As the Philippines refuses to negotiate with Abu Sayyaf militants demanding ransom for two German hostages held captive since April, analyst Joseph Franco talks to DW about why the kill threat should be taken seriously.
The US-based terrorism monitoring group SITE reported that the extremists said they would kill one of two German hostages (main picture) unless a 250 million pesos (5.62 million USD) ransom was paid and Berlin stopped supporting the US-led campaign against the "Islamic State" (IS) group in Iraq and Syria. Manila responded on September 25, saying the Philippine government doesn't negotiate with Islamist militants. "We will not be intimidated by these gestures and actions. We will continue to contain them," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
The German hostages - aged 71 and 55 - are thought to have been seized by the rebels from their yacht off the western province of Palawan on April 25. The Abu Sayyaf (ASG), a small group of Islamic militants based in the southern Philippines, have been blamed for some of the worst terrorist attacks in the Philippines and high-profile kidnappings of foreign hostages. At least one ASG commander has pledged allegiance to IS.
Joseph Franco, a terrorism expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, says in a DW interview that while the group may present itself as an organization aimed at establishing a caliphate across Mindanao, it is not primarily driven by ideology, but by financial interests. But while the group may be weaker than before, there are good reasons to take their ransom demands seriously, he adds.
DW: The ASG has threatened to kill one of the hostages unless a ransom of more than five million USD is paid. How seriously should the authorities take this threat?
Joseph Franco: Philippine authorities appear to have taken the demands quite seriously and with good reason. The ASG has executed Western hostages before as seen in the beheading of American Guillermo Sobero in 2001. It must be pointed out however, that 2001 was when the ASG was at the height of its armed capability and was flush with cash after ransom payments were made for the release of previously kidnapped foreigners.
Franco: 'Philippine authorities appear to have taken the demands quite seriously and with good reason'
That said, the Abu Sayyaf of today pales in comparison with that of 2000-2001. So I think the recent kidnappings are also a ploy to bring attention, as it has become more reminiscent of a bandit group.
What is the group fighting for?
The ASG presents itself as an organization aimed at establishing a caliphate across Mindanao, centered on the southern island provinces off the coast of Western Mindanao such as Basilan and Sulu. The group doesn't have a strong ideological heritage and refers to the discourse of Islamism and jihad only in a nominal fashion.
The ASG kidnappings in Eastern Malaysia between late 2013 and early 2014 reveal the group's weakness as an ideological movement. ASG has not even attempted to present the kidnappings as political acts; their preoccupation with profit-making overshadows their ideological moorings.
In 1998, the demise of ASG founder Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani - arguably the only ideologue in the group's history - stunted its ideological development. No other ASG faction leader has produced something to complement or rival Janjalani's written tract, the Jumaah Abu Sayyaf. For opportunistic individuals, joining the ASG is a way to monetize their possession of illegal firearms. Mindanao is a region beset with small arms proliferation, where firearm possession is part of a wider gun culture.
How is the group structured?
The Philippine military refers to ASG bands as "community armed groups" and as yet has not confirmed who the actual parties holding the German hostages are. In general, the ASG has no solid chain of command or control, with members simply switching allegiance based on convenience. It is also not uncommon for armed individuals - whether formally aligned with the ASG or not - to provide assistance to relatives who have concrete links to the Islamist group.
Who is funding them?
The ASG is self-sufficient and, aside from kidnapping, are known to engage in extortion and protection rackets (reportedly for marijuana growers in Sulu), so it is very unlikely that they have any foreign funding.
The ASG factions involved in kidnappings operate similar to a cottage industry. The islands off the coast of Western Mindanao host a number of individuals who grab the victims."Facilitators" shunt the kidnapped to villages that provide "room and board" - a euphemism for detention - and to the local officials who act as "negotiators." It is a similar modus operandi used by organized kidnapping groups operating elsewhere in the Philippines.
How has Manila dealt with earlier cases of kidnappings?
Up to now, the Philippine government's response has been mixed. For domestic kidnappings of, for instance, Philippine civil servants - such as rural medical personnel and teachers - the incidents are treated as law enforcement issues. But there are also indications that some kidnappings of local entrepreneurs have gone unreported.
In high-profile kidnapping cases, however, the armed forces deploy their special operations units. But the problem is that such operations tend to escalate and antagonize other armed groups in the area, as happened during the 2007 abduction of Italian priest Father Giancarlo Bossi, who was released after two months in captivity.
ASG members and sympathizers often flee to areas controlled by other groups such as the secessionist MNLF and MILF to ride out the brunt of a military offensive. Even while differing in motives, these armed groups would gladly join forces and gang up on Philippine security forces in a practice called "pintakasi." While the motives behind a specific incident of pintakasi are unclear, this practice is largely utilized as a tactic for armed groups in the Western Mindanao to get their hands on the firearms and other supplies of decimated military units.
Thus, the ASG kidnapping "industry" is highly embedded within the context of internal conflict and general insecurity in the area. Pintakasi has also figured in clashes not involving Philippine security forces and had been used for score-settling and family/clan disputes. For instance, mixed mobs of ASG-MILF-MNLF members are known to have launched attacks against members of a clan/community supportive or related by kinship to the Philippine security forces.
Abu Sayyaf commanders have reportedly pledged allegiance to "Islamic State." What is your view on this?
I would deem the pledge a publicity stunt. The ASG is known for its clever use of media and propaganda. Latching onto the IS brand is an attempt to prop up its flagging reputation. As I stated earlier, ideology is not the best way to lure a prospective ASG recruit. The recruitment patterns of the ASG remain community-based and financially motivated. Bluntly put: money talks.
Joining any of the ASG bands is no different from picking up a trade. When you take a look at the areas where the ASG is most active, you will find that these places are bereft of adequate infrastructure, with residents forced to rely on subsistence fishing, and endure poor agricultural conditions.
As for the pledge of allegiance to IS, keeping up appearances is important among the rebel groups of Mindanao and beyond. And what better way for the ASG to become feared but to appropriate the symbols and discourse of IS which is currently seen by many Western countries as one of the biggest security threats. In other words, the 'pledge' is more likely to benefit the ASG than IS as the latter apparently already has a surplus of fighters coming from places such as Europe.
What will it take for Manila to crack down on the rebels?
This is quite a difficult question. It will require a comprehensive approach beyond military offensives. Manila already knows what it needs to do as seen in the armed forces' Internal Peace and Security Plan, which calls for "Winning the Peace" and "People-Centered Security." But, of course, one thing is to lay out the plan and another to implement it fully.
For the kidnappings to stop, it would be most helpful to reduce the supply of illegal firearms to Mindanao. Moreover, law enforcement units free from associated networks and patronage should be organized in order to help counter the culture of impunity, and public servants who facilitate the ASG's kidnapping cottage industry should be penalized.
Ultimately, Manila should seek closer security ties with other states bordering Mindanao, specifically with the authorities tasked with securing Malaysian Borneo and Indonesian Sulawesi.
Joseph Franco is Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.