Another grim Monday deadline, another hapless hostage dead. On Monday, June 13, the Abu Sayyaf Group beheaded Canadian hostage Robert Hall somewhere in Sulu, after the lapse of the 3 p.m. ransom payment deadline. Hours later, the victim’s severed head was found near a church in Jolo, Sulu—delivered as proof of death by the bandit group. In Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a pained but resolute statement. “The vicious and brutal actions of the hostage-takers have led to a needless death. Canada holds the terrorist group who took him hostage fully responsible for this cold-blooded and senseless murder.”
Hall was the second Canadian hostage executed by the Abu Sayyaf bandit group in two months.
On another Monday, last April 25, after the deadline for paying another exorbitant ransom passed, John Ridsdel—with Hall, part of the group that was abducted from Samal Island in September last year—was beheaded, and proof of death was also delivered. Trudeau condemned Ridsdel’s killing as “an act of cold-blooded murder.”
Two more hostages from that Samal Island group remain in captivity: the Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad and the Filipino Maritess Flor. More hostages, both foreign and Filipino, languish in other Abu Sayyaf camps. It is true that several Indonesian hostages have been released; this must mean that ransom was paid, because the Abu Sayyaf is nothing but a brutal business. It understands only two motivations: violence and money.
The unfortunate Canadians were beheaded while their companions remain hostages for a business reason. The bandit group demanded a steep price for their freedom, about P300 million each. The Indonesians were released because the ransom was a much more “reasonable” figure; about P50 million for the first 10 sailors was reportedly paid. The hostages who remain in humiliating captivity are either perceived by the bandit group as too rich or are in fact too poor to pay for their way out.
When the money did not materialize, the brutal gang did the only other thing it knows to do: unleash violence.
The National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP) condemned Hall’s beheading. “We from NUCP strongly condemn this terrorism. This is un-Islamic, inhuman, and condemnable,” said Alih Aiyub, national secretary general of the NUCP.
From Malacañang, Secretary Herminio Coloma issued a pledge on behalf of President Aquino: “This latest heinous crime serves to strengthen our government’s resolve to put an end to this reign of terror and banditry.”
But in truth, and despite the deployment of hundreds of soldiers and the use of sophisticated technology in those parts of Sulu believed to be Abu Sayyaf strongholds, the Aquino administration is running out of time. In two weeks, the Abu Sayyaf problem—largely dormant during President Aquino’s term, but now active again—will become the burden of the Duterte presidency.
What can be done to uproot Abu Sayyaf banditry completely?
The first task is the most difficult one: To convince concerned parties not to pay ransom at all, because while it may buy the victims’ freedom, it will also ensure that a better-equipped, better-supplied, better-supported bandit group will abduct more victims in the future. Trudeau has called on his colleagues in the so-called Group of 7, the richest nations, to avoid paying ransom altogether. “The government of Canada will not and cannot pay ransoms for hostages to terrorist groups, as doing so would endanger the lives of more Canadians,” he said.
The second step is complicated but for very different reasons. The ulama of the Philippines pointed to the problem. Aiyub told the Inquirer: “We are saddened, too, by the insensitivity of the government, especially the LGUs from regional to provincial to municipal to barangay, and their lack of cooperation with the PNP and the AFP to eliminate this terrorist group.”
The porousness of boundaries, the melting away of traditional roles, have always been part of the reality of the bandit group. Its numbers swell when ransom is paid, because there is money to spread. Its numbers stay steady during lean times, because clan and family ties help support the bandits. When the ulama speak of a “lack of cooperation,” this is part of what they mean.
The third challenge is economic. If the Abu Sayyaf is a criminal enterprise, it thrives when poverty meets ideology or indoctrination. A lasting solution to the problem must therefore include the dramatic reduction of poverty in some of the country’s poorest areas.
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