Abu Sayyaf: The Chameleon in the World of Terror

abu sayyaf group kidnapping map
Kidnapping for ransom from vessels in the Sulu and Celebes seas peaked in 2016 with 17 reported kidnappings, from land and sea-based targets. Sources: Stable Seas database & Global Terrorism database.

Funding Terror through Maritime Kidnapping 

On 5 December 2018, three fishermen working for a company in Sandakan, Sabah, in Malaysia, were fishing off Pegasus Reef from the Malaysian-flagged fishing vessel SN 259/4/F. Two hours after sunset they noticed two speedboats, both painted green-and-grey, approaching. On board were about 20 armed men. Sabah police would later discover the fishing boat with engines still running, but no one on board. 

The three fishermen had been kidnapped and were in the hands of the ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) under sub-leader Majan Sahidjuan, alias Apo Mike, a veteran in kidnapping who has also been linked to the kidnappings of crewmembers from several other vessels in recent years.

The boats with the three kidnapped fishermen traveled along the southeast side of the Sulu Archipelago, reaching Laminusa Island, Sulu, on 6 December 2018, and from there traveling on to Pata. 

The group would inflict unusual cruelty on the three in order to extort ransom from their governments and families. Two of the victims, identified as Hari Ardiansya and Haraidin, appeared in a video on Facebook on 14 February 2019. Their eyes had been covered with black cloth and their hands were tied. A bolo knife was placed on the neck of Haraidin. In the video, the kidnappers threaten to behead the men unless the ransom demand is met.

On 5 April 2019, four months after the kidnapping, the Philippines Joint Task Force Sulu launched an attack on the ASG fighters holding the hostages on Simisa Island, 8 nautical miles (15 kilometers) to the east of Jolo Island, Sulu. The two Indonesian hostages tried to escape by swimming 3 nautical miles across the channel to Bangalao Island. One was rescued by Philippine marines while the other drowned. 

This account is typical of many of the kidnap-for-ransom incidents where ASG is involved. Some victims die in firefights between the terror group and government forces; others do manage to escape, while ransom is paid in many cases. Ransoms fuel further terror attacks and lead to more kidnappings. The Stable Seas database indicates that ASG has collected at least $14 million from maritime kidnappings since 2014, but it is likely that the amount could be higher, as it is difficult to determine whether a ransom was paid in many cases.

What is unique about piracy and robbery of vessels in the Sulu and Celebes seas is that a nexus exists between ASG’s criminal activities and terrorist attacks. Not only is kidnapping for ransom by ASG used to fund terrorist operations in the region, but terror is also used to extend ASG’s criminal agenda by extorting money from government and businesses. In one such case on 31 July 2018, 11 people died when an improvised explosive device exploded in Lamitan City, Basilan, after a failed extortion attempt on the local government by ASG.

In this regard, ASG is a hybrid between a criminal group and a terrorist organization. ASG has well-established criminal links and collaborates with criminal groups in kidnapping incidents. Criminal groups have executed kidnappings and handed hostages over to ASG for a share of the ransom. 

Kidnapping activities are centered on Sulu and Basilan, and to a lesser extent Zamboanga, Philippines, with Jolo, Sulu, forming the epicenter for such kidnappings. Although kidnapped victims are often moved from island to island, victims kidnapped from vessels ended up in Sulu in 26 of the 30 reported incidents.

ASG first resorted to maritime kidnappings from vessels on 11 April 2004, when they kidnapped three crewmembers for ransom from the tugboat East Ocean 2 off Taganak Island in the Sulu Sea. Ransom never materialized and the three hostages died in captivity. The failure of this operation was possibly why kidnapping from vessels lay dormant in the area for the next decade, until April 2014, when two Germans were kidnapped from their yacht, Catherine, off Palawan, Philippines. 

The Germans were transported over 250 nautical miles (450 kilometers) to Jolo, Sulu. This testifies to ASG’s maritime capabilities and geographical reach—capabilities that were well-established by 2014 after several kidnappings from resorts and businesses in Sabah and elsewhere. The large ransom amount received for the Germans ($5.6 million) could well have acted as a catalyst for the increase in vessel-related kidnappings in the following years.

abu sayyaf group kidnapping

Kidnapping for ransom from vessels in the Sulu and Celebes seas peaked in 2016 with 17 reported kidnappings. In conjunction with maritime kidnappings, land-based kidnappings were also recorded. Sulu and Basilan are at the center of kidnappings and attacks by the Abu Sayyaf Group. Sources: Stable Seas database & Global Terrorism database.

Between 2014 and the end of January 2020, crewmembers were kidnapped from 30 commercial vessels and fishing boats by ASG or associated groups in the Sulu and Celebes seas. Kidnapping for ransom from vessels in this area peaked in 2016 with 17 reported cases. In 2016 when kidnappings on vessels exploded, kidnapping on land decreased, which indicated that there was a move in effort from land to the sea. As there is a link and an interrelationship between ASG activities at sea and on land, authorities need to enhance collaboration between maritime and land-based agencies in Malaysia and the Philippines.

There was an overall sharp decline in kidnapping incidents both on land and on vessels in 2017. The littoral states in the Sulu and Celebes seas, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, responded to the kidnapping crisis by signing a Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) to put measures in place to secure shipping in the area. Masters were advised to report any security incident to the Operation Centres of the Philippines and the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) of Malaysia. Between March and September 2017, Philippine, Malaysian, and Indonesian authorities established and patrolled transit corridors for safe passage of commercial ships. These measures proved to be effective as the last kidnapping of crew from a commercial vessel was reported in March 2017. Failed attacks and suspicious approaches were, however, still reported in the following months. The measures were less effective against kidnapping from fishing vessels.

In February 2020, ESSCOM extended the curfew of 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. off Eastern Sabah in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone in an effort to safeguard against kidnapping of fishers and tourists on the resort islands. Fishers wishing to fish at night need to apply for permits. Both the Philippine and Malaysian authorities have been increasing their patrol efforts and were conducting pursuit operations in an effort to locate the five fishermen kidnapped from their boat on 17 January 2020 off Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Recorded attacks in Jolo also decreased in 2017 as ASG and the Maute group laid siege to Marawi City, Philippines. Isnilon Hapilon and the Indaman ASG faction went to fight in Marawi, which may also have redirected efforts away from maritime kidnapping operations. Military operations by the Armed Forces of the Philippines have in all possibility influenced the lowering of the number of incidents in Sulu, as well.

The year 2019 saw levels of kidnapping activity well below the peak of activity in 2016. However, recent kidnappings indicate that the threat persists in the Sulu and Celebes seas, and remains a serious transnational challenge requiring international cooperation to suppress the problem. Vessels transiting the Sulu and Celebes seas are also advised to implement measures and best practices as published in ReCAAP’s Regional Guide to Counter Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia to mitigate the risk in the short term. 

kidnapping for ransom chart 2014-2019 abu sayyaf

Littoral states did manage to shrink the area in which crewmembers are often kidnapped in the Sulu and Celebes seas. From 2018 to early 2020, kidnappings were confined to fishermen on fishing vessels in Sabah between Tambisan Island and Semporna in the territorial waters of Malaysia. From here, kidnappers slip over the border to Tawi-Tawi or Sulu in the Philippines, which is in close proximity.

In October 2019, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the island municipality Lugus, Sulu, in the Philippines and the firm Energy World International to explore for natural gas and oil. The company is planning to invest an estimated $2.3 billion in Sulu, and the project will potentially create 2,000 jobs. They will partner with a local firm, Hadar and Medzar Oil and Gas Corp. The military has already foreseen that they will need to secure this investment. Authorities realize that economic difficulties are one of the reasons citizens are drawn to Abu Sayyaf.

In an interview in November 2019, Western Mindanao Command Chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana said, “Sulu is now attractive to investors. I just went there with foreign investors for natural gas and oil extraction. We can always dedicate units to secure these investments.” In answer to the question of whether he wants to bring investors in when the Abu Sayyaf threat is still ongoing, he answered: “If we will not let these investors come in, hindi matatapos itong guerra (the war will not end). We need to provide employment. Terrorism cannot be solved through military actions alone. The Armed Forces of the Philippines cannot provide employment.”

For sustainable results, long-term investment in maritime enforcement capability and improvements in coastal welfare are essential to curbing kidnapping from vessels and political extremism. Addressing the root causes of maritime kidnapping and terrorist activities in the Sulu and Celebes seas will erode ASG’s support base in the region, but as the organization is highly adaptable and opportunistic, it is also possible that ASG will once again change focus to a criminal agenda. Over time, the ASG morphed from creating revenue through terrorism by receiving funding from al-Qaeda, transforming to a hybrid organization financing terrorism through kidnapping and extortion, to then forming an alliance with the Islamic State in 2014. After major defeats and losses of leaders, ASG always seems to regroup to fight another day. An integrated approach is needed in order to break the cycle, which will include coordination between maritime enforcement organizations as well as good governance and proactive law enforcement operations on land.