Tag Archives: Abu Sayyaf

The Deadly Evolution of Abu Sayyaf and the Sea

By Meghan Curran

On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Jolo on the Sulu Province in the southern Philippines. Tearing a hole through the cathedral during a Sunday service, the bombs claimed 20 lives, injured dozens more, and propelled Islamist extremism in the Philippines back into international headlines. In the aftermath of the blast, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte promised to “pursue to the ends of the Earth the ruthless perpetrators behind [the] dastardly crime,”as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the country’s notoriously violent Islamic separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. While President Duterte may not need to go to the “ends of the Earth” to put an end to the ASG-fueled terror, his government will certainly need to act beyond its own shores. Illicit maritime activities are at the root of ASG funding and operations, and ensuring the group’s defeat will require focused government efforts to improve maritime security in its area of operations.

As External Support Dwindled, ASG Turned to the Sea

ASG has overcome several transition periods throughout its history, and in many ways, its resilience in the face of both internal and external pressures lays in its ability to morph; from Islamist group, to bandit group, and back; and the sea has provided the means for it to do so.

Until fairly recently, ASG relied on substantial funding from global Islamist terror organizations, notably al-Qaeda. Much of this funding was funneled through charitable front organizations, led by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi businessman and Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law. As head of the Islamic Organization’s Philippine branch, and later IIRO’s regional director for Southeast Asia, Khalifa also founded several other organizations to support ASG.

However, ASG turned to the sea for funding in the mid-2000s when external support began to wane. Following the discovery of Khalifa’s involvement in the botched Bojinka Plot, which involved the bombing of several airplanes over the Pacific, Philippine authorities blocked his reentry into the country thereby weakening al-Qaeda’s support for the group. After the September 11 attacks, increasing international counterterrorism measures further strained external financial and operational support for the group.

With dwindling support and mounting pressure from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), ASG began capitalizing on the strong maritime tradition of the Sulu archipelago to engage in widespread criminality at sea to fund its operations. In the mid-2000s the group became notorious for seaborne kidnappings for ransom, and orchestrating attacks on numerous diving resorts. Although these activities were mainly profit-motivated, the ransoms were used to purchase weapons and other supplies for the group.

ASG is Pushed Further out to Sea

In 2016, continued AFP pressure combined with renewed international interest in fighting global piracy further restricted ASG’s freedom of movement on the Sulu archipelago, limiting its ability to conduct onshore kidnappings via maritime routes. In response, the group moved its operations further out to sea, and according to One Earth Future’s 2016 State of Piracy Report , conducted 21 successful kidnappings of seafarers while ships were underway. During the first half of 2016, the group mostly targeted smaller vessels, but by October they began attacking larger vessels, presenting a threat to both international and regional traffic. Although these incidents increased dramatically in 2016, in 2017 there was a noticeable lull in similar activities, which some have attributed to militants refocusing their efforts on the siege of Marawi City, and an increasing number of maritime patrols by stakeholders in the region.

However, in September and December 2018, the group conducted two more seaborne kidnappings off Sabah, Malaysia. On March 12, 2019 Malaysian security forces announced they were on full alert following intelligence reports that ASG militants were once again active in the waters off Sabah, seeking new hostages to fund their campaign. The report stated that ASG had been using contacts on the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, to identify high value targets.

Sea Routes Key to ASGs Next Wave of Operations

Besides using the sea to carry out kidnappings for ransom, ASG is also currently utilizing the maritime space in a manner more closely related to the recent headline-grabbing attack in Jolo.

The group is using sea routes to move foreign fighters into the Philippines, allowing it to utilize foreign suicide operatives, while also maintaining a local base. The January 2019 cathedral attack was carried out by suicide bombers from Indonesia, and experts estimate that there could be up to 100 additional foreign fighters, mostly from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East, currently operating in the Philippines. During the five-month siege of Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, the AFP fought an enemy bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters whose presence emboldened local pro-Islamic State groups, playing a key role in bridging divides between the group’s many factions. In the aftermath of the siege, intelligence failures on the part of both the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) pointed to militants from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia navigating the Sulu and Celebes Seas to join Abu Sayyaf’s fight in the southern Philippines.

