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Big Sipadan payout started it?

Published on: Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Kota Kinabalu: The reason there has been no end to the cross-border kidnappings in Sabah is due to the supposedly large ransom amount that was paid to the Abu Sayyaf for the release of 21 hostages seized from Sipadan in 2000, according to a Philippine police source.

He said it was also difficult for the Philippine authorities to zoom in on these gangs because the villagers would SMS the Abu Sayyaf if they spot the marines land some troops who end up being killed in ambush.

The source said: "Sabah is also seen as a soft target by the gangs.

It is near Tawi-Tawi islands and there are many vulnerable resorts in Semporna," he said.

Father Romeo P. Villanueva, who heads a human rights NGO called Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation concurred that Semporna is a target because of its proximity to Jolo.

"They can easily cross the border," said Father Romeo, a Catholic priest based in Jolo town.

Kidnapping, the priest noted, had since become a cottage industry in poverty-stricken Sulu, which is the poorest province in The Philippines.

Although officially denied, it was reported in various media that among those who settled the ransom demanded by the Abu Sayyaf in 2000 was Libya.

"After the Sipadan hostages were released, it rained dollars in Sulu.

That was how big the ransom was," said the CEO of Assist Jolo, Octavio A. Dinampo, a NGO, to Philip Golingai of the Star newspaper.

So much so that even some Sulu politicians have since gotten into the act as well.

"Each time they lose in an election, they regain campaign expenses by organising kidnappings," he said. "Some politicians organise kidnappings in Jolo island to make their winning rival look bad."

Whenever there was a kidnapping in Semporna, Sulu province would get a bad name as the media would report that the hostage was held in Jolo island, noted Sulu provincial police director Orbita.

"Sometimes, it is true but not all the time," he said. "Sometimes the hostage is kept somewhere else and when the ransom negotiation is completed, they will release the victim in Jolo island."

An Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) intelligence officer described the modus operandi of the kidnappers and how they have streamlined it since the Sipadan incident in 2000.

Drawing an analogy to three glasses of Kahawa (coffee in Tausug), he said the first cell will do intelligence gathering in Semporna.

The second cell also based in Semporna will do the kidnapping and once they reach Philippines waters, they pass the hostages to the third cell."

He said these groups in Jolo have since become increasingly sophisticated and operate like a small army. He said Jolo island - in Sulu province in southern Philippines - is where most of the hostages kidnapped in Semporna end up.

In the Sipadan incident, 21 people - nine Sabahans, two Filipinos and 10 tourists from Europe, South Africa and Lebanon - were kidnapped in Sipadan on Easter Sunday and held on the island about the size of Perlis.

The latest victims abducted from Semporna are Gao Huayuan, a 29-year-old tourist from Shanghai, and Marcy Dayawan, a 40-year-old Filipina resort worker. Filipino gunmen kidnapped them from Singamata Reef Resort at about 10.30pm on April 3.

"In 2000, a group consisting of 30 armed men travelled in several boats from Sulu to kidnap 21 people in Sipadan and then returned to Sulu.

That was the same modus operandi when they kidnapped 20 people (including three Americans) from Dos Palmas Resort (in Palawan, Philippines) and brought them to Basilan island (about 120km from Jolo island)," said the Philippine intelligence officer.

"When you travel in a big group, there is a possibility the Philippine and Malaysian navies will detect you."

"But when you travel in a small group, you don't attract attention."

He said following the Sipadan and Dos Palmas kidnappings, these groups would send a cell group to Semporna where they would either live as a local or work in a resort. That is their cover.

Their actual job is to find a target and study the place and find the best time for them to kidnap."

"The spotter will contact the mastermind and inform that the victim is in her room and security is relaxed," he said.

This corresponds with what happened in Singamata Reef Resort on the night of the abduction. Armed men struck minutes after eight General Operations Force (GOF) personnel stationed in the resort left the reef to conduct patrolling in a boat.

In the aftermath of the Singamata kidnapping, Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) director-general Datuk Mohammad Mentek said an operation to clear the east coast area of moles or informers of cross-border criminals would be conducted.

When a target is identified, the gang's mastermind would inform the second cell - a light and quick team consisting of about seven gunmen embedded in Semporna.

He said while in the Sipadan incident they needed about 30 armed men to execute a kidnapping, now they can do so using just seven gunmen.

The intelligence officer said the crew of the second cell would know Semporna waters like the back of their hand.

This account was consistent with Esscom investigations into the Singamata kidnapping where Mohammad Mentek said at least four of the seven gunmen involved were no strangers to Semporna.

The four were familiar with Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai islands as they had families and friends living in coastal villages in the area.

These kidnappers will seek shelter with their friends and families every time they come here," he said.

After entering Philippine waters, the second cell will hand over the hostages to the third cell.

Octavio A. Dinampo, who was herself kidnapped with Filipino news anchor Ces Drillion and others in Jolo on June 8, 2008, said the actual kidnapping was not done by Abu Sayyaf but smugglers in the small islands in Sulu province such as Pandami, Pata, and Siasi which are near Jolo.

"You need to be an expert on islands and the sea to do cross-border kidnapping over the Sulu seas," said Dinampo, who lectures at Mindanao State University in Jolo.

Esscom DG Mohammad Mentek had said that the Singamata abductors were also involved in various smuggling activities in Semporna.

From smuggling of guns, drugs, cigarettes and sugar in the Sulu archipelago, the smugglers have evolved into kidnapping.

"It is a natural evolution for some of the smugglers who own money, powerful arms and fast boats that can even compete with the Philippine navy to finance a kidnapping," he said.

"It is natural for them to think of kidnapping as an enterprising business."

"The kidnappers are presumed dead before the kidnapping.

The mastermind will set aside money in the event a crew member is killed so that his family can move on. Say you have seven members and you have set aside 100,000 pesos (RM7,330) for each of them.

That means you need to set aside 700,000 pesos (RM51,000)," he said.

The mastermind also needs to buy sophisticated weapons and equipment for his cells embedded in Semporna and in Tawi Tawi islands in southern Philippines.

"He needs to pay for the accommodation of his spotters in Semporna.

The would-be kidnappers would need satellite phones to communicate with the mastermind in coded words," he said.

Dinampo said what's new is they have placed their men in the Abu Sayyaf, Moro National Liberation Front and other armed groups in Jolo island.

"They need a trusted 'branch manager' in these armed groups as they will usually deposit the hostages with the Abu Sayyaf or other armed groups in Jolo," he said.

The moment hostaged are abducted from Sabah, the mastermind would contact his 'branch manager'.

"For example, the mastermind will tell his 'branch manager' that he had spent about 1.5mil pesos (RM110,000) and he wanted to make a 5mil-peso (RM360,000) profit, so he would sell a hostage for 6.5mil pesos (RM480,000) to the Abu Sayyaf and it would be up to them to jack up the ransom," he said.

The mastermind also outsources the holding of the hostages to Abu Sayyaf or armed groups in Jolo because he does not have the "muscle" to keep them.

"Abu Sayyaf is a larger armed group. They have enough men and firepower to hold on to the hostages when pursued by the security forces," Dinampo said.

"Once the hostage are handed over to the Abu Sayyaf (or other armed groups) in Jolo, they are out of the heat generated by the kidnapping."

Asked if another cross border kidnapping would happen in Semporna, the intelligence officer said, "they are already there."