Abu Sayyaf has finally freed Norwegian hostage Kjartan Sekkingstad after a year in captivity and three Indonesian fishermen amid reports that ransoms worth more than $2 million were paid to the outlawed group.
Governments often insist that ransoms will not be paid in such instances. But inducements and intervention from Manila appear to have succeeded where foreign policy has not, which Ottawa discovered in recent months with the beheadings of two Canadian hostages, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel.
They were killed in April and June after deadlines for ransom payments, reportedly worth up to $1.3 million, lapsed.
Their plight was particularly tragic with recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau naively touting the virtues of his government, which refused to deal with the Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group with a sworn allegiance to Islamic State.
Those sentiments were echoed by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who told the NTB national news agency that “Norwegian officials had not participated in any payment of ransom or made any concessions in the matter.”
Despite this, the Philippines Star said it was told by sources that Sekkingstad’s family and friends from Norway had raised a ransom payment and Norway Ambassador Erik Forner had apparently flown to Davao in anticipation of Sekkingstad’s release.
“I would like to reiterate that the government maintains the no-ransom policy,” Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar told government radio.
“Now, if a third party or the family gives ransom, we do not know,” he said.
The release of Sekkingstad and Indonesians – Lorence Koten, Theo Doros Kofong, and Emanuel Arakian – will likely be seen as a victory for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte has shocked governments abroad and the Catholic Church and civil society at home with his use of extrajudicial killings to bring the illicit drug trade under control. More 3,500 people have been killed in just ten weeks since his election.
However, three weeks ago, Duterte said he would shift his deadly focus onto the Abu Sayyaf, insurgents he once admired, demanding their elimination after they “started slaughtering people like chickens”.
Duterte’s orders were plain and simple: “Kill them, destroy them”.
Sekkingstad told journalist that he, Hall and Ridsdel had been treated as slaves by the Abu Sayyaf and were often dodging bullets by attacking government forces. He said Abu Sayyaf numbers had peaked at around 300.
They were kidnapped about a year ago near Davao, where Duterte once served as mayor, along with Filipina Marites Flor. She was released in June after witnessing the grisly killings of Hall and Ridsdel.
The Abu Sayyaf has attempted to portray itself as an Islamic militancy group with pretensions of establishing a caliphate within Southeast Asia, not unlike the Islamic State in the Middle East.
However, their kidnap and ransom policies have earned them comparisons with thugs and bandits, which operate in the Southern Philippines with impunity.
Abductions have become commonplace since then-Abu Sayyaf leader Galib Andang, also known as Commander Robot, began ordering the kidnapping of foreign tourists from the deluded safety of tourist resorts across the Sulu Sea in East Malaysia in the 1990s.
At best, they are a low-grade terrorist outfit with a preference for soft targets, like tourists.
The release of the three Indonesians was aided by the Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF), which is currently in peace negotiations with Manila. But the whereabouts of Dutch hostage Ewold Horn remains unknown.
Authorities have also indicated that Abu Sayyaf has attempted to spread its wings following the demise of al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah and its even nastier offshoot Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, responsible for a string of deadly bombings across Indonesia.
Both groups had shared hideouts and operations with Abu Sayyaf throughout much of the 2000s but most of their former members are either dead or in jail.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt