MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – For President Rodrigo Duterte, the Abu Sayyaf does not fit his definition of a criminal group.
Duterte made the distinction while addressing Muslim leaders in Davao City on Friday night, July 8. This makes him the first Philippine president not to brand the Abu Sayyaf as a band of criminals since the group emerged in the early 1990s.
"I am not including Abu Sayyaf dito sa [in the definition of] criminality. You never heard me say, 'Mga kriminal (They are criminals),'" he said at the Mindanao Hariraya Eid'l Fit'r 2016 held at the SMX Convention Center in Davao City.
Duterte explained that the situation in Muslim Mindanao drove members of the group to desperation. "It is a different set up there because these are the guys driven to desperation," he said.
"From Nur (Misuari) to ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) there was no sufficient semblance of governance. That's why they were pushed to the wall. They became radicalized," the President added. (READ: Does it make sense to talk with the Abu Sayyaf?)
Though Duterte appears hesitant to label them as criminals, the terrorism and crime nexus is well-established.
Intelligence from law enforcement agencies indicates that the Abu Sayyaf network is also engaged in criminal activities like drug trafficking and robbery, aside from the crime of kidnap for ransom.
Duterte previously warned the Abu Sayyaf that a "time of reckoning" would come for them.
Chief Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza has received overtures from a supposed representative of the terrorist group. But Dureza has maintained that no discussion of ransom will be made during these talks.
Malacañang clarified on Saturday, July 9, that the President's statement does not mean that the government would no longer run after the Abu Sayyaf.
"Hindi po niya pinapalampas ‘yung mga ginawa nila, pero nilalagay lang po niya in context ‘yung kanilang pinaggagawa, that they were forced to desperation. So ‘yun po ‘yun. In other words, naiintindihan niya ‘yung ginagawa nila but ang ano po, ‘yung kanila pong mga action ay still have to be answered for," said Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella.
(He is not condoning their actions, but he is just providing context to their actions, that they were forced to desperation. So that's that. In other words, he [Duterte] understands what they're doing but they still have to answer for their actions.)
He explained that Duterte just "provided the context" to the Abu Sayyaf's activities and motives.