With Indonesian and Malaysian sailors recently being taken hostage by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a Philippine terrorist group with a long history of kidnap-for-ransom operations, what is the risk posed by ASG for traders and tourists in the Southern Philippines?
Recent events have again brought international attention to instability in the Philippines’ southern provinces. On March 10th, the jihadist Abu Sayyaf Group released a video threatening to execute three foreign hostages – including a former Canadian mining executive – if the hostages’ governments did not pay a ransom.
Only a few weeks later, on March 26th, gunmen boarded two Indonesian vessels off the coast of the Philippines and took ten sailors hostage. Shortly afterwards, on April 1st, armed men seized a Malaysian cargo ship and detained four crewmen in Philippine waters. Analysts suspect ASG may be linked to this latest incident as well.
So what do recent trends in ASG’s kidnapping operations mean? And what are the economic consequences for tourism, investment, and development in the Southern Philippines?
ASG: For-Profit terrorism
ASG is a small terrorist group based in the Southern Philippines that combines a radical Islamic ideology with ethno-religious separatism and an emphasis on kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) as a means of financing its activities. ASG’s stated goal is the creation of an independent Islamic state in the Southern Philippines.
The group was once a formidable presence in the Sulu Archipelago. In the early 2000’s, it boasted over 1,200 members. In 2004, moreover, it carried out the most devastating terrorist attack in Philippine history by bombing Superferry 14, killing 116 people.
Today, however, ASG is estimated to have only around 400 active members. The group has struggled with resources and recruitment, leading it to prioritize racketeering, extortion, and KFR operations to finance its activities.
ASG has also tried to add to its credibility while bolstering its falling numbers by pledging itself to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Despite its diminished manpower and capabilities, though, ASG remains a significant threat in the Southern Philippines, as demonstrated by its recent spate of kidnappings.
Trends in ASG’s kidnapping operations
There have been three major spikes in ASG’s kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) over the last few years: 2008-2009, when the Manila Times reported on over 24 cases of kidnappings with as many as 50 victims; 2011 when the DOS reported as many as 20 individuals were kidnapped by ASG; and the current uptick from 2014-2016 which has seen at least 15 kidnappings by ASG, with as many as 40 victims.
The vast majority of ASG’s kidnappings take place in the Sulu Archipelago, particularly Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, Zamboanga City, and Zamboanga Sibugay. More recently, ASG has even conducted raids along the Malaysian coast in Semporna (2013), Lahud Datu (2014), and Sandakan (2015).
ASG is opportunistic and willing to target virtually anyone that appears vulnerable. Their victims have included major executives and government officials, but also teachers, factory workers, children, and aid workers. Kidnappings are conducted in groups that can range in size from 4 to 20-man teams, depending on the target and available manpower.
In recent years, ASG has increasingly targeted foreign citizens. The vast majority of 2008-2009 ASG kidnapping victims were Filipino citizens, but 2014-2016 has seen a marked increase in foreign hostage-taking. In 2015 alone, ASG was linked to the kidnappings of a Norwegian, a Korean, two Canadians, and two Malaysians. Presently, the Philippine military is aware of at least 18 foreign citizens being held hostage throughout the Southern Philippines by ASG and other KFR groups.
Challenges ahead for the Southern Philippines
The recent uptick in ASG’s KFR operations is likely to continue as the group tries to exploit growing instability in the Southern Philippines brought about by the stalled peace process.
The Philippine Congress’ failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the centerpiece of President Aquino’s plan to restore peace in the Southern Philippines by granting greater autonomy to the Moro population, is expected to lead to increased clashes between Islamic separatist groups and Philippine forces. This will strain the Philippine military’s resources and put ASG in a better positioned to carry out criminal activities.
This mounting risk of kidnapping will only further dampen Mindanao’s economic prospects. The Malaysian government is already considering whether to halt seaborne trade with the Southern Philippines in response to the latest incidents. Perhaps even more significantly, the growing dangers posed by groups like ASG will undermine the government’s attempts to strengthen the fledgling tourism industry and attract new investment in its southern provinces.