As the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) gets richer through illegal activities like kidnapping and extortion, they are posing a security threat to Philippines and its neighbors Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia by using their ill-gotten wealth to acquire more arms, hire new recruits and bribe community leaders to make them turn a blind eye to their crimes.
According to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, ASG received as much as $1.1 million in ransom for the release of Norwegian captive Kjartan Sekkingstad who was kidnapped from a tourist resort in September 2015 along with a Filipina who has been freed.
Since 2012, the group has made $10 million from kidnapping and extortion activities. This is more than enough to ensure a luxurious life for the 400-odd armed members of the group operating in the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu.
A month before the release of Sekkingstad, Duterte had announced $1.1 million ransom was delivered to the ASG. Sekkingstad’s release came on Sept 17.
In June, a Malaysian media group reported that the ASG received $3 million for the release of Malaysian brothers Wong Teck Kang, 31, and Teck Chii, 29, their cousin Lau Jung Hien, and Wong Hung Sing, 34. The four sailors were kidnapped from a commercial barge in the waters off Pulau Ligitan on April 1 as they were returning to Tawau, Sabah, after sending a cargo of wood to Manila.
In October 2014, the ASG released German captives Dr. Stefan Viktor Okonek and Henrike Dielen in Patikul, Sulu, after the two were abducted near Borneo and held captive for six months.
ASG spokesman Abu Rami told Philippine media they received $5.6 million in ransom for the release of Okonek and Dielen. The Germany government denied paying any ransom but ASG circulated a video clip of the ransom money being handed over to them for the Germans’ release.
Among other known kidnapping cases by the ASG is that of Australian Warren Richard Rodwell who was abducted from his home in Ipil town, Zamboanga Sibugay province, in December 2011. He was released in March 2013 after his family paid $160,000 in ransom.
In June 2012, Jordanian journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani, Al-Arabiya’s TV bureau chief for Southeast Asia, and his two Filipino companions, Ramelito Vela and Rolando Letrero, were abducted in Jolo, Sulu. Vela and Letrero were freed in February 2013 while Atyani was released in December 2013 after the ransom was delivered to ASG.
In April this year, Gao Huayun, a Chinese national, and a Filipino resort worker Marcy “Mimi” Dayawan, were abducted from Singamata Reef Resort in Malaysia and brought to Sulu by an armed group suspected to be the Abu Sayyaf. They were released on May 31.
Mindanao residents believe kidnappings have made ASG members instant millionaires.
Duterte’s policy to eradicate the ASG in their hometown is not an easy task despite the deployment of 10,000 trained soldiers as the group has been using their financial resources to mislead the military in their counter intelligence measures.
Major Filemon Tan, military spokesman, has been seeking the support of communities to cooperate with the government. But the ASG is giving a portion of their ransom money to community residents who are now having second thoughts about cooperating with the military.
Analyst Rommel Banloi, executive director of Terrorism and Violence think tank agency in Manila, says ransom payments are used by the group to buy arms, pay off members, hire new recruits and bribe community elders to make them keep quiet.
“They realized that kidnapping for ransom is an enterprise to finance their movement,” Banloi was quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
An AFP report said ASG remained elusive for Philippine military authorities because of the group’ mastery of the terrain and the support they received from communities.
Philippines military has finally found a new ally, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in their fight against ASG. The MNLF, through the sub leadership of Commander Abraham Joel, is collaborating with the military with which it had signed a peace agreement in September 1996.
General Arnel dela Vega of the Sulu Task Force was quoted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer saying that he “hopes to see more collaboration from different stakeholders in the coming days to destroy the ASG.”
Noel Tarrazona is a freelance international journalist
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