Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo said the force was prepared for any possible measure to assist the Philippines and Malaysia in operations to release the hostages believed to be held by the Abu Sayyaf militant group.
The Philippines has given a green light for Indonesian assistance, although a formal agreement has yet to be made.
Southern territories have long been a source of trouble for the Philippines and have even been called a ‘terrorist safe haven’.
What is happening in the southern Philippines?
Repeated kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf militants in the Sulu Sea, and most recently in Malaysian waters.
· March 26
Ten sailors were kidnapped from the Brahma 12 and the barge Anand 12. A circulating port clearance document stated that the tugboat departed for the Philippines from Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, on March 15, carrying coal and 16 crewmen. The hostages were released in early May after what Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi called ‘total diplomacy’. No ransom was paid to the militants, according to the government.
· April 15
Four hostages were taken from the Henry tugboat and the Christy barge in a failed hijacking attempt by Abu Sayyaf members. "The ships were on their way home from Cebu in the Philippines to Tarakan [in North Kalimantan],” said the Foreign Ministry’s director for the protection of Indonesian nationals and entities abroad, Lalu Muhammad Iqbal.
Six Indonesian crew members evaded kidnapping after intervention by Malaysian authorities to protect the vessels. Five crew members returned to Jakarta late April, but one stayed in Malaysia to receive medical care after being shot during the ordeal.
The hostages were handed over to Philippine authorities after 25 days in Abu Sayyaf captivity near the Sulu islands in southern Philippines. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu stated that the government had not paid to free the hostages, but did not know about a possible ransom from the shipping company.
· June 20
Seven of the 13 crewmen aboard the tugboat Charles 001 and its barge Robby 152 were taken hostage while sailing through Sulu waters on their way back to Indonesia from the Philippines. There were two hijacking attempts on the boat by two different groups of armed militants within less than two hours.
The six remaining men who were set free returned to Samarinda, East Kalimantan, on June 26 after being questioned by the Navy a day earlier at the naval base in Balikpapan, also in East Kalimantan, on details of the incident.
Foreign Minister Retno stated that the crewmembers were united on Jolo Island, but sometimes split into two groups and constantly moved around. The kidnappers have reportedly asked for a ransom of 20 million Malaysian ringgit (US$4.9 million) for their release.
Crewmen of tugboat Charles had altered their set route to traverse conflict-prone waters in the southern Philippines in an effort to save time and costs, a crewman said. Rusianto Bersaudara, the company that owns the TB Charles, had agreed to abide by the government’s travel ban on the Sulu sea. However, the company reportedly did not provide additional funds needed for an alternate route.
· July 9
Three Indonesians fishing in Malaysian waters were kidnapped by a group of five armed men. The kidnapping took place in Felda Sahabat waters at midnight in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia.
There had been seven crew members aboard the tugboat. The three hostages carried Indonesian passports, while the remaining four (one Indonesian and three Filipinos) were let go because of a lack of documents.
What is the Abu Sayyaf group? How dire is the insurgency in the southern Philippines?
The Abu Sayyaf group (ASG), “bearer of the sword” in Arabic, was founded in 1991 and is a militant groups in the southern Philippines, which is home to many insurgent groups. There are two separate sources of conflict in the southern Philippines: the Moro insurgency and a communist insurgency.
The Moro insurgency began as a fight for independence for Bangsamoro (Moro nation) under Spanish rule in the 16th century. Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani was at one point a member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), but upon permanently returning from the Middle East, he recruited other disappointed MNLF members into what would become the ASG.
Another group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government, aims for an autonomous Moro region and agreed to give up arms in 2014. It is still unclear how the peace agreement will continue under the new president, dubbed the ‘true son of Mindanao’, Duterte has been supportive of Bangsamoro’s autonomy.
(Read also: Q&A: Philippines under Duterte - what to expect?)
Abu Sayyaf is fighting for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines and is considered by the US State Department as ‘the most violent of the terrorist groups operating in the Philippines’. The group mainly operates in the provinces of the Sulu Archipelago, namely Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Why must Indonesia be involved?
The kidnappings prove that the conflict in the southern Philippines poses a threat to Indonesian citizens. Moreover, the ongoing conflict jeopardizes the freedom of navigation in waters of the area, particularly in the notorious Sulu Sea. Indonesia has three sea lines of communication (SLOC), which serve as passages for ships in international trade. One of these SLOCs, between Kalimantan and Sulawesi, directly borders on the Sulu Sea.
Although the passage is not as busy as the Malacca Strait, it is still vital to trade, particularly coal shipments from resource-rich Kalimantan. Except for the last incident, all vessels were involved in coal exports.
Another concern is Mindanao’s condition as a terrorist haven. Terrorism expert from Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) Sidney Jones stated that as it became harder to become a fighter in Syria and Poso, Mindanao was the nearest jihad to join for Indonesian jihadists.
What will be done?
The most important task is to secure the waters near Mindanao, particularly the Sulu Sea, which borders on Malaysia and Indonesia.
Since the kidnappings, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippine have talked about greater cooperation in maritime security. The three countries are set to conduct coordinated joint patrols to maintain security in border waters. As of late June, a standard operating procedure had been agreed by all parties and was waiting to be signed, according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir. Aside from coordinated joint sea patrols, the agreement also gives permission for the nearest warship from any of the countries to enter neighboring waters to assist a ship in distress.
Indonesia and the Philippines agreed to work on concrete steps to secure the increasingly dangerous waters of the Sulu Sea through the establishment of a sea lane corridor after a meeting between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno and her new Philippine counterpart, Perfecto Yasay.
The TNI has prepared personnel to guard every barge or tugboat traveling regional waters, with at least four or five TNI personnel on each vessel.
Is a military operation the best answer?
After the third kidnapping in June, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu refered to a military operation as the last resort, to be taken only if the situation could not be resolved through negotiation. Moreover, Ryamizard added that both countries preferred to avoid exchanges of fires, as they did not want any casualties, neither among perpetrators nor hostages. Abu Sayyaf is known to have beheaded several hostages. To corner the group with a military operation puts at risk the safety of the hostages.
Indonesia’s domestic situation should also be taken into account. The TNI has been involved in a military operation against the Santoso group since 2015, with no end in sight. Guerrilla tactics employed by Santoso have increased the complexity and difficulty of the manhunt, and similar tactics would likely be used by Abu Sayyaf to evade capture.