The Sea is the Key

As the Islamic State continues to lose territory in the Middle East, foreign fighters are viewing the Philippines as an increasingly attractive battlefield. The battle for Marawi City prompted a rise in ISIS propaganda focused on Southeast Asia, with one video explicitly urging supporters to travel to the Philippines. While several foreign fighters have been detained, arrested, and deported after flying into Mindanao, others have been using a backdoor, transiting routes in the Sulu and Celebes Seas that involve island hopping along the region’s numerous archipelagic chains.

On October 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte claimed victory against terrorists in Mindanao, following the liberation of Marawi City. With 1,200 dead, a city in ruins, and martial law declared, many wondered if ASG was truly defeated. But once again the group has illustrated its ability to adapt. The influx of foreign fighters in the Philippines has changed the dynamics of Islamist terrorism in the region. According to analysts, Filipino terrorist groups have traditionally avoided suicide bombings, preferring “sustained combat to cowardly tactics.” But in July 2018, the first ever suicide bombing by militants in the Philippines was carried out in Basilian province by a Moroccan fighter, with assistance from both Abu Sayyaf and other foreign fighters from Malaysia. Shortly thereafter, a cathedral bombing in Jolo rattled the Philippines once again.

As the AFP continues to engage ASG in the forested islands of the southern Philippines, it is imperative that the Duterte administration continues to invest in regional transnational maritime domain awareness mechanisms. This is particularly crucial in the tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which has a long legacy of illicit maritime activity, porous borders, and cross-national family bonds that make undocumented entry and exit into countries in the region common.

The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Freeworldmaps)

While some regional coordination efforts to address illicit maritime activity already exist, the Philippines must build on recent successes and regional initiatives. For example, the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) formalized in 2016 resulted in joint maritime and air patrols, as well as coordination between maritime command centers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. And while the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) indicates that the TCA has resulted in a decrease in transnational crime in the tri-border area, issues regarding trust across agencies and governments, unclear agency mandates, and duplication of efforts have limited the impact of such organizations. Without sufficient attention to these issues, the defeat of the region’s most persistent violent groups will continue to be out of reach. 

Meghan Curran is a researcher with Stable Seas, an international NGO focused on maritime security issues. This article advances themes published in a new report titled Stable Seas: Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Featured Image: Philippine soldiers stand in formation during a send-off ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila October 27, 2010. (REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo)

Trilateral Maritime Patrols in the Sulu Sea: Asymmetry in Need, Capability, and Political Will

By Zachary Abuza, Ph.D.

A spate of shipjackings and kidnapping-for-ransoms has imperiled regional trade in Southeast Asia and prompted calls for trilateral maritime policing in the waters between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Though an important first step, this will not end the kidnappings or lead to an overall improved security situation.  

The Context

Starting on 26 March 2016, militants from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) began a spate of maritime kidnappings. Three Indonesian vessels and a Malaysian tugboat were hijacked, and some 18 sailors were taken hostage. 

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A screen capture from Abu Sayyaf’s fifth video of Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad (l), and Canadian, Robert Hall (r), released on 14 May 2016.

Their treatment was very different than the three Western hostages abducted from a Davao resort in September 2015. The two Canadians, Norwegian, and Filipina were held incommunicado for a period of time, with six videos demanding ransoms issued over seven months. The hostages were filmed in all but one video in front of the black flag of the Islamic State, and in the last two wearing orange T-Shirts, representing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit of Islamic State (IS) prisoners. The two Canadian hostages were executed when their ransom deadline, already extended and reduced, were not paid, on 25 April and 13 June. On 24 June, the ASG released the Filipina hostage as an “act of good will,” though, at the time of this writing they still hold the Norwegian prisoner.

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Photograph of the four Malaysian sailors, released via Facebook, on 15 April 2016.

The Malaysian and Indonesian sailors, by contrast, were quickly put in contact with their families and companies to arrange ransom payments. Although the ASG threatened to behead the four Malaysian sailors if no ransom was paid, there was no IS imagery in the photo posted on Facebook in the proof of life picture that the ASG released. In all three cases, ransoms were paid and the suspects released. Various press reports indicate that the four Malaysians were released with the payment of 140 million pesos ($2.97 million), while ten Indonesians were released following a 50 million pesos ($1.06 million) ransom, and the final four released with a 15 million pesos ($319,000) ransom. The payment of ransoms was always officially denied. While governments may have not paid the ransom, family members, shipping firms, friends, and insurance companies appear to have come up with the requisite funds. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged that money changed hands, but “channeled not as ransom, but to a body in the Philippines which assists in an Islamic struggle.” There is no ideology here, this is abject criminality.

