Cash-strapped and under pressure from security forces, Abu Sayyaf is likely to pick up its piracy and kidnapping in coming months, security experts told a recent online forum.
Five Indonesians, including a minor, are being held by Abu Sayyaf, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said, but there have been no new kidnappings since January, according to authorities.
“There will be more kidnappings,” Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamic militancy in Indonesia, told an online discussion last week, adding that anyone, including Indonesian sailors, could be targeted.
Abu Sayyaf evolved from a terrorist group to become a criminal gang engaging in violence and banditry, according to Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). Its militants frequently target seafarers in the Sulu and Celebes seas near the borders of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, she said.
Ali Fauzi, a former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) member and executive director of the Circle of Peace Foundation, told BenarNews that Abu Sayyaf members resort to pirate attacks because they lack funds.
“Their ancestors in the Sulu Kingdom were notorious for their piracy tradition,” Ali said. “They need money, not only for their struggle but to support poor people.
“They are considered Robin Hoods. They and their community need each other – some kind of a symbiosis of mutualism. If they are pursued by the Philippine authorities, they can blend in with the people and the people will protect them,” he said.
Judha Nugraha, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs director for protection of citizens overseas, said militants carried out 16 kidnappings targeting 54 Indonesians, including in Sabah waters, since 2016.
Many of the hostages were from Wakatobi, a regency in Southeast Sulawesi province, he said while urging authorities there to provide job opportunities to prevent citizens from exposure to pirate attacks overseas.
“We can’t forever rely on ransom payments. We need to address the root of the problem and focus on prevention efforts,” Judha told participants in last week’s discussion.
Ali, whose foundation is dedicated to de-radicalizing former terrorism convicts and combatants, said more Indonesians have been kidnapped than have been reported.
History of kidnappings
IPAC researcher Deka Anwar explained that piracy and kidnappings have occurred since 2010 following an increase in coal exports from Indonesia to the Philippines, adding about 93 percent of the loads pass through Mindanao waters. The slow barges allow Abu Sayyaf militants to abduct sailors.
There was a lull in kidnappings between 2016 to 2017 following large-scale operations by the Philippine military against the militants and a series of money transfers from IS to Abu Sayyaf, Deka said.
Kidnappings resumed in Sulu in 2018. Indonesian crews have been targeted because ransom payments have been made for their release, bringing in large amounts of money for Abu Sayyaf, he said.
Ali, who acknowledged knowing Abu Sayyaf leaders, said negotiators must be skillful to secure the release of hostages without paying huge ransoms.
Malaysia’s Daily Express website reported earlier this month that the Philippine Coast Guard had warned of a possible kidnap-for-ransom attempts by Abu Sayyaf in Sabah and from boats in the Celebes Sea.
In addition, the Singapore-based Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) said it received information from the Philippine Coast Guard on July 2 that five members of Abu Sayyaf had been spotted on a speedboat.