"The Abu Sayyaf takes hostages for money, and that is not what international terrorists do," says Philippines Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes. "Did you ever hear of bin Laden blowing something up and then demanding $30 million from the US?"
Abu Sayyaf began with the vision of one man: Abdurajak Janjalani. Investigators and acquaintances of Mr. Janjalani say that as a boy, he was captivated by the puritanical version of Islam that, fueled by Saudi petrodollars, was blowing like a sirocco across the Muslim world in the 1970s. In the mid-'80s, he studied in Libya and Saudi Arabia.
By late 1988, he was in Peshawar, Pakistan, training as a mujahideen, or holy warrior, to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Along with other Filipino militants inspired and led by the Afghan intellectual Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Janjalani fought alongside bin Laden, learning to field-strip a rifle, make bombs, command troops, and win friends in the Islamic world. Janjalani brought those skills home in 1990.
"He was this charismatic, almost magical guy to his troops, and when he came back I think he was sincere in his intentions to found an Islamic state," says Ms. Vitug. Philippines and foreign investigators allege that Khalifa, the bin Laden brother-in-law, funneled money to Abu Sayyaf, and that Muslim mercenaries were brought in from Yemen and Afghanistan to train insurgents.
"The record is pretty firm that Osama and the people who followed his line of thinking were involved in the formation of the Abu Sayyaf," says a Western diplomat in Manila.
Vitug says Janjalani was very close in his thinking to bin Laden, but that his death in 1998 cost Abu Sayyaf "their ideologue. It's more about the money now." The group is now run by Abdurajak's brother, Khadafy, who does not have Afghan ties.
In April 2000, Abu Sayyaf committed its first international crime, seizing 20 Asian and European hostages from a Malaysian resort. It later released them for more than $20 million, in a deal brokered by Libyan officials. Abu Sayyaf used the ransom to recruit new members, swelling its ranks to about 1,000, up from a few hundred.