The long nightmare for German nationals Stefan Viktor Okonek and Henrike Dielen, which began when they were abducted by Abu Sayyaf bandits in the waters between the Philippines and Malaysia last April, is finally over. They were released on Friday night, and found walking outside the town of Patikul, on Jolo island.
The criminal Abu Sayyaf wasted no time in claiming that the ransom money it had demanded had been paid, all P250 million of it. Many breaking stories quoted Abu Rami, a spokesperson for the bandit group, as saying that the ransom had been received, “walang labis, walang kulang.” The Filipino expression, which literally means “no more, no less,” was used to convey the message that the demand had been fully met.
It is unfortunate that many rushed to conclude, based on this vivid quote alone, that exactly P250 million (about 4.3 million euros) was paid to secure the release of Okonek and Dielen. It seems clear, despite Malacañang’s lame rationalizations, that money did change hands. But whether it was P250 million (the largest single ransom demand in recent memory) or some amount considerably much less than that remains to be proven.
Ransom was paid. The German hostages could not have escaped to freedom (as some, younger, hostages had done before) or released because of overwhelming military pressure on the kidnappers (as some military officers would want the public to believe), because the conditions did not allow it. In particular, the idea that encirclement by the military forced the Abu Sayyaf’s hand runs counter to previous experience. In the jungles of Jolo, it is almost impossible to speak of encirclement. In fact, the most that the military said on Friday, before the news of the release spread, was that its forces were within striking distance of the bandits but could not yet see the hostages.
Experience also tells us that European parties—not necessarily governments, but individuals or institutions associated with the hostages—frequently pay ransom. This is not a policy specific to abductions by the Abu Sayyaf, but to all abductions. Just last August, for example, a German was released by his Syrian kidnappers; soon after, a German foreign ministry spokesperson tellingly said that “no state money” was paid. But then, the money does not need to come from the state.
That is probably what happened in the case of Okonek and Dielen. Private funds were used to pay ransom.
A few days ago, Okonek was forced to say in a radio interview that if ransom were not paid, the Abu Sayyaf would behead him. On Friday, the bandit group said it would postpone the beheading by two hours, “if we get a call that ransom will be paid.” In all likelihood, the payment was already being arranged; it is contrary to human nature and to negotiation protocols for money to be simply delivered, without advance notice to the kidnappers.
In other words, ransom payment was already likely being discussed in earnest when the beheading threat was made.
But how much ransom exactly? Until banks in Zamboanga City or in Metro Manila, or couriers involved in the transaction, confirm the exact amount, it is wrong to take a bandit group’s word for the total ransom paid.
In the first place, the Abu Sayyaf had made two demands: a P250-million ransom, and a commitment from Germany to withdraw its support for US-led airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Syria. But German support for the air war on IS was never withdrawn. To the argument that this particular demand was only a negotiating tactic, the counter-argument can be posed: Who is to say the sheer size of the ransom demand was not also a negotiating tactic?
It is wrong to speak of the Abu Sayyaf today as a single group, but its various factions have all accepted ransom payments lower than what they have demanded.
Secondly, it is in the bandit group’s best interests that people believe—especially among the populations in the porous territories of Basilan and Sulu—that it now has a quarter of a billion pesos to buy arms, supplies, boats, loyalists with.
Where lies the harm? Even if, say, only 1 million euros had in fact been paid, that is still a lot of money. What difference does the lack of verification of the P250-million amount make? A lot. The fate of at least 11 more hostages is at stake. Publicity about the P250-million ransom will make any negotiations that much more difficult, and may cause more factions to emerge, looking for loot.
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