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Philippines: The resiliency of Abu Sayyaf

Once on the run, a terrorist group makes a comeback.

Abu Sayyaf rebels are seen in the Philippines in this video grab made available February 6, 2009. Three aid workers, including two Europeans, kidnapped nearly four weeks ago on a remote Philippine island appeared in good condition in video footage broadcast by local television. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers, kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf rebels, were shown talking to an unidentified man while standing in a forested area, believed to be in the interior of southern Jolo island. (Reuters)

MANILA — In 2006, the Philippine armed forces, backed by U.S. military support, launched one of its biggest offensives against the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf.

The operations resulted in the deaths and capture of the group’s key leaders as well over 200 followers in the two years that followed. Both Manila and Washington hailed as a success the campaign against a band of terrorists known for their kidnappings, beheadings and bombings.

But the atrocities, particularly the kidnappings, continued. Last year, more than 30 people were kidnapped in the Muslim region in the southern Philippines where the Abu Sayyaf is active. And in January, the group made its boldest move in recent years by abducting three workers — two of them foreigners — of the International Committee of the Red Cross. It kidnapped another one, a Sri Lankan peace volunteer, in February.

The local headlines screamed that the Abu Sayyaf “is back.” In truth, they never really left. A confidential government report said that the group raised more than $1.5 million in ransoms last year while its followers grew from 383 in 2007 to 400 in 2008, according to The Associated Press.

The resurgence of the Abu Sayyaf inevitably raises questions not just about the capacity of the Philippine government to deal with the terrorist group, but also about whether the joint Philippine-U.S. counter-terrorism campaign here, dubbed early on as the “second front in the U.S. war against terror” (after Afghanistan), has been effective.