Not surprisingly, with the payment of large ransoms, shipjackings/kidnappings have continued. On 20 June another Indonesian tugboat was boarded and seven of its thirteen crew members taken hostage. Though the remaining six were able to steer the ship to a safe port, the ASG is demanding $4.8 million in ransom for the release of the seven. Within days of the hijacking the captain was able to call his wife and convey the ransom demand.

The Costs

These shipjackings/maritime kidnappings imperil regional trade. While only a small amount of the $40 billion in regional maritime trade passes through these waters, it is not insignificant. Indonesian coal exports from East Kalimantan account for 70 percent of  total Philippine coal imports, worth over $800 million. There are an estimated 55 million metric tons of goods that transit these waters annually. These exports are all the more important as Chinese imports of raw materials from Southeast Asia continue to fall with China’s economic slowdown. On 21 April 2016, Indonesian authorities temporarily  blocked ships from sailing to the Philippines, warning that the waters were becoming the “New Somalia.” The small shipping companies run on thin margins, and the millions of dollars in ransoms pose a threat to the small-vessel maritime shipping that dominates the region. Following the 20 June kidnapping, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, announced a ban on licenses to ship coal to the Philippines from Indonesian ports, “The moratorium on coal exports to the Philippines will be extended until there is a guarantee for security from the Philippines government.”

Calls for Trilateral Maritime Policing

For the first time in many years, Malaysian and Indonesian leaders have been speaking of the Southern Philippines as being the weak link in regional security and began to call for trilateral maritime policing in  waters to the north and northeast of Sabah. There was a most un-ASEAN drumbeat of threats by Indonesian civilian and military leaders to engage in unilateral military operations to rescue their sailors. On 27 April, Philippine President Aquino acquiesced to Indonesian and Malaysian calls for joint maritime patrols based on the joint operations in the Strait of Malacca. 

On 5 May, the three foreign ministers met and issued a communique “recognized the growing security challenges, such as those arising from armed robbery against ships, kidnapping, transnational crimes and terrorism in the region, particularly in reference to the maritime areas of common concern.”

  1. To conduct patrol among the three countries using existing mechanisms as a modality;
  2. To render immediate assistance for the safety of people and ships in distress within the maritime areas of common concern;
  3. To establish a national focal point among the three countries to facilitate timely sharing of information and intelligence as well as coordination in the event of emergency and security threats; and,
  4. To establish a hotline of communication among the three countries to better facilitate coordination during emergency situations and security threats.
  5. They instruct the relevant agencies of the three countries to meet as soon as possible and subsequently convene on a regular basis to implement and periodically review the above-mentioned measures and also to formulate the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

With the agreement in principle, the sides had to negotiate a standard operating procedure, which had to have more teeth than a poorly implemented 2002 trilateral agreement to respond to Abu Sayyaf attacks.

On 20 June, the Malaysian, Indonesian, and Philippine Defense Ministers agreed to establish transit corridors. “The ministers have agreed in principle to explore the following measures, including a transit corridor within the maritime areas of common concern, which will serve as designated sea lanes for mariners,” they said in a joint statement. In addition, they pledged to increase the number of air and sea patrols as well as maritime escorts. 

Most controversially, the draft SOP will allow for the right of hot pursuit, something that the Indonesians insisted on. The Indonesian Minister of Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu told the media “We’ve agreed that if another hostage situation occurs, we will be allowed to enter [Philippine territory].” His Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, who was in the last week of his job, qualified the agreement: the hijacking/kidnapping must have taken place in Indonesian waters, before Indonesian vessels could enter Philippine territory, and Philippine security forces would have to be immediately informed so that a “coordinated and joint operation could immediately be undertaken.”

Limitations

Even if the three countries implement the SOP and begin implementing trilateral policing, there would be serious limits for seven key reasons.

First, this is not the Strait of Malacca, one of the most critical maritime straits in the world. Those patrols, now in their 11th year, have been successful and resulted in a dramatic drop in piracy and shipjackings. But they have benefited from members with very robust capabilities, such as Singapore and Malaysia, a critical international chokepoint, and with  technical support from the United States, which made it clear that if the littoral states did not increase patrols it would. The Strait of Malacca has the most sophisticated network of radars and maritime domain awareness capabilities in the region.

