(By James Hookway; Wall Street Journal | 18 Nov 2016 10:02 AM E.T.)
Philippines soldiers standing guard on Sept. 5 inside a military camp in Jolo in the southern Philippines, where they are fighting
the Abu Sayyaf terror group. (PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES)
MANILA -- Abu Sayyaf, once written off as one of the global jihadist movement’s also-rans, is gaining strength in the southern Philippines by chasing down high-value victims at sea and ransoming them off for millions of dollars.
After a relative lull for most of a decade, kidnappings have surged to more than 20 annually since 2014, when the group’s main leader Isnilon Hapilonswore allegiance to Islamic State.
That rebranding --- and the accompanying brutality, including beheadings --- has generated international headlines and raised fears that the island-dotted region could re-emerge as a hub for Islamist terrorists, as it was for al Qaeda in the 1990s.
The group’s resurgence also amplifies the potential consequences of President Rodrigo Duterte’s plans to scale back military ties with the U.S., especially at a time when like-minded militants have been sprouting up around Southeast Asia.
A photo released by the Philippines Armed Forces showing soldiers recovering the yacht with markings
'Rockall' on Nov. 6 in the southern Philippines. Photo: European Pressphoto Agency
“The association with Islamic State has injected a lot more vigor into groups such as Abu Sayyaf and other sympathizers in Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Richard Javad Heydarian,a Manila-based security analyst.
He notes that a Malaysian in Syria has helped to organize bombings and attacks across Southeast Asia. In January, Indonesia suffered its first Islamic State-linked attack, in the capital of Jakarta, and has seen more since.
The U.S. in 2002 began training Filipino troops to take on Abu Sayyaf—with some success. After years of pressure, the group’s numbers have dwindled to around 400 fighters, down from about 2,000 some 15 years ago. Many of its best-known commanders have been captured or killed.
But the influx of ransom money has helped the guerrillas stock up on arms and ammunition as well as pay off local communities or possibly even troops to keep quiet about their presence, Philippine officials say. Successive military campaigns have also forced Abu Sayyaf to look to the sea for new targets.
Since the middle of last year, dozens of people have been kidnapped by the group including Western tourists, Asian tugboat crews and fishermen—indicating no apparent strategy.
One of the latest victims was a 70-year-old German, Jürgen Kantner,who authorities say was snatched from his yacht “Rockall” on Nov. 6 as it anchored between the southern Philippines and Malaysia. His partner, Sabine Mertz,59, was found dead.
The Philippine military said that an Abu Sayyaf leader called to tell them that Ms. Mertz had fought back so they shot her. They then took Mr. Kantner captive, most likely to the thick jungles of Jolo island.
On Nov. 11, guerrillas kidnapped six Vietnamese crew of a cargo ship.
The president, who has vowed to wipe out Abu Sayyaf, has ordered the end of joint-assault training with American forces as part of his bid for detente with China. But counterterrorism and other exercises will continue and U.S. forces will continue to have access to Philippine bases, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
A joint Philippine military and police report seen by The Wall Street Journal and first reported by the Associated Press estimated that Abu Sayyaf guerrillas obtained over 350 million pesos, around $7 million, in ransom payments in the first six months of this year.
The amounts may pale in comparison to Islamic State’s income in Iraq and Syria, but it can go a long way among the impoverished islands of the southern Philippines, potentially luring in new recruits.
Mr. Duterte has said 50 million pesos, or around $1.2 million, was paid for the release of a Norwegian man in September. He didn’t elaborate on how the payment was made or who provided the money.
The Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad,had been abducted in September 2015 along with two Canadians and a Filipina woman from a marina near Davao City. The Filipina was released, but the two Canadians were beheaded earlier this year after their government refused to pay. Prime Minister Justin Trudeauhas said doing so “would endanger the lives of more Canadians.”
The injection of more cash into Abu Sayyaf’s hands is also complicating the president’s efforts to build a lasting peace in the southern Philippines, where communist guerrillas and more moderate Muslim secessionist groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and another led by Nur Misuarialso vie for influence.
The arrest of a village leader on Jolo this month is a case in point. Fauzia Abdullawas charged with allegedly providing food and other logistical support for Abu Sayyaf members. She couldn’t be reached for comment.
“With these ransom payments they have additional resources at their disposal,” said Mr. Heydarian in Manila. “It really puts the pressure on the Duterte administration to get a peace deal in place and get it done right. That’s the only way to remove this ecosystem that allows Abu Sayyaf to flourish.”