endorsed by a certain religious belief, philosophical perspective or cultural outlook. Material factors, on the hand, may be in the form of monetary inducements, logistical assistance, perks and other financial benefits. These pull factors are best utilised with an effective recruitment strategy by a terrorist group to increase its membership and to keep the organisation alive.

Ideational Pull

A particular study on terrorism has shown that the major pull factor that draws young persons towards terrorist acts is ideology (Ginges, 1997). Ideology is deemed to be the main ideational pull mechanism “that makes possible the translation of discontent into specific political goals” of young individuals being lured to join terrorist groups (Ibid). It is posited that ideologies are “important organizers of experience and act as moral codes and motivations for actions” of young recruits (Ibid). It is further argued that in the assessment of the perceived benefits of, and motivations for, terrorist acts of the youth, deeply understanding the virulent ideology of terrorist groups is essential (Ibid). Ideology provides meaning to the emptiness felt by young people and defines their “reasons for existence”. One study even asserts ideology is a great pull of terrorist in attracting young people, to with:

    The young people don’t know why they exist…they suffer from an emptiness of meaning…[hu]man is more than (an) ensemble of material needs, that he is in truth a spiritual being, which means he has essential spiritual needs, which are even not approximately recognized nor understood, let alone satisfied…the atmosphere in which today’s terrorists have grown up…they feel powerless (Quoted in Ibid. See Billig, 1985).

The profile of youths joining terrorist organisations through ideological motivations is that of mostly students, young professionals and learned individuals recruited from schools, universities and working places. Ideology is a pull factor in the radicalisation of a small but significant minority of young persons dissatisfied with the society in which they find themselves (European Commission’s Experts Group on Violent Radicalisation, 2008). Radical ideology introduces the youth to violent ideas that eventually lead them to enter terrorist groups and commit acts of terrorism.

Material Pull

While ideology is indeed a pull factor in terrorism, there are young recruits who are induced to join terrorist groups not because of ideology but largely due to material considerations. Young persons succumbing to this pull are mostly out-of-school youth in depressed areas or communities where poverty is pervasive and the rate of illiteracy is high. These types of young persons are induced to join terrorist groups and commit acts of terrorism through the lure of money, arms, and material needs of their families and loved ones. Terrorist groups buy the loyalties of their young recruits through tangible inducements in the form of money, perks, arms and other concrete benefits. These young members are made to work as combatants, bombers, lookouts, mules, or to be simply errant persons (Homeland Security Institute,

The Pull of Recruitment

Though a terrorist organisation has an ideology and material resources with which to entice young people to join, a well-planned recruitment strategy is also a crucial pull factor. Without a systematic recruitment strategy, a terrorist group cannot efficiently or automatically pull the youth to its side.

Recruitment strategies of terrorist groups can be classified into two: benign strategy and coercive strategy.

A benign strategy utilises persuasive tools to entice recruits to join a terrorist group. This kind of recruitment strategy allows terrorist organizations to actively reach out to the youth by visiting them in schools, youth camps, refugee areas, boarding houses and even amusement places (Homeland Security Institute 2009). Terrorist organisations deliberately spot young persons and radicalise them through the convincing power of ideology or, in most cases, through material inducements, if the ideological indoctrination fails.

A coercive strategy, on the other hand, uses “threat” and “fear” factors to get young persons to join terrorist groups. In such cases a terrorist organisation forces young persons into membership by threatening to kill them and their families if they do not join. There are cases where young persons are kidnapped and forced to commit terrorist acts against their will (Ibid). There are also cases where young sisters of persons associated with terrorist groups who are forced to marry young male members and thus becoming new members. Terrorist groups resort to this coercive recruitment strategy as a desperate measure to keep the organisation alive, particularly in the context of dwindling membership.

The Abu Sayyaf Case

The ASG is an excellent case, in the Philippines, to examine the processes by which young persons are pulled to enter terrorist organisations. The ASG is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the United States (US) and an active International Terrorist Organization (ITO) by the United Nations (UN). Because of its involvements in kidnap-for-ransom activities, Philippine law enforcement authorities regard the ASG as a mere bandit group (Banlaoi, 2006).

