Criminals With a Cause: The Crime-Terror Nexus in the Southern Philippines

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Criminals With a Cause: The Crime-Terror Nexus in the Southern Philippines

Kidnappings in the region highlight the complex links between poverty, crime, militancy, and terrorist financing. 

Criminals With a Cause: The Crime-Terror Nexus in the Southern Philippines
Credit: U.S. Army photo

Philippine media usually refers to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and similar groups in the southern Philippines as “bandits” rather than terrorists, jihadists, or militants. There is good reason for this. The lines between the criminal and terrorist activities of these groups are blurred, something academics and analysts refer to as the crime-terror nexus.

The murder of an adventurous German couple by ASG is illustrative of the blurred lines between criminal and terrorist activities, both in the Philippines and more generally. Jurgen Kantner was kidnapped by ASG bandits while sailing his yacht off the coast of Sabah, in Malaysia, in November 2016. His partner, Sabine Merz, was shot and killed during the kidnapping. ASG demanded a 30,000,000 peso ($600,000) ransom to secure Kantner’s release.

The pair had been kidnapped before, in Somalia in 2008. There, they were held hostage by pirates for 52 days and released following a ransom payment. Kantner then returned to the site of the kidnapping to retrieve his beloved yacht, the Rockall, which the pirate gang abandoned in Berbera. This escapade reportedly earned him the moniker “the mad German sailor.” Unfortunately, he will sail no more. He was beheaded by ASG after the February 2017 ransom deadline passed. Philippine authorities recovered his body in Sulu Province, the second poorest province in the country with 65.7 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Dire socioeconomic conditions caused by decades-long separatist insurgencies in Mindanao and the surrounding smaller islands facilitate both militancy and criminality, which are prevalent in the region. Poverty and violence can have a profound psychological effects on young people and can drive them into the arms of both criminal gangs and militant groups by poisoning their youthful idealism and skewing their search for an identity.

These harmful socioeconomic and psychological influences are not unique to impoverished youths in Mindanao. An illustrative study of European Islamist militants demonstrated that at least 57 percent of them had a criminal past and were radicalized in prison. The study further contends that radical narratives – as articulated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other militant groups – appeal to the psychological needs and desires of criminals. Specifically, radical narratives supposedly offer criminals a path to redemption whilst simultaneously licencing continued criminal behavior. Recent ISIS recruitment drives explicitly target criminals, saying “sometimes people with the worst pasts create the best futures.” Whereas potential recruits had previously been selfish thieves, rapists, murderers, and kidnappers, post-radicalization they become thieves, rapists, murderers, and kidnappers with a cause.

Militant groups in Mindanao and around the world depend heavily on criminal income streams to fund their activities, thereby morphing into hybrid criminal-terrorist organizations. They frequently partner with transnational organised crime groups to smuggle a variety of illicit items, ranging from drugs to guns to people. Alternatively, many militant groups establish criminal empires of their own. While most militant groups have multiple sources of revenue, such as donations from sympathizers, a 2016 report on terrorist financing in Southeast Asia found that criminal activity is the primary source of revenue for groups based in the Philippines.

ASG is only one of many such hybrid militant-criminal groups operating in the southern Philippines, especially in the violence-ridden island of Mindanao. Others include, but are not limited to, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Maute Group, and Ansar al Khalifa. All of these groups have declared allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Mindanao is also home to the New People’s Army (NPA), a Maoist insurgent group. All of these groups fund themselves through criminal activities, including, but not limited to, kidnapping, extortion, and drug trafficking.

Kidnappings for ransom are a significant source of income for militant and criminal groups in the southern Philippines, most notably ASG. This group is responsible for a recent surge in maritime kidnappings in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, encompassing the waters around the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They reportedly raised $7 million from kidnappings for ransom in 2016 and currently hold 29 people hostage, including 21 foreigners. The group frequently works with Sabah and Sulu-based criminal gangs, which sell kidnapping victims to the militant group.

Extortion is also a common funding strategy for hybrid militant-criminal groups, particularly the Maoist NPA. This group targets foreign and local businesses operating in Mindanao, as well as in several areas outside the region, such as Samar and Isabella Provinces. Most of the targeted companies are in the mining or agricultural sectors. Recently, Mindanao’s banana industry has been under strain from NPA extortion. Banana farmers appealed to the government to intensify its campaign against the NPA in response to a spate of attacks, including assassinations and arson, resulting from their refusal to pay extortion fees. The group justifies its extortion activities as “revolutionary taxes.”

Although kidnapping and extortion bring in significant revenues, drug trafficking is probably the most profitable illicit revenue stream for hybrid militant-criminal groups in the Philippines. A national survey conducted in 2016 by the Dangerous Drugs Board (DDB) found that there are currently 1.8 million drug users in the Philippines, nearly 2 percent of the population. The study also found that 4.8 million Filipinos aged between ten and 69 have used illegal narcotics at least once in their lives. Crystal meth, locally known as shabu, is the most popular drug and is regularly consumed by six out of ten of the country’s addicts. All of this indicates that there is a sizable internal narcotics market for militant groups and their criminal partners to exploit. ASG, for example, has been directly tied to the illicit drug trade in the southern Philippines, as have BIFF and the Maute Group. Group members are both narcotics distributors — with militants moonlighting as dealers — and consumers, as shabu is frequently used for recruitment. The shabu trade is primarily overseen by Chinese organized crime groups, which suggests that Philippine militant-criminal groups cooperate with both local and transnational criminal organizations.

President Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s first president from Mindanao, has controversially made combatting the illegal drug trade and crushing the Mindanao insurgencies his top priorities. However, with 11 out of the 20 poorest provinces in the country being located in Mindanao, the long-term success of these objectives will largely depend on whether policymakers address the complex links between poverty, crime, and terrorism. Economic growth and social development are therefore as, if not more, important for tackling these issues than military might and aggressive policing.

Rob Attwell is an Asia-Pacific focused junior analyst at S-RM, an international business intelligence and risk management consultancy. You can follow Rob on twitter @Attwell_on_Asia.