Long-range seaborne raids in the Philippines may serve as model for future regional abduction and terrorist attacks

The