US creates new breed of bounty hunters in Sulu

Jul. 01, 2007

Money from the U.S. Rewards for Justice Program, combined with poverty in Sulu, has given rise to a new breed of bounty hunters. Even innocent people are reported to the military as Abu Sayyaf members in order to get reward money, according to leaders in that province.

Vol. VII, No. 21, July 1-7, 2007

The U.S. reward money combined with poverty in Sulu gave rise to a new breed of bounty-hunters. Ustadz Zain Jali, chairman of the Bangsamoro Peoples National Congress (BPNC), said in an interview with Bulatlat that even innocent people are reported to the military as ASG members in order to get reward money.

This was corroborated by Ustadz Yahiya Sarahadil Abdulla, a resident of Brgy. Samak, Talipao, Sulu and a member of the provinces Ulama Council for Peace and Development. He should know, he almost became a victim.

Mistaken indentity?

Abdulla is a well-known civic and religious leader in Sulu. He has many friends in the Philippine Army officers as well as enlisted men. He is in fact a frequent visitor to Army detachments in his province. They know me very well, he told Bulatlat in an interview.

Abdulla was also very much visible in the campaign period for the recently-concluded senatorial and local elections as a candidate for councilor under the Mushawara Party.

Unfortunately, that didnt protect him from being mistakenly identified as a commander of the bandit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which both Philippine and U.S. troops are hunting down in Mindanao.

On June 9, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) distributed a Rewards for Justice recognition handbook in Brgy. Samak, during a medical civic action program (MEDCAP) mission with U.S. troops.

The handbook contains a list of suspected terrorists with corresponding offers of reward money for any information that could lead to their arrest. Among the alleged terrorists in the list was a certain ASG commander identified as Ali Igasan, a.k.a. Abdulla Tuan Ya Yasir Igasan. Igasan was described in the handbook as a Brgy. Samak resident who goes by the nickname Ustadz.

Problem is, it was the picture of Ustadz Yahiya Sarahadil Abdulla who also goes by the nickname Ustadz which appeared with the name of Igasan.

After getting hold of a copy of the handbook, Abdulla immediately met with his friends in the Philippine Army and demanded an explanation. They told me I had been mistaken for someone else, he said.

They may have found difficulty looking for a picture of Igasan so they just put my picture there, he said when asked what could have prompted his being tagged as an ASG leader.

Abdulla, with the help of the Ulama Council for Peace and Development, also circulated an open letter around Sulu to clear his name. He additionally informed Bulatlat that he plans to get in touch with U.S. troops in the area also to clear his name.

Fortunately, the AFP pulled out all copies of the Rewards for Justice handbook with Abdullas picture identified as Igasan. Abdulla also said his friends in the Army have promised to investigate the matter. I am still waiting for the results of the investigation, he said.

When asked whether he feared for his safety upon being mistakenly identified as an ASG commander, Abdulla said he did not.

What do I have to be afraid of? he said. I know that my friends in the military know very well that I am not an Abu Sayyaf commander I could not be any kind of bad element because I am an ustadz, a religious leader.

He said, however, that he worries for the safety of others who may experience the same. If it could happen to someone like me, it could happen to anyone else, he said.


When told by Bulatlat about what Jali said regarding the supposed presence in Sulu of groups of people who report even innocent people to the military as ASG members in exchange for reward money, Abdulla replied, There are indeed many people like that here. You get into a quarrel with someone here and the next time around you may just find yourself being hunted down as an ASG member even if you are not.

Abdulla said it is poverty that leads many people in Sulu to commit such acts. The crisis weighs very heavily on the people here and in desperation, many are driven to do such things in exchange for reward money, he pointed out.

Sulu is one of the six provinces comprising the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM): the others are Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, and Shariff Kabunsuan.

The ARMM is easily the poorest region in the Philippines. Based on May 2007 data from the National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWPC), a family of six the size of the average Filipino family needs P1,061 ($22.61 based on the average exchange rate of $1:P46.81 for the said month) to survive daily. Conversely, the daily minimum wage rate for the ARMM is P132.63 ($2.83), based also on May 2007 data from the NWPC. The NWPCs May 2007 data show that the ARMM has the highest daily family living wage for a family of six and the lowest minimum wage rate per region in the country which has been the case for several years.

Emily Clark of the U.S. think tank Center for Defense Information (CDI) names Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Sulu as areas where the ASG has presence.

The ASG and the Rewards for Justice Program

The ASG was formed in 1996 as a religious-extremist group, but has since degenerated into a rag-tag bandit group. Among its original leaders were mujahideen who fought side by side with U.S. troops in Afghanistan earlier in the 1990s. The ASG has been included in the U.S. Department of States list of foreign terrorist organizations since 2002.

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