Who are the Abu Sayyaf?

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) – Small but terrible.

Although its exact population is unclear, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is arguably one of the smallest lawless groups in the Philippines – but also among the most violent.

International security analyst Prof. Rommel Banlaoi, who has published several scholarly papers on the ASG, describes it as “the smallest but the most terrifying Muslim extremist group in the Philippines.”

The Australian National Security says there are approximately 400 ASG fighters today, a figure that continues to fluctuate due to counterterrorism efforts, both local and international.

The members usually are young Filipino Muslims from the Sulu archipelago and across the southern Mindanao region, and have included foreign jihadists in the past.

They are reportedly trained and funded by international terrorist network Al Qaeda and its affiliate, Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah.

Largely based in Western Mindanao, the ASG operates mainly in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi in the Sulu archipelago.

It is the first-ever armed group to be outlawed by a Philippine court in 2015.

But it was already listed by the United Nations Security Council as being associated with Al Qaeda as early as October 2001.

The U.S. State Department and the Australian National Security both blacklisted ASG as a terrorist organization as early as 1997 and 2002, respectively.

The group also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as professed by unidentified men in a YouTube video in 2014. The ISIS or Islamic State is one of world’s deadliest terrorist groups.

Related: Foreign captives held by Philippine militants appeal for help

No clear leader

The Abu Sayyaf, which means “Father of the Swordsman” in Arabic was formed in the early 1990s through the leadership of Abdurajak Janjalani, a charismatic religious native from Basilan.

After studying in the Middle East where he purportedly met with Al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin-Laden, Janjalani led a breakaway group from the established separatist movement Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

This marked the birth of the ASG in 1993, according to ASG’s own narration of its history annexed in Banlaoi’s book, Al-Harakatul Al Islamiyyah: Essays on the Abu Sayyaf Group.

ASG’s original name was Al-Harakat Al Islamiyya or “the Islamic Movement,” but Janjalani retitled it Abu Sayyaf after the alias he used to honor Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a resistance leader in Afghanistan.

When Philippine forces killed Janjalani in a 1998 shootout in Basilan, the ASG conducted a mass abduction of school teachers and students in the remote Tumahubong community in Basilan.

ASG was then fractured into two factions: One led by his younger brother Khadafi Abubakar Janjalani, and the other led by a commander named Galib Andang.

In September 2006, the younger Janjalani was killed in an encounter with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) while Andang was captured in 2003 — and later killed in an attempted jailbreak in 2005.

Since then, it remains uncertain if a single leader is heading the fragmented organization, although a number of leadership figures have surfaced carrying out their own operations.

What do the Abu Sayyaf want?

Since its inception, founder Janjalani together with former MNLF members, wanted to establish an independent Islamic State in Mindanao.

Despite its jihadist ideologies, the group is now seen to be more profit-driven with the rise of kidnap-for-ransom activities. Since 2007, attacks have shifted from large-scale bombings to kidnapping activities.

Related: Abu Sayyaf demands P4B ransom for Samal kidnap victims

In its first kidnapping operation, the bandit group abducted a businesswoman in Davao City. The victim was later released after ransom was paid.

“The ransom money was then used to buy more firearms for the group and others were distributed among the mujahideen (one engaged in jihad or holy war),” Khadafi Janjalani wrote in his own account of the group’s history.

He said the money taken from kidnap-for-ransom activities are never used for personal interests.

The group is also believed to prefer violent resistance rather than negotiation, so that in July 2014, it reportedly killed at least 21 Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan in Jolo because they were supporting the peace process.

Plotting terrorist attacks

The ASG has been involved in several terrorist attacks including bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings. It has targeted the military, police, businesses and local and foreign private individuals.

The ASG was first tagged as a terrorist organization by the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) when it claimed responsibility for the 1991 bombing of M/V Doulous, a Christian missionary ship docked in Zamboanga port. It was followed with the 1992 assassination of Italian missionary Fr. Salvatorre Carzedda in Zamboanga City, Banlaoi enumerated.

Related: 'Intense rescue effort' launched for abducted foreigners

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) lists 340 terrorist incidents perpetrated by the ASG from the 1990s up to December 2014.

The GTD is a comprehensive dataset on global terrorist activity collated by the U.S. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

In April 2000, ASG staged its first international attack, kidnapping 21 people from a dive resort in the island of Sipadan in Malaysia.

The U.N. Security Council listed some of the major attacks that followed:

May 2001. Kidnapped three American citizens and 17 Filipinos from a resort in Palawan, murdered some of the hostages

February 27, 2014. Bombed a ferry in Manila Bay, killing 16

February 14, 2005. Conducted simultaneous bombings in Manila, General Santos and Davao cities, killing at least eight and injuring around 150

July 2007. ASG and MILF members fought with Philippine Marines in Basilan Island, killing 14

November 2007. Suspected ASG members planted a bomb outside the House of Representative, killing one lawmaker and three staff members

January 2009. Kidnapped three International Red Cross workers in Sulu