MANILA // With ultra-fast boats, millions in ransom payments and sympathetic locals, pro-ISIL militants on lawless southern Philippines islands who beheaded a German hostage this week have re-emerged as one of the nation’s top threats.
The Philippines is planning to bring in foreign maritime forces to help fight the Abu Sayyaf, after a kidnapping spree that has raised fears the waters around its island strongholds may descend into a Somalia-like haven for pirates.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte apologised on Tuesday for failing to save Jurgen Kantner, 70, who was killed on Sunday after demands for 30 million pesos ($600,000) by the Abu Sayyaf were not met.
Mr Duterte said he was “very sorry” about the death and that the military had stepped up an offensive against the Abu Sayyaf in an effort to save him.
“But it’s a matter of policy that we do not surrender to the demands of paying ransom. It will just increase the numbers,” he said, referring to the Islamic militants.
The Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom network in the southern Philippines, is a loose network of militants backed by local criminals and corrupt officials. Declarations of allegiance to ISIL by key leaders of the Abu Sayya have further stoked alarm.
“The nation’s problem, the biggest threat, I would say, in the coming years it would be terrorism. It’s sure to come,” Mr Duterte said recently.
Defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana in February listed the Abu Sayyaf and other “terrorist” groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIL as the country’s top internal security threat.
Over the past two years the Abu Sayyaf has been involved in kidnapping dozens of people in increasingly brazen attacks mostly on foreign cargo vessels, but also on coastal tourist resorts in the south and neighbouring Malaysia.
To counter them, the Philippines is looking to Chinese and American forces to help patrol waters in the area. Separately, the Philippines is in talks with Malaysia and Indonesia for joint patrols.
Mr Lorenzana said the Philippine naval and coast guard vessels could do little to catch the pirates’ boats, which travelled at speeds of more than 80 kilometres an hour.
“The Abu Sayyaf has better boats than us,” Mr Lorenzana said.
The Abu Sayyaf’s spike as a kidnapping threat can be traced back to two events in 2014, according to security analysts.
One was the winding back of a US military programme to train Philippine forces on how to counter the Abu Sayyaf, and provide intelligence.
The second was that the group had one of their biggest ransom payments ever that year, claiming to have secured the full sum of more than $5 million (Dh18.4m) for releasing two German sailors.
That, and subsequent settlements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, enabled the kidnappers to buy better weapons and boats, as well as pay local Muslim communities that harbour and protect them, according to analysts.
* Agence France-Presse