The Abu Sayyaf Group has been involved in a growing number of kidnappings targeting commercial vessels.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a Philippines-based Islamist organization, has conducted tens of attacks against vessels in the Sulu and Celebes Seas since March 2016—although since October, it has increasingly targeted larger commercial vessels, heightening the risk to global shipping in the region. Previously, the group had only been able to abduct seafarers from slower-moving tugs and fishing boats, and has kidnapped tens of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors since ASG first started targeting vessels in March.
ASG has not officially claimed the attacks, but the location and violent nature of the kidnappings strongly indicates the group, which is notorious for conducting kidnap for ransom attacks in the region, is responsible.
Two of the reported kidnappings were executed successfully and saw a total of eight crew members abducted from the ships, demonstrating the group’s capacity to successfully kidnap crew from larger commercial vessels.
One attack saw two crew members kidnapped from a heavy lift carrier on October 20, and in the second attack, gunmen abducted six crew members from the Royal 16 bulk carrier on November 11.
Masked gunmen, thought to be ASG members, have conducted foiled attacks against at least three other commercial vessels in November comprising two bulk carriers and a chemical tanker, indicating a sustained threat to commercial vessels operating in the region.
The shift in tactics signals ASG has increased its maritime capabilities to successfully abduct crew from large, underway commercial vessels, posing a credible threat to the shipping industry in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. The group appears to have acquired high-powered speedboats and fast-moving skiffs, as well as techniques that allow its members to board larger vessels than previously seen in their hijackings earlier in 2016.
In some instances, alert crew members have sighted the gunmen as they approached, enabling the vessel to take evasive maneuvers or prevent the assailants from hooking onto the ship’s structure. ASG is notoriously violent and has opened fire on vessels during attacks. On November 7, ASG militants shot dead a tourist who reportedly pointed a gun at one assailant during the kidnap of a German national from a yacht off an island in the Sulu Archipelago.
The move toward targeting commercial vessels is likely to be a deliberate and sustained tactical shift for the group, as ASG has historically targeted kidnap victims perceived to solicit higher ransoms.
ASG has a strong record for kidnapping foreign nationals due to the higher ransoms they can deliver, and the group is likely to view crew members backed by large foreign companies as equally valuable. In the attack on the Royal 16, a total of 13 junior crew members were left behind while the master, chief mate, second officer, third officer, bosun and assistant bosun were all abducted, indicating ASG is selective in its approach, only kidnapping those deemed to be of highest value.
Now ASG has acquired the means to abduct crew from larger commercial vessels and continues to evade security forces both on land and at sea, such attacks look set to continue.
The previous wave of piracy in Southeast Asia in the first half of 2015 was combated largely by operations on land against the criminal gangs perpetrating the attacks, although onshore tactics have for years proved unsuccessful in bringing ASG’s activities to an end. Most attacks at sea appear to have emanated from the Sulu Archipelago, which provides a rich network of islands from which to launch attacks and stake hideouts, enabling the group to remain mobile in order to evade military operations.
The Philippine military has conducted a series of offensives against the group in 2016 in its Basilan and Jolo strongholds. However, the army has failed to make any notable gains against the group, which has successfully employed guerrilla tactics against the military, indicating that ASG will be able to maintain various bases in the region for at least the medium term.
In November, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he is willing to negotiate with the group, but its fragmented organizational structure and increasingly criminal motivations mean it would be difficult to offer concessions in negotiations that would satisfy all members of the group.
Maritime authorities in the region have been slow to respond to the attacks and have failed to secure the Sulu and Celebes Seas, despite repeated pledges to cooperate more closely and conduct joint patrols, leaving the waters vulnerable to future attacks. Even basic measures such as allowing Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine maritime forces to pursue suspected criminals into each other’s waters were only agreed in August, months after the attacks first began in March.
In the absence of any effective force or mitigation measures against the group, the abductions in the region look set to continue for the foreseeable future as ASG is under persistent pressure to gain ransom funds to finance its battles with Philippine government forces.
*[This article is based on a report by Protection Group International.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Yullz