Tag Archives: counterpiracy

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)

Tradewinds 2018 and the Caribbean’s Maritime Security Challenges

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The first two phases of the multinational, Caribbean-focused military exercise Tradewinds 2018 took place between 4-21 June. Said maneuvers, sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), brought together an estimated 1,700 troops from almost two dozen nations. Given the ongoing maritime security challenges that the Greater Caribbean continues to face, these confidence and interoperability-building exercises continue to be very important.

Tradewinds ‘18

The first two phases of Tradewinds 2018 took place in Saint Kitts and Nevis and then in The Bahamas. Phase III, a seminar among regional leaders to discuss the results of the first two phases, occured from 17-19 July in Miami, Florida. The participating nations included the majority of Caribbean states, in addition to Canada, Mexico, the U.S. and extra-hemispheric states like France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Some of the platforms that were deployed include the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr. (WPC-1107); the British RFA Mounts Bay (L3008), a Bay-class auxiliary landing ship dock; Canada’s HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704), a Kingston-class coastal defense vessel; and Mexico’s ARM Oaxaca (PO 161), an Oaxaca-class patrol vessel. As for aerial platforms, these included AS365N3 Panther and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. As SOUTHCOM explains “this year’s focus is on countering transnational organized crime in the region,” apart from other priorities like improving disaster response. Operations at sea including procedures to intercept a non-compliant vessel, and live firing exercises with deck-mounted weapon systems like .50 caliber machine guns and 25 mm cannon.

In general, Caribbean governments and security forces have generally had a positive attitude toward these maneuvers. For example, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis and Minister of National Security the Honourable Dr. Timothy Harris reportedly stated “I have been assured that we can therefore expect training components or injects that reflect real world scenarios so that in the face of a real threat, our security forces and emergency response personnel will be able to coordinate seamlessly and in a manner and time that both meet international standards.” Similarly, Christian J. Ehrlich, an external analyst at the Strategic Research Institute of the Mexican Navy (Instituto de Investigaciones Estratégicas de la Armada de México), explained to the author that Tradewinds will help improve  interoperability between regional navies and coast guards.

Caribbean Threats

The Caribbean’s maritime security challenges are very diverse. They include drug trafficking (Washington’s primary concern), weapons and human trafficking, illegal fishing, not to mention search and rescue operations. These crimes have been extensively recorded, but it is worth noting that some occurred, somewhat ironically, at the same time that Tradewinds was taking place. For example, in mid-June Her Majesty’s Bahamian Ship (HMBS) Durward Knowles, a patrol vessel, intercepted a 50-ft Dominican fishing vessel that was poaching in Bahamian waters. Around the same time, the Dominican Republic chased a speedboat until it stopped in the coast of Pedernales province. Aboard were 351 packets which apparently contained cocaine. A month earlier, in early May, it was the Jamaican Defense Force’s turn to catch a vessel at sea, as a ship reportedly intercepted off the coast of Westmoreland had 764.9 pounds of compressed marijuana.”

Even more, piracy is becoming a noteworthy problem: in 2017 the organization Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) “recorded 71 incidents in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most incidents in the region occurred in territorial waters, with anchored yachts being the primary targets for attackers.” There were also 16 attacks against tankers and three fishing vessels, among other types of ships. A map prepared by OBP shows a cluster of incidents off the coast of Belize, Colombia, Venezuela as well around the islands of Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Map of 2017 incidents by Oceans Beyond Piracy.

Not counted in the report was a late-April 2018 incident along the Guyanese-Surinamese border, where pirates attacked a group of four fishing boats, robbing the crew and killing several of them.

The Status of Caribbean Maritime Forces

Some Caribbean defense forces have attempted to upgrade and expand their maritime fleets in order to take better control of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). For example, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) has cquired several vessels constructed by Damen Shipyard  via the Sandy Bottom Project. These include Damen Stan 3007 and Stan Patrol 4207 patrol vessels as well as one Stan Lander 5612 auxiliary transport, roll on-roll off vessel. Similarly in 2016 the Jamaican Defense Force (JDF)  upgraded its fleet by receiving two new Stan Patrol 4207 from Damen in 2017. That same year, the JDF received two 38-foot SAFE boats and two 37-foot Boston Whaler vessels, donated by the U.S. More recently, in late July 2018, the Barbados Coast Guard commissioned patrol boat Endurance, a 958Y inshore vessel donated by China earlier this year.  The ambitious Sandy Bottom Project notwithstanding, Caribbean defense forces in general have limited defense budgets, hence new platforms, aerial or maritime, are not acquired or modernized regularly. Moreover, the aforementioned examples also highlight the continuous reliance on extra-regional allies  for donations in order to expand the naval inventory of these defense forces.

Mr. Ehrlich mentions that greater regional cooperation and interoperability is needed in order to make up for a limited number of platforms and personnel, and in order to decrease the region’s dependence on SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Mexican Navy could step up its presence in the Caribbean to help its partners with maritime security, but unfortunately the Mexican Navy seems to be more focused on its Pacific territory.

As a final point, it is important to highlight the troubling scandals regarding regional defense officers that are caught in cahoots with criminals. For example, Colonel Rafael Collado Ureña of the Dominican Republic’s Army, was arrested in mid-2017 in Puerto Rico as he was about to carry out a sale of 12.9 kilograms of cocaine. Around the same time, a member of the Jamaican Defense Force was arrested at Kingston airport as he tried to board a flight to Toronto with 2.8 kilograms of cocaine

Final Thoughts

Exercise Tradewinds 2018 recently concluded, and hopefully the maneuvers and training exercises that Caribbean forces carried out with counterparts such as those from Canada, Mexico, the UK, and the U.S, will be helpful for their future patrol and interdiction operations in their respective EEZs. We can also hope that these ongoing exercises, as well as generally cordial regional diplomatic, trade and defense relations, will lead to greater interoperability between regional forces.

While Tradewinds 2018 can be regarded as a success, these maneuvers will have limited positive impact if Caribbean defense forces do not obtain additional funding for new aerial and naval platforms given the size of the Caribbean Sea. Even more, scandals among security personnel, namely their involvement in criminal activities, stain the reputation of regional defense forces and limit the success of any training operations.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 16, 2018) British ship RFA Mounts Bay (l3008) leads United States Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr (WPC-1107) (center, rear), Mexican Navy ship ARM Oaxaca (PO 161) (center, front), and Canadian Ship HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704) (right), during a formation exercise in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of the Bahamas during the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise, Tradewinds 18. (Royal Canadian Navy Photo by Able Seaman John Iglesias/Released)