Second, sovereignty remains the paramount concern.  No country will allow “joint” patrols in their territorial waters. They might do “coordinated patrols” in their respective national waters, but there will be no joint patrols. Each country has been adamant on this point. As the Philippines said, “’joint exercises” can only take place “in the high seas and not within [Philippine] territorial waters.” As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi put it, any joint actions “must be agreed on without any of them sacrificing their sovereignty.”

Even the agreement on hot pursuit seems problematic. While Malaysia and Indonesian may be keen to have the right to hot pursuit into Philippine waters, it is hard to see them accepting one another exercising this right.  Second, the incoming Duterte administration has not signaled their approval of this agreement. It is possible that they do not feel bound by agreements signed by the outgoing Aquino administration.

Third, and more to the point, this really requires Indonesian leadership. As we have seen, President Widodo’s Maritime Fulcrum Strategy has been terribly implemented, and he has shown little interest in compelling his various services and ministries to come up with an integrated implementation strategy, let alone serve as a regional leader of ASEAN. The Indonesian military’s threat perception and budgetary allocation priorities have returned to an inward focus, after nearly a decade of maritime orientation.

Fourth, the capabilities of all three remain very limited. There is an asymmetry between the threat and the capabilities  deployed to this region. Even though Malaysia has beefed up maritime policing off of Sabah, especially following the incursion by Sultan of Sulu-backed gunmen in 2013, it has not been enough to prevent the ASG from still launching kidnappings. Malaysia and Indonesia have only limited naval, coast guard, and maritime law enforcement capabilities, and this region has not been a priority. The Strait of Malacca and increasingly the South China Sea have been far greater priorities. But those limited capabilities are exactly why cooperation is so necessary.

Fifth, there are still significant suspicions between the countries and lingering border disputes. The Indonesians remain distrustful and angry towards the Malaysians over the maritime demarcation between Sabah and East Kalimantan in the Ambalat region. On 26 June, Indonesian jet fighters intercepted a Malaysian military cargo plane flying too close to Natuna Island. While Indonesia and the Philippines successfully demarcated their maritime boundary in 2014, Malaysia and the Philippines do not have a formally demarcated maritime border owing to the disputed claim over Sabah. That may possibly worsen as president elect Duterte stated that he would revive the Philippine claim to Sabah which had been dormant for number of years.

EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The PH-RI EEZ Boundary is defined by geodetic lines connecting eight points. These points are indicated in geographical coordinates that form a single line as illustrated in the chart shown below. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8.
EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8. (Government of the Philippines/Government of Indonesia)

Sixth, one needs to study a map of the trade routes to understand that even if there is  international cooperation as well as designated corridors, they will only have a limited impact.

A majority of Abu Sayyaf operations occur in Philippine waters, and only a small portion occur in waters that may have joint patrols. If militants want to avoid Indonesians exercising their right to hot pursuit, they merely have to wait for targets to enter Philippine waters. Manila is unlikely to allow armed convoys from Malaysia or Indonesia, to continue into Philippine waters, let alone ports, even if they do not have the assets in place to receive the handoff.  The weak link remains the limited capabilities of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement authorities. What little the Philippines actually has is primarily focused on their maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Image courtesy of author)

Even if we take away the large LNG tankers and large container ships that come up through the Lombok and Makassar Straights, which then either continue on to Northeast Asia to the east of the Philippines or cut through the deep waters between the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Tawi Tawi Islands of the Philippines, there are simply too many small tugboats, small bulk cargo ships, and tramp steamers that ply those waters to protect.

Ships coming out of Balikpapan and Samarinda in East Kalimantan or Makassar and Monado on Sulawesi traveling across the Celebes Sea to General Santos or Davao in the Philippines could be better protected. Yet, ships leaving any of those four ports traveling to Cebu, Cagayan d’Oro or Manila must transit the waters around Jolo, Tawi Tawi and Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf’s heartland. Likewise, ships sailing out of Western Sabah or Sarawak states traveling to Manila, Cebu, or ports in northern Mindanao can operate at the furthest edges of Abu Sayyaf capabilities. But ships from there or from the port of Sandakan going to Zamboanga or east to General Santos or Davao must transit the pirate infested waters between Tawi Tawi and Basilan. Abu Sayaf can launch quick attacks from their hideouts along this poorly policed coastline throughout the archipelago. 

