Baker Atyani, the Muslim Jordanian journalist who spent 18 months as a hostage of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines before escaping last month, said his al-Qaeda-linked captors don't in any way represent Islam or Muslims in their beliefs and actions.
"Abu Sayyaf groups have no ties to the religion of Islam and its values. They resemble a gang –an organised crime group, kind of a mafia that relies on kidnapping foreigners to demand ransoms," Atyani said in a January 9th Al Arabiya interview. "They lacked the basic understanding of Islamic values, which idealise humanity and humility."
He was taken hostage in Sulu on Mindanao Island, where he had travelled to film a documentary about Muslim life in the southern Philippines.
Atyani said the group, led by Rajlan Sahir, saw him only as a means to earn money.
"The issue of being Muslim or not is not very important here, what is important is that they found a source of money," he said. "The sad thing is that the people who follow them believe that this is Islam, and this is how people deal with each other in Islam."
Atyani's comments echoed earlier statements by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who in July accused Abu Sayyaf of "using Islam to advance their false cause". The group's perversion of the religion, he said, was due in part to its complete isolation from society.
"Some of them did not come out of the jungle for 20 years. One of them was shocked and asked me if we are in 2007," he said. "The people are not living in this world, they live in a jungle and without knowing what is happening in the world."
Atyani, who lost a third of his body weight while in captivity, said he wasn't otherwise physically harmed but the psychological trauma took its toll. The biggest crime committed, he said, was the loss of his freedom.
In captivity, Atyani observed the group also stole children's freedom, often training them to become soldiers.
"You see a child carrying an M16 weapon that is longer than him. I witnessed that, it is a shame for a person to see this, to see people living without education, without any target in life, where the only goal is kidnapping," he said. "They used to say to each other, if you want to get married, kidnap someone and with the ransom money, you can get married. If you wanted to buy clothes or a new mobile phone, kidnap someone and you can buy whatever you want. Kidnapping has become … the only source of livelihood for them."