On September 23, a group of seven gunmen aboard two pump boats ambushed and seized three fishermen off the coast of East Sabah, in a sign of how the Islamic State (IS) and its affiliated networks continue to trouble the Southeast Asian region. The latest attack follows a surge in ambushes and kidnappings in the last two years along the Sulu Seas, which encompasses the waters around Indonesia, Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state and the Philippines, and has long been a hotspot for piracy and sea robbery. Although there was no claim of responsibility, the attackers are said to be members of an Abu Sayyaf splinter group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) in Sulu province. It is believed the seven gunman, who were masked, boarded two fishing vessels around midday local time, and abducted three crew members.
For Abu Sayyaf, which has long been based on the remote and forested terrain along the southern Philippine islands, such attacks have traditionally been used as a fundraising tactic. The group is reported to have earned several million dollars from kidnappings, bombings and ambushes, often targeting foreigners. In certain instances, the group has beheaded hostages when ransom money was not paid. Notably, while previous incidents took place in darkness, which usually enabled the attackers to make a quick getaway, the latest incident occurred in broad daylight.
Resurgence of Kidnap-for-Ransom
Prior to the recent surge, there was an absence of kidnapping incidents between November 2016 and September 2018. This lull can be attributed, in part, to the death of the former leader of IS in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, during the five-month Marawi Siege in 2017. His demise,it appears, initially rendered terrorist networks along the Sulu archipelago leaderless and directionless.
The number of kidnappings in the Sulu Sea reached a 10-year peak prior to the Marawi Siege in 2017. Hence, the resurgence of kidnap-for-ransom activities since September 11, 2018 may signal ambitions to raise funds for terror. This could signal desperation or urgency to raise funds for their next terrorist campaign. Terrorist elements in Sulu province appear to have regrouped more recently. There have been six kidnappings, four suicide attacks and over 30 armed clashes between militants and state security forces between 2018 and 2019. The Sulu archipelago’s re-emergence as a terrorism hotspot has coincided with the emergence of Hajan Sawadjaan as the potential leader of IS in Philippines.
The Sea as a Force Multiplier
The sea serves as both a resource and an operational force multiplier for terrorist groups. Fundamentally, terrorists exploit opportunities at sea to conduct land-based campaigns. Access to the seas allows insurgents to diversify their fundraising methods to meet their goals. In this regard, kidnappings are easier to pull off at sea due to the sheer vastness of such water bodies, which can hinder the ability of security agencies to detect and respond to attacks promptly. The area’s vulnerable geography also means sea-based bandits are able to vanish into the cluster of Sulu islands to evade capture.
Access to the sea allows terrorists to also import and export resources and capabilities. For example, IS Sulu has used the Sulu seas to transport foreign fighters around the region. Such fighters both supplement and enhance the tactical capabilities of local terrorist groups. The Mindanao region, for example, has historically been used for training by terrorists in the region after Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) developed a tactical alliance with Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) at the turn of the century. This arrangement allowed Filipinos to learn bomb-making techniques while exporting militancy capabilities to terrorists in neighboring countries. During the 2017 Marawi Siege, many regional and non-regional foreign fighters were smuggled through the Sulu archipelago to participate in the conflict. Additionally, Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD)-linked Indonesians, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayah Saleh, were reportedly smuggled through the Sulu islands to participate in last January’s suicide attack on a church in Jolo. That attack was the catalyst for two other suicide attacks, involving local operatives, in Mindanao this year.
Challenges of Enforcement Efforts
Law enforcement along the Sulu archipelago is complex. Archipelagos contain natural, unevenly distributed areas that hinder patrolling and emergency response efforts. Moreover, the natural separation of these lands, exposes security forces to ambush attacks. This is compounded by the area’s densely forested terrain. Security agencies not only require land-based and maritime assets; the diverse set of skills and equipment needed inherently increases the complexity of effective enforcement over such a vast territory. Additionally, the depth of the waters can also vary. As such, the presence of shallow shoals and mangroves often favor terrorists during naval pursuits, with security forces often forced utilize small boats with limited firepower and fuel capacity.
The Philippine government takes the maritime threat posed by terrorist groups seriously. A significant number of troops have been deployed to supplement forces with the 11th Infantry Division based in Zamboanga as well as the Joint Task Force Sulu (JTFS). The Philippines National Police (PNP) has also invested in high-speed tactical boats to support elite commando units tackling IS militants. These boats, said to possess features resembling armored vehicles on land, are expected to improve the maritime capabilities of the PNP.
The resurgence of high-profile maritime attacks linked to IS affiliated terrorists signals threat groups are persisting in their efforts to raise resources for their land-based campaigns. Governments must adopt a holistic approach to address both maritime and land-based threats. The PNP and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) must enhance their ability to operate in shallow waters and mangroves. Better coordination between maritime and land-based forces will also provide government forces with a comparative advantage over the terrorists. Further, countries along the tri-border region – Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia – may also consider establishing border controls between Tawi-Tawi Island, Sabah and North Kalimantan to better regulate the area, hence denying IS militants’ access to the archipelago and wider seas.
Kenneth Yeo is a research analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.