There are conflicting narratives on the origin of ASG (Santos and Dinampo, 2010, Banlaoi, 2009, Manalo, 2004, Gunaratna, 2001, Tan, 2000, Turner, 1995). It is even argued that the ASG had a very nebulous beginning (Gloria, 2000).

But a more nuanced analysis of the evolution of the ASG indicates that the group started as an Islamic propagation group organised by Ustad Abdurajak Janjalani who earned popularity in Basilan, Sulo and Zamboanga City in the 1980s for his very charismatic preaching. This Islamic propagation group was known as Jamaa Tableegh, a local version of Tabligh Jammaat that originated in Pakistan where Abdurajak Janjalani received most of his religious training. In 1989, the military and the media described this group as Abu Sayyaf ’s group because Janjalani used the nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf in honor of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf of Afghanistan.

ASG’s Ideological Pull

Abdurajak Janjalani recruited many followers in Zamboanga City, Basilan, Sulo and Tawi-Tawi (ZAMBASULTA) because of his powerful sermons or Khutbahs that expressed his mastery of Salafi faith or Wahhabi ideology. Janjalani used Salafism and Wahhabism to analyse the state of Islam in Mindanao and the situation of Muslim people in the Southern Philippines. Janjalani was able to pull young Muslims in Mindanao to join him through the power of Wahhabi ideology that he preached in various

From initial followers of almost 100 in Basilan in 1989, the group grew to almost 300 in 1990 when disgruntled members of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Sulo and Tawi-Tawi joined him. Janjalani, who was once a member of the MNLF, also convinced young MNLF followers to join him, until his group reached a membership of almost 1,000 in 1991. It was during this year that Janjalani’s group mounted its first terrorist attack: the 1991 bombing of M/V Doulous, a Christian-owned ship propagating Christian faith (Banlaoi, 2007). Janjalani using the name of his “Abu Sayyaf Group claimed responsibility for this bombing”. This earned the ire of the Philippines military and police that erroneously described the group as Mujahideen Commando Freedom Fighters (MCFF) in several intelligence reports.

Janjalani was able to win the hearts and minds of former MNLF fighters and other young Moros because he offered an alternative ideology that effectively touched the sentiments and aspirations of Muslims in Mindanao. In his inner-circle, he recruited younger and more passionate Muslim leaders who studied Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan and Egypt. These young Muslim leaders had a common reproof of the MNLF, which had entered into a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996. These leaders also shared common anger against the so-called Christian-dominated Philippine government based in what they called “Imperial Manila”.
Because he had garnered a significant number of followers, in 1993 Janjalani named his group Al-Harakatul Al Islamiyyah (AHAI) or the Islamic Movement. Within this movement, Janjalani formed a consultative group called Majilis Shura, which officially proclaimed the foundation of AHAI in 1994 during its First Assembly.

On 18 November 1994, amidst heavy speculation that the ASG was created by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Abu Abdu Said, then spokesman of the group, issued a document called Surat Kasabunnal or “A Voice of Truth” (Tan, 2003). This document vehemently denounced the view that the AFP or the CIA created the ASG. It argued that the ASG started as a movement called Juma’a Abu Sayyaf.

By 1998, the ASG reached a membership of around 1,300. But the momentum of increasing membership was cut short when Abdurajak Janjalani was killed in a firefight with the police in Lamitan, Basilan in December 1998. But before he died, Janjalani delivered eight radical ideological discourses called Khutbahs, which may be considered as primary sources of Janjalani’s radical Islamic ideology (Banlaoi, 2009). These discourses explained Janjalani’s Quranic perspective of Jihad Fi-Sabil-lillah, which he lamented was misinterpreted by many Muslims. He even denounced the ulama (Muslim scholars) for their limited knowledge of the Quran and lamented that most Muslims in the Philippines, calling themselves Moros, were not really practicing Islam in its true form compared to Muslims in West Asia. These eight discourses also revealed Janjalani’s deep grasp of Wahabi Islam, which considered non-Wahabi Muslims heretical. The Islamic theology of Wahabism greatly informed Janjalani’s radical ideology, and that attracted young Moros to join him (Ibid).

