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Why kidnappings continue in eastern Sabah waters
Published on: Sunday, February 23, 2020
By: Ulta Levenia and Alban Sciascia
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Since the last few years, the kidnapping of Indonesian fishermen in Sabah or the Sulu Sea have increased. Attracted by an easy way to finance its activities, the Abu Sayyaf Group (Abu Sayyaf), a terrorist organisation, has set up a strategy to focus on Indonesian nationals as their main target.

The historical background of Sabah and the southern Philippine conflict is complex, a conflict where the Abu Sayyaf is playing an important role.

The roots of the organisation can be found when al-Qaeda supported Abdurajak Janjalani to set up a subsidiary organisation, the Abu Sayyaf, to spread a radical Islamist movement in southern Philippines.

Janjalani was a charismatic leader and he is still admired until now by the Moro, the local ethnic of southern Philippines.

After he was killed during a military operation in 1998, Janjalani’s successors – including his younger brother – made deep changes to the organisation’s posture.

Currently, the Abu Sayyaf has at least three factions: the first can be considered as Janjalani’s ideological legacy led by Radullan Sahiron.

He is considered by many local actors as Janjalani’s legitimate leader and successor.

The second faction is the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Abu Sayyaf led by Hatib Hajan @Sawadjaan, who once was only known as an elder in Patikul, Sulu.

The third and last faction is led by notorious bandits who are running the kidnapping business.

While the three factions tend to differentiate from each other, occasionally they cooperate. They do so for two main reasons – funding and family relations.

Indeed, the Moro in Southern Philippines should be considered as a tight collective society, where family relations are prominent.

Funding is also essential as these factions compete to finance their illegal and criminal activities.

Keep in mind that this financing modus operandi has been used by three generations of Moro, who have fought against the central government for more than 50 years. Like the Abu Sayyaf nowadays, criminal activities have been one of the main ways to finance insurgent activities.

However, the Abu Sayyaf can be seen as the local organisation relying mostly on kidnapping for ransom.

Indeed, while the Abu Sayyaf have been considered by several observers as a jihadi-criminal group, its main motivation for kidnapping is definitely economic.

Kidnapping for ransom has been in some ways institutionalised by the Abu Sayyaf, with some orphans of their deceased fighters now taking over this task.

During a field research in 2019 led by this opinion’s co-author Ulta Levenia, she interviewed a local kidnapped in 2015.

He said that “the group who kidnapped Indonesians recently are the kids of the people who kidnapped me. I clearly remember they got sick and I suggested that their mothers buy some medicine”.

Most of them are called “anak ilo”, or the children who lost their parents during the armed conflict in southern Philippines.

Indonesians became valuable targets for the Abu Sayyaf in 2016, when retired general Kivlan Zein and several parties managed to release 18 Indonesians from the group.

The kidnappers were surprised by the amount of the ransom paid and then started to focus on Indonesians.

To do so, the Abu Sayyaf has developed strong connections in Sabah, where it managed to get information on ships with Indonesian crew.

During Ulta’s interview with locals close to the Abu Sayyaf men, some of them said the terrorist organisation was also able to track ships with the GPS or help from accomplices in Sabah, who agreed to provide the location, routes and names of ships in exchange for money.

This pattern was confirmed during the 2019 field research. During an interview in Cotabato City, a Moro informed Ulta that nine Malaysians who were almost kidnapped were released as no one wanted to pay the ransom.

According to the interviewee, the Abu Sayyaf would not release Indonesian hostages so quickly, as they are considered by the group to be worthy hostages.

In this perspective, two major issues can be identified:

First, the coordination between the Malaysian, Philippine and Indonesian governments to secure the Sulu Sea is precarious. There is a lack of effective coordination of assets engaged by each country.

Mainly, all participants tend to be reluctant to share intelligence and information, while operations are not conducted together, but are coordinated at best. Moreover, there is a technical incapacity to exchange data in real time.

Secondly, the approach taken by the governments to deal with the Abu Sayyaf might look obsolete and might encourage them to continue their hunt for Indonesian hostages.

There are also doubts on the go-betweens chosen by the governments engaged in the liberation of hostages.

Indeed, some government actors are close to Nur Misuari, founder and leader of the Moro National Liberation Front in southern Philippines.

According to Ulta’s research, Nur Misuari’s entourage, mainly his wife who played an active role in the release of Indonesian fisherman Muhammad Farhan on Jan 13, 2019 (who was kidnapped in Sabah last year), allegedly has close links to the Abu Sayyaf.

According to the locals in Sulu, the lead kidnapper in this specific case was the uncle of Nur Misuari’s wife, Salip Mura, who held Indonesian hostages including Muhammad Farhan.

Continuing to use Misuari’s legacy to negotiate with the kidnappers gives more reasons for the kidnappers to keep their kidnap-for-ransom activities.

Therefore, governments and institutions should reconsider their strategy in the area.

First, a more effective coordination – including the technical capacity to exchange information in real time and coordinated assets – is needed in the waters shared by Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, especially by the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) that is responsible to secure eastern Sabah.

The cooperation should also cover joint investigations regarding the accomplice who supports the Abu Sayyaf with information about vessels and fishermen in Sabah waters.

Secondly, stakeholders should strengthen the existing multilateral agreement and develop not only coordinated but joint operations.

Lastly, a reconsideration of local networks and go-betweens by developing alternative cooperation with mediators is necessary in order to prevent more Indonesian fishermen from being kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf.

Each country’s military and security assets such as patrol vessels, warships and maritime surveillance aircraft should be engaged to secure the area.

Moreover, according to sources, communication between the respective maritime command centres is limited due to the lack of compatibility between secure communication tools used by the countries involved.

About the authors

Ulta Levenia is lead researcher for Jakarta-based think tank Galatea and Alban Sciascia is Galatea’s writer and Director of Semar Sentinel Pte Ltd, a Singapore-based business risk assessment and intelligence consulting firm.


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