Philippines Abu Sayyaf beheadings illustrate threat to foreign nationals in south
On 13 June, Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS), announced it had beheaded a second Canadian hostage after a ransom deadline passed. Robert Hall had been held captive by the group for nine months and his execution comes two months after another Canadian hostage, John Ridsel, was killed in a similar fashion. The beheadings highlight the continued threat posed by Abu Sayyaf, as well as its reliance on ransom payments and criminal groups to remain operational.Both Canadians were kidnapped from Samal Island, hundreds of kilometres from Jolo, where they were held captive by Abu Sayyaf, in September 2015. This follows a similar pattern of previous hostages taken from southern Philippines and Malaysia’s Borneo region. Despite the group previously being blamed for the abductions in Malaysia, local criminals have been implicated in the kidnappings, subsequently transferring the hostages to Jolo and Abu Sayyaf, likely for a transactional cost. The Samal abductions, including a Norwegian national and a local national, are thought to also have been conducted by criminal elements before being transferred to Abu Sayyaf. This highlights the increasingly criminal nature of Abu Sayyaf and its growing links with criminal networks in the region.
Previous kidnap-for-ransom attacks have targeted Chinese nationals, Malaysian fishermen and other tourists in the region. Foreign nationals are frequently targeted for their high-ransom potential. Criminal gangs also present a credible kidnap threat to wealthy businesspeople, elevated by the previous payment of large ransoms to secure hostages’ release. The robust security response to the original kidnapping - including a military operation in the Sulu archipelago - will set a precedent for future kidnapping situations, possibly putting off Abu Sayyaf and other criminal groups from conducting operations as the rewards have so far failed to materialise. However, the threat of kidnap remains extant in southern regions of the Philippines and eastern Sabah, Malaysia, as the Malaysian government has reportedly previously paid up to USD 11 million for hostages. Indeed, the Sulu military operation was originally launched following the paying of ransoms for two German hostages in October 2014, estimated to have been around USD 5.6 million.
The convergence of militant and criminal organisations is a common theme worldwide, particularly as groups come under increasing pressure from security forces and external sources of funding become scarce. With little local traction meaning that the establishment of an administered territory is unlikely, militant groups rely on criminal networks and tactics to self-fund, with little other aims than to enrich the leaders and possibly attract new recruits.