Maritime operations carried out by the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf (AS) in the Sulu and Celebes seas remain sporadic. NYA MarTrackTM data shows only one significant incident suspected to have been perpetrated by AS was recorded in 2018 to date. In contrast, there were six attacks recorded during the same period in 2017.
The sole incident recorded this year occurred off the Philippine island of Basilan on 16 February. The perpetrators’ modus operandi had the hallmarks of previous AS operations, involving gunmen on board multiple speedboats targeting a commercial vessel. Notably, the crew of the attacked vessel used the unconventional measure of throwing an oil / water mixture to repel the assailants. The unsuccessful attack marked the end of a period of maritime inactivity by AS since a vessel hijack and crewmember kidnapping on 14 October 2017.
DECREASING OPERATIONAL CAPABILITY
Whilst the 16 February incident highlights the underlying threat to vessels transiting in the Sulu and Celebes seas, it occurred amid persistent anti-militant operations by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, as well as multinational naval offensives.
In the aftermath of the Marawi City siege by AS militants and the allied Maute Islamist militant group, additional AFP military assets have been deployed against AS onshore. The AFP’s primary objective assigned by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is to eliminate AS, and local reports indicate frequent clashes between military personnel and militants. On 14 March, for example, five AS militants were killed during an assault by an AFP Scout Ranger unit on Jolo island, Sulu province.
In addition to ongoing military operations hampering AS’s onshore operations, regional cooperation initiatives launched to mitigate the threat to vessels have limited the militants’ ability to move freely offshore. The Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TAC) signed by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in June 2017 involves rotational navy and air patrols responsible for patrolling the Sulu and Celebes seas.
Australia is contributing to regional anti-piracy measures to bolster littoral states’ maritime security capabilities. On 13 March it was reported that the Philippine and Australian navies are holding a three-week anti-piracy exercise in the Sulu archipelago aimed at boosting both forces’ anti-piracy and anti-terrorism preparedness.
A RESILIENT PIRACY THREAT
In spite of the ongoing land and sea operations, AS are assessed to be a resilient actor in the Sulu archipelago. Strong clan and familial loyalties ensure that militants retain support by local communities who provide aid in the form of shelter, the provision of resources and non-cooperation with the AFP. These clan ties reportedly extend into the local government and AS elements are believed to work closely with individuals involved in local politics and the police force.
Local allegiances are supplemented with funding from illicit activities that are not solely confined to kidnap for ransom, but also include the trafficking of weapons and drugs. Consequently, and although AS’s ability to kidnap vessel crewmembers for ransom has been weakened by domestic and international action, established support networks and multiple funding streams will ensure the group continues to pose a threat to commercial shipping in the Sulu and Celebes seas in the short term.
NYA24 combines the latest technology in vessel tracking and maritime threat monitoring with robust analysis – helping NYA’s clients understand the threats to their people, information, property and reputation. The NYA24 analyst team monitors for maritime security incidents around the world using a variety of open-source and privileged information sources.