- Since October 2016 the militant Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has been involved in a growing number of kidnappings targeting commercial vessels in the Celebes and Sulu seas between Borneo and the Philippines.
- The shift reflects the group’s growing capacity to successfully attack faster-moving ships that will place larger commercial vessels at increasing risk in the Celebes and Sulu seas.
- The attacks are set to continue as military operations have seen only limited success against ASG and maritime authorities have been slow to respond to the attacks since they began in March 2016.
The Philippines-based Islamist group ASG 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 they 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 20 October and in the second attack, gunmen abducted six crew from the Royal 16 bulk carrier on 11 November. 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 appear to have acquired high-powered speedboats and fast-moving skiffs, as well as techniques which allow them 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 manoeuvres or prevent the assailants from hooking onto the ship’s structure. ASG are notoriously violent and have opened fire on vessels during attacks. On 7 November 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 towards targeting commercial vessels is likely to be a deliberate and sustained tactical shift for the group as ASG have 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 continue 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 combatted 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 their Basilan and Jolo strongholds. However, they have failed to make any notable gains against the group, which has successfully employed guerrilla tactics against the military, indicating the group will be able to maintain various bases in the region for the at least the medium term. In November, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he is willing to negotiate with the group, but its fragmented organisational structure and increasingly criminal motivations means 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.