By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: September 19, 2010
MANILA — Philippine troops killed on Sunday a top Abu Sayyaf militant who helped plan and carry out the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a popular Philippine resort, military officials said.
Abdukarim Sali, who also went by the names Benjami Sali and Ben Rafy, was killed during a 10-minute firefight with soldiers and police, said First Lieutenant Jinky M. Perez, a military spokesperson in the southern Philippines. The incident occurred in Lantawan town, on the province of Basilan island where the Abu Sayyaf was founded in the early ‘90s and maintains a presence despite the nearly decade-old U.S.-backed campaign to flush them out.
Mr. Sali, who had a $7,700 reward for his capture, was one of the Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the authorities in the past decade. Lieutenant Perez said soldiers on Basilan had been conducting operations for weeks now and chanced upon a number of Abu Sayyaf militants early Sunday. Troops recovered weapons and mobile phones after the gunfight, she said.
In May 2001, Mr. Sali and a band of Abu Sayyaf militants raided the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan province southwest of the Philippines and, using speedboats, took 20 hostages to the southern island of Basilan. They later occupied a hospital in Lamitan town, also in Basilan, carted away medicines and kidnapped three more people, including two nurses.
The bandits and their hostages managed to survive the military’s air and land assault on the hospital and slipped through a military cordon of practically the entire town of Lamitan. This prompted allegations that the kidnappers had been allowed to escape by corrupt military officials.
In June the same year, Mr. Sali and company beheaded one of the American hostages, Guillermo Sobero, of California, as an “independence day gift” to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Several of the hostages had been killed before, some of them, like Sobero, were beheaded.
Mrs. Arroyo later ordered a full military offensive against the bandits and, with help from the U.S. military, launched in 2002 a daring operation to rescue the remaining hostages, among them missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kansas. Ms. Burnham survived the raid but Mr. Burnham and a Filipino nurse, Ediborah Yap, did not.
Since the kidnapping, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., the Philippine government and the U.S. military have conducted massive military operations to vanquish the Abu Sayyaf. Officials later declared the campaign a success and that the Abu Sayyaf, with its top leaders either killed or captured during the operations, had moved to other islands, particularly the nearby province of Sulu.
But the Abu Sayyaf never really left Basilan and its nearby provinces. Although officials and experts said their numbers have dwindled over the years — to less than 400 today scattered in several provinces, the military says — the group still managed to carry out kidnappings and terror attacks, including a bombing in September last year in Sulu province that killed two American soldiers.
In 2004, the group bombed the Superferry passenger ship as it was departing Manila Bay, killing more than 100 people.
Still, the death of Mr. Sali is significant because, according to Lieutenant Perez, he was one of the Abu Sayyaf’s leaders at a time when the group is suffering a serious leadership vacuum because of the military offensives.
“This is a very important for us as we continue the war against terrorism,” she said.
Sunday’s clashes followed similar incidents in Basilan this month. Last week, the bandits ambushed soldiers in Tipo-tipo town, killing three of them. Two of the militants were killed, the military said.
Earlier this month, soldiers killed an Abu Sayyaf “sub-commander” identified as Gafur Jumdail, a key “fund-raiser” for the group. Lieutenant General Ben Dolorfino, commander of the Philippine military in the south, described Mr. Jumdail’s death “as a big blow to the Abu Sayyaf Group,” according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Also this month, authorities arrested Jul Ahmad Ahaadi, another Abu Sayyaf member who was involved in the 2002 kidnapping of six members of the evangelical sect Jehovah’s Witnesses. Two of the hostages were later beheaded.
The Abu Sayyaf is on the U.S. government’s terror list. It has alleged links with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asia terror network that has likewise been linked to al Qaeda. Abu Sayyaf was originally founded as a fundamentalist Islamic group but its members subsequently degenerated into terrorists and kidnappers.