Again, the ASG can operate close to shore, in Philippine waters, without triggering the right of hot pursuit. And even if Indonesian or Malaysian forces were able to operate in hot pursuit, only on sea; they can do nothing when the Abu Sayyaf reach shore.

Finally, the lesson of Somalia is that international maritime cooperation cannot defeat piracy. Piracy is defeated on land, not sea. Despite ample support from the United States since 2002, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has proven unable and unwilling to  defeat the Abu Sayyaf group. This is a small group, geographically contained, and enjoys little popular appeal. Yet, they endure. There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the thuggish militants around. The ransoms not only go to bribing local officials, military, and law enforcement despite their vociferous denials, but local communities profit from the kidnappings as well. The proceeds have gone not just to buy new weapons and ammunition from the black market, but to support a sub-economy.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that new kidnap for ransom gangs are carrying out operations, and then selling their captives to ASG leaders such as Al Habsyi Misaya. The six Indonesian sailors who were not taken hostage on 20 June recounted that their seven colleagues were taken by two separate groups  with very different behavior and professionalism.

It is yet to be seen what approach president-elect Duterte will take. Like most issues, he has said one thing and immediately contradicted himself. He has has prided himself on the use of extra-judicial killings to eliminate Davao of crime and drugs, and said that Abu Sayyaf should be liquidated. He brashly warned the ASG that “there will be a time, there will be a reckoning,” but then said that it was not his “top priority,” and announced a willingness to negotiate with them. There is no evidence that they will accede to his demand that they “surrender unconditionally, release your prisoners, your hostages.” His messaging on the Bangsamoro peace process has likewise been contradictory, which has added to the sense of regional insecurity. 

Duterte recently warned that he would not continue the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program, re-orienting the security forces back to an internal security focus. The limited Philippine naval modernization program, may be very short-lived.  But then his Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana stated that the ASG was the country’s primary security threat, whose “illegal activities, including kidnapping, must stop,” Delfin warned: “We have to end this once and for all. This problem is giving us a very bad image abroad.”

In short, trilateral policing can only deliver so much until the capabilities of the Philippines improve. Delfin announced that military spending would be diverted from acquiring assets for use in the South China sea to fast patrol craft and helicopters for counter-terrorist operations. But it is hard to imagine that China will not act aggressively and start reclamation of Scarborough Shoal following an adverse ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, set for 12 July. Perhaps they will try to leverage that for further maritime assistance from the United States and other partners such as Australia and Japan.

Tempered Expectations

The frustration on the part of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments is palpable. In addition to hurting trade, a number of land-based kidnappings in Sabah since 2013, have impacted tourism.  Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman was blunt in calling for a meeting with his new Philippine counterpart following the 30 June inauguration of President Duterte:

“We need to have this urgent meeting. I would like to stress upon the seriousness of this problem that involves Filipino nationals. We accept that it is a complex issue. The Philippines military has been going after these people with limited success. The question now is how can we work together.”

So what can we expect? There may be some coordinated patrols,but expectations about what these entail should be low. These navies and maritime law enforcement organizations do not have a great track record of working together in this area, which for all three countries has received a disproportionately low share of their respective maritime security budgets.  

That they are even discussing them and trying to come up with standard operating procedures is well and good.  But this will need to be routinized and taken to a higher level if it is to succeed. Perhaps external actors, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and even Singapore, can help  bridge some of the gaps. 

The three sides are discussing database and intelligence sharing on local extremists and militants.  There have been suggestions of establishing joint military command posts, yet undefined. But an actual fusion center as what was established in Singapore seems a long way off, and the reality is that none of the three has adequate maritime domain awareness capabilities.

With regional trade dominated by slow tugboats and tramp steamers, even groups with limited capabilities such as Abu Sayyaf can wreak havoc in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. With limited capabilities amongst the three littoral states, there is an imperative to cooperation, especially considering the importance of regional trade. Yet a history of mistrust, continued border disputes, a fixation on sovereignty, and a lack of leadership is making the necessary cooperation more difficult to achieve.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.

Featured Image: A navy cutter patrols the shores of a fishing village near the capital town of Jolo in the southern Philippine province of Sulu 30 June 2000 as an outrigger races across its path. (AFP PHOTO)