TL;DR: Increased pirate attacks in the Celebes Sea have serious trade implications; prompts regional cooperation.
On 21 April, Reuters reported that at least two Indonesian ports have suspended issuance of permits for ships to the Philippines, following at least three attacks of Indonesia vessels by Filipino militants in 2016. The three attacks, all recorded by the Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, were in the Celebes Sea, the body of water that separates Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It lies south of the disputed South China Sea.
The following incidents were recorded by the Piracy Reporting Center:
15.04.2016: 1032 UTC: Posn: 04:31.26N – 119:00.00E, Around 4.3 SE off Pulau Sibuan, Malaysia. Armed persons in a speed boat approached, fired upon and boarded a tug underway. One crew was injured. The armed persons kidnapped four crew members and escaped. The Malaysian Marine Police escorted the tug to a safe port and transferred the injured crew to a hospital for medical treatment.
01.04.2016: 1815 LT: Posn: 04:07.56N – 118:55.76E, Around 17nm East of Pulau Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia. Eight armed pirates in a speed boat approached and boarded the tug underway. They opened fire, stole crew personal belongings and kidnapped four crew members and escaped. The remaining crew members sailed the vessel to the vicinity of Semporna and thereafter a MMEA patrol boat escorted the vessel to a safe port.
25.03.2016: 1629 LT: Posn : 04:48.56N – 119:12.53E, Around 11nm WSW of Omapoy Island Philippines. A tug towing a barge laden with coal was boarded by unknown persons. They cast off the barge, hijacked the tug and took its 10 crew as hostage. The tug was later abandoned off Languyan Island, Philippines and the ten crew members kidnapped. The tug was ransacked and all communication equipment onboard was damaged. The Philippines police have taken custody of the tug and are presently investigating the case.
Media reports, quoting military officials, attribute the incidents to Abu Sayyaf militants, a loose organization of self-professed Islamic radicals, that operate out of the southern Philippine island provinces of Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi. Like most sophisticated pirates, the group chases a target using a speed boat, latches on to the bigger vessel and then boards it. Because commercial vessels are not allowed to be armed, the vessel’s crew loses the battle the moment the first pirate boards the ship.
Who is the Abu Sayyaf? A Quick and Dirty History
The Abu Sayyaf has been around for more than 30 years and has seen the ebb and flow of its notoriety. The group has roots in the first Afghan war against the Soviet Union, which attracted thousands for young Muslim men from different parts of the world. After the war, Filipino mujahideen returned to the Philippines, radicalized and eager to relive the great Islamic victory against the “infidels”. When they returned, some joined the homegrown Muslim insurgency, the others formed a new group, Abu Sayyaf, the Bearer of the Sword.
The Abu Sayyaf practiced a brand of extremism that encouraged violence against “nonbelievers”, leading to abductions and executions of Christian missionaries in the 1990s. Philippine intelligence then considered the Abu Sayyaf the most extreme of all the Muslim insurgent groups operating in the southern Philippines. But the group gained global notoriety after it raided a resort in Sipadan, Sabah, Malaysia and seized 19 Western tourists and more than 10 Malaysians, its biggest kidnapping operation yet. Demanding a ransom of $1 million for each victim, the group was promptly included in the list of terrorist organizations by the US State Department. Foreign governments paid the ransom for their citizens, buying their freedom. After the victims were freed, the Philippine military launched an offensive against the group, with plenty of surveillance and manpower support from the US military as part of the Global War against Terror. But even while joint Philippine and US forces were hunting Abu Sayyaf members, the group managed to raid another resort in the western Philippine province of Palawan, seizing an American couple.
Though not subdued, the Abu Sayyaf’s capability to launch large-scale kidnappings was weakened and for a few years, the group was relatively quiet, its top leaders neutralized or eliminated by the military offensives. But reports had it that the group had made enough money from its kidnap for ransom activities to buy high-speed boats, which it used to raid the resort in Palawan. The US War on Terror eventually scaled down and the Philippine military moved on to deal with the other insurgencies. In fact, the Philippine military itself was rocked by a mutiny in 2003.
The Bearer of the Sword No More
The last 15 years, the Abu Sayyaf has been linked to regional Islamic extremists such as Jemaah Islamiyah and now, the Islamic State. Some members may still harbor ideological motives, but the group’s kidnapping activities indicate it is less of a religious militant organization but more of an organized criminal gang that uses religious ideology as a political convenience. The Abu Sayyaf has been carrying kidnapping after kidnapping of Filipinos and foreign residents, always demanding ransom, and only executing the victims when ransom is not paid.
Like an organized criminal group, it treats kidnapping as a business, and a lucrative business at that, as the Philippine police and military do not have enough resources to actively pursue every kidnapping case reported. Since 2014, however, it has once again crossed international waters raiding resorts in Sabah, Malaysia, and abducting tourists and resort staff from Malaysia, Indonesia, China and South Korea. This year’s attacks on foreign vessels and abduction of Indonesian and Malaysian crew members indicate an escalation in the group’s capability to carry out cross-border attacks, and triggered fears among Indonesian authorities that the Celebes Sea could become the next Somalia.
Piracy in the Celebes Sea has implications on regional trade. The Celebes Sea is the entry way to the South China Sea, which is a major trade route between Indonesia and China. China imports commodities from Indonesia and shipments could be affected by increased insecurity in the area.
This body of water is also the main route for coal shipments from Indonesia to the Philippines. Reuters report that Indonesia supplies 70% of the Philippines’ coal needs and with Indonesian ports suspending the issuance of shipping permits to the Philippines, this poses difficulties for Philippine power plants especially in what is becoming the country’s hottest summer on record.
Joint Indonesian and Philippine naval patrols have commenced and representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are meeting on 5 May to discuss security in the Celebes Sea. The escalation of joint efforts to address the issue is a major step, but ultimately the onus is on the Philippines to come up with a solution for a problem stemming from its own backyard.