Stopping the ‘Abu Sayyaf’

When the two Germans being held by an armed group in Sulu were released on Oct. 17 after six months in captivity, a Philippine military spokesman announced that the foreigners were freed because of the pressure exerted by the military and that, in keeping with government policy, no ransom was paid to the kidnappers. The kidnappers quickly countered by saying that the Germans were released after P250 million in ransom money was delivered. As if to rub salt into the wound, the bandit group posted a video clip showing their armed members hovering around bundles of crisp P1,000-bills.

Why? Is this just their way of sneering at the military’s failed effort to free the hostages? What did they hope to gain from showing the world how much money they reaped from their predatory activities? I think that if we look closely at the larger game being played here, we might get a clearer idea of the complex situation that is simplistically summed up as the “Abu Sayyaf” problem.

I prefer to put that notorious name between quotes because I do not believe we are dealing here with the same group associated with the late Abdurajak Janjalani, the founder and ideologue of the original Abu Sayyaf.   I think that the captors of Stefan Viktor Okonek and his companion, Henrike Dielen, have nothing to do with either the al-Qaida or the Islamic State (IS). I believe that the prominent display of the IS banner in their self-taken photos and videos is nothing more than a shallow attempt to wrap their brutal predation in politico-religious garments. These are neither militants nor radicals.

We are dealing here with bandits, plain and simple, who have converted their capacity for violence into a profitable enterprise. We are not talking here of one gang, but of several groups operating in their respective domains. Some of these groups may even function as guarantors of order in their communities, where governmental institutions are weak.

For all the menacing weapons around their bodies, these are not full-time armies. Loosely structured, they tend to cluster around a battle-scarred key figure and his lieutenants. Their rank-and-file members are unemployed or out-of-school young men, often in their teens or early 20s, who are in quest of easy money. As soon as they get their share of the ransom, they go back to whatever irregular jobs they may be doing in their villages. Or they use the money to fund their exit from the impoverished communities in which they were born and raised. Some may even resume schooling as if nothing happened—until the next “project” presents itself.

All this makes it exceedingly difficult to identify the individuals that constitute these groups. It would not at all be surprising that, when arrested, some of the leaders might claim membership in any of the separatist movements that have existed in Mindanao. This pattern of predation has prompted some observers to refer to these groups as “lost commands.”

So, to go back to the original question: Why would it be necessary for the “Abu Sayyaf” group that received the ransom money from the German government to broadcast through social media the actual payment of the ransom for the release of its two nationals? I can think of two reasons.

First, it is important to assure the local communities that harbor or provide support services to kidnappers during the long period of waiting between the abduction and the actual payment of the ransom that they will be amply rewarded for their cooperation. The posting of photos and videos of the ransom money on social media is not mere bravura but an irresistible enticement for young Moros to take part in a crime that appears unstoppable.

Second, this prominent exhibition of the fruit of the crime may be a way of encouraging everyone who harbors any resentment against the established order to take the initiative by seizing target individuals who can be exchanged for ransom and turn them over to the “professionals” who will conduct the negotiations. Foreigners from affluent countries are obviously the victims of choice. Okonek and Dielen were seized from their yacht near Palawan while they were on their way back to Sabah. Their movement might have been monitored by criminal elements from the time they docked in Palawan. It is also likely that the group that abducted them is different from the group that hid them for several months, and from the group that finally negotiated ransom.

The nodal points of this criminal network might be known if the police or military could follow the trail of the ransom money. I think no one will be surprised if, at any point in this sordid episode, some local officials or policemen were found to have collaborated by looking the other way or by actually assisting the kidnappers.

Okonek and Dielen were kidnapped on April 25. There was no news about them until two weeks later. On May 6, Mindanao State University professor Octavio Dinampo announced: “The two Germans are now with Radulan Sahiron.” He even identified the men who brought them to Patikul, Sulu. How is it possible that no local official knew?

In a chapter he wrote for the fascinating book, “Out of the Shadows: Violent Conflict and the Real Economy of Mindanao,” Eric Gutierrez argued that local elites must be tapped as an important part of the solution to the problem. “They are best placed to negotiate, bargain or add pressure on communities that provide refuge and support to bandits. They should not be excluded and instead turned as effective instruments for stable and inclusive community leadership.” This goes against prevailing intuition about local elites, but I think he may be right.