ASG’s Material Pull

The death of Abdurajak Janjalani, however, marked the waning of the ideological luster of the ASG. With no ideological beacon to unify the group, the ASG became factionalised. Some factions degenerated into bandit groups engaged in predatory activities like kidnap-for-ransom activities (KRA), smuggling operations of arms and drugs, and extortion activities. Lacking the ideology to win the hearts and minds of members, ASG leaders in the post-Janjalani period resorted to material inducements to buy loyalties and recruit new members.

Khadaffy Janjalani, the younger brother who replaced the founder, did not have the ideological zeal of the older brother. Being young and gullible, Khadaffy was even manipulated by more criminally-minded ASG commanders like Galib Andang (Commander Robot) and Abu Sabaya. The bandit factions of the ASG led by Commander Robot and Abu Sabaya thus ruled the ASG. Though Khadaffy attempted to revive the Islamist agenda of the ASG by concentrating on ideological propagation, his death in 2006 thwarted this goal.

During the leadership of Khadaffy, the ASG went into a KRA spree. In 2000-2001 alone, the ASG was involved in 140 KRA incidents that resulted in the death of 16 victims (Abuza, 2005). The biggest KRA project of the ASG was the Sipadan kidnapping incident of 2000, led by Commander Robot, which involved a ransom of US$25 million, offered by Libyan President Muammar Khadaffy as “development aid”. With such huge money being involved, young impoverished Moros lined-up for membership in the ASG. Some parents even offered their sons as volunteers for the ASG with the expectation of financial payment.

In 2000, the ASG reached a membership of more than 1,500 according to military estimates. But insiders claimed that ASG followers during this period had grown so large that the group could not account for them anymore. In fact, the ASG acted like “Robin Hood” distributing part of its loot to local communities. Thus, the ASG was in turn able to get support from local communities that gave the group “early warning signals” and even barricades during military offensives. New younger members were even paid to work for ASG makeshift camps as second and third layers of security (Banlaoi, 2008). Parents of young ASG members were issued a monthly supply of rice and offered monthly financial honorariums ranging from US$100 to US$500. Thus through material inducements, the ASG was able pull in members despite the lack of ideological agitation or religious propaganda.

ASG’s Recruitment Pull

While its benign recruitment method of ideological propaganda through Islamic propagation was effective during the time of Abdurajak Janjalani to keep the organisation alive, the ASG had to implement a combination of benign and coercive recruitment strategy. After Janjalani’s death, the ASG continued its benign recruitment scheme through the material inducements discussed above.

However, intensified military operations caused the membership of the ASG to decline sharply. From more than 1,500 members in 2000, the ASG membership was reduced to less than 500 in 2005. To recover, the ASG resorted to coercive methods of recruitment. ASG commanders resorted to scare tactics like threatening to kill those who refuse to join and their families. Some ASG commanders even used deception to recruit members, e.g. making young Muslims carry firearms, taking pictures of them, and then using the pictures to blackmail the kids into joining the group (Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, undated). Though there are anecdotal stories of young persons being kidnapped to force them to join the ASG, these cases have not been properly documented nor vigorously studied.


Like other terrorist groups around the world, the ASG is a very adaptive organisation and it is also a very resilient one, whose life depends on the use of many survival methods in order to replenish its membership (Banlaoi, 2010). In other words, the ASG is an adaptive adversary. As further explained by the Homeland Security Institute (2009):

    Terrorist groups are adaptive adversaries who use a variety of tools and tactics to reach potential recruits and supporters, which too often include young persons. Groups systematically prey upon the vulnerabilities of youth in various contexts, offering a range of incentives that are intended to make membership in the group attractive. In some cases, young persons have also been forcibly recruited or deceived into participating in terrorist activities.

To sum up, terrorist organisations operate through utilising ideational and material pull factors together with an effective recruitment strategy that is either benign or coercive. In the case of the ASG, the employment of different pull factors is context bound. During its earlier period under the leadership of Janjalani, the power of ideology convinced members to join the group. But in the post-Janjalani period, particularly under Khadaffy, the ASG resorted to material inducement to attract members.

At present, there is an attempt to revive the ideological appeal of the ASG under Yassir Igasan who is currently the Head of ASG’s Sharia Court. But the majority of ASG commanders at present have degenerated into bandits. Under this current situation, the pull factors of ASG will largely emanate from the use of money to attract followers. Therefore the crafting of a counter-terrorism policy must be informed by this present reality.


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