The Abu Sayyaf Group has done it again. For the third time in as many months, the kidnap-for-ransom group abducted seven Indonesian sailors in Philippine waters near Tawi-Tawi. They have been doing this with astonishing regularity and our authorities cannot seem to be able to do anything about it.
The Abu Sayyaf continues to give the country a big black eye and gives the impression that our government cannot establish law and order over its own territory. Now, there is a report out from Singapore that our country has given permission to Indonesia to operate within our territorial jurisdiction to go after the Abu Sayyaf.
I hope that this report is not accurate; it would be a big blow to our national prestige. Kidnapping has become a growth industry in Sulu where the Abu Sayyaf operates. They are like the Somali pirates who abducted so many Filipino sailors along the coast of Africa several years ago.
According to the recently released Filipina hostage Marites Flor, everybody in the community is involved—from guarding the hostages and acting as lookouts in case the military or police are nearby. If ransom is paid, like in the case of the Malaysian hostages, everybody in the community also benefits. It would not be surprising if some elements in the government also get part of the loot. Many believe this has been happening.
In the case of the P130 million paid by the Malaysian hostages, it was reported that only P100 million went to the Abu Sayyaf. The rest could not be accounted for. Maybe the P30 million could be what is known as handling costs. This is perhaps one of the reasons why it is difficult to hunt and destroy the group.
The Abu Sayyaf basically operates in the provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. The land sizes of these three provinces are not really large if one compares it to the area where the Boko Haram of Nigeria operates. If we compare the situation in both countries, there are certain similarities. The Nigerian military has often been accused of incompetence and corruption. Local officials there are also either afraid of or sympathetic to them.
Considering the area where the Abu Sayyaf operates, finding and destroying them is doable—if only the government had the resolve. But our intelligence seems to be poor despite the fact that all the senior leaders of the group and their families are well-known in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.
The incoming AFP Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Ricardo Visaya, is proposing a non-stop operation to hunt the group down to finally destroy them. This is well and good if the Armed Forces can sustain such a campaign. But this type of strategy has been tried before and the Abu Sayaf is still around doing what it does best—making money by kidnapping. There should be a change of strategy, more preparation, and more resources poured in such an endeavor. Simply putting more men will not do the trick. If human intelligence effort is difficult because the whole population in these three provinces constitute the mass base of the Abu Sayyaf, investment should be made to improve and enhance the electronic intelligence capability of the military operating in the area.
Several years ago, in the kidnapping of the Burnham missionary couple in which the husband died during the rescue attempts, the one that finally pinpointed the location of their leader, Abu Sabaya, was technology. Right now, we have not really exhausted all our efforts to improve our intelligence-gathering capability. This is perhaps one of the biggest hindrances why we cannot neutralize the group.
Currently, most of the kidnappings are centered around the island of Mindanao. But it is not in the realm of impossibility that they might start conducting raids in the Visayas. What happens if one night, the Abu Sayyaf will conduct a raid in one of the hotels in Boracay full of foreign guests? I dread to think about this scenario.
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The announcement by President Duterte that he is willing to talk peace with the Abu Sayyaf comes as a surprise to many people. This is because the ASG is simply a criminal group specializing in kidnap for ransom. It does not espouse any ideological belief like other Islamic groups operating in other parts of the world.
Sure, it has pledged allegiance to ISIS. But there is nothing in what it is doing that resembles anything bordering legitimate grievance. Our mainstream media should also stop calling them jihadists or militants because they are not. The Abu Sayyaf is simply a criminal group. We do not know the motives of President Duterte in wanting to talk to them. Whether it is simply a tactical ploy or a sincere belief that our armed services are totally incapable of neutralizing them and is therefore better to talk is not yet clear.
What, for instance, will they ask? An independent Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi where they can freely operate and go on abducting people. Hopefully, the President will explore other options. Talking to them only gives them legitimacy. Neutralizing them is not easy, for sure, but it is doable.
There has to be a plan that does not only involve the military but the entire government. The military is the most important component in any plan because in order for development to take place, the government must first establish control over Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi.
There must first be law and order. Without these two, nothing can be done.