Abu Sayyaf Group remains resilient within Sulu and Celebes seas

17/10/2017

According to reports from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the Islamist militant Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is planning to resume targeted kidnappings near the Sabah Coastal areas (Malaysia) or hijackings in Tawi-Tawi waters (Philippines) in the short term. Korean nationals and Korean vessels have been identified as the group’s priority targets however, it is highly likely they will target other nationalities if they were to be unsuccessful in capturing Korean nationals. As of 8 October the terrorist group was sighted in the coastal area of Parang Sulu in a blue jungkong-type speedboat complete with three mega- engines (200HP).

A resilient structure

ASG has proven to be a fluid, resilient force despite continued efforts by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to eradicate the criminal organisation from their local strongholds. Part of ASG’s resiliency lies in its loosely organised structure with no overall centralised leadership.

Although various factions operate throughout the region, the group have previously focused their kidnapping and hijacking operations in the Sulu Archipelago, most particularly in late 2016 and early 2017. Between October 2016 and February 2017 NYA24 recorded ten successful hijackings of vessels and subsequent kidnappings of crewmembers in the Sulu and Celebes seas. During these incidents, at least 27 crewmembers were kidnapped, most of them Indonesian or Filipino nationals. The perpetrators of the kidnappings were mostly suspected to be members of ASG. Since then, the region has witnessed a substantial drop in pirate activity, with the latest hijacking recorded in the area occurring on 19 February 2017 when a Vietnamese-flagged bulk carrier was hijacked in the Sulu Sea.

The recent drop in reported hijackings in the Sulu Archipelago can notably be explained by a greater security cooperation in the region. Fears of Islamist terror groups, such as ASG, establishing a significant outpost in the Southern Philippines combined with the important trade route through the Sulu Sea has encouraged Malaysia and Indonesia to cooperate in patrolling areas of common concern. On 12 October 2017 top defence and military officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines launched the Trilateral Air Patrol. Four months earlier, the three countries launched a coordinated sea patrol which was signed on 14 July 2016 with the aim of deterring kidnappings and piracy.

More attacks can be expected

Despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s aggressive rhetoric against ASG and the increased security collaboration between the regional states, the group has been able to maintain its profitable venture of kidnap for ransom and maritime piracy. In 2016 alone, the group secured approximately US$7.4 million from maritime piracy. It is likely that the combined efforts of the Filipino, Malaysian and Indonesian forces will merely mitigate the threat, with future attacks to be expected. It is therefore imperative for vessels transiting this high risk area to have a contingency plan in place and be aware of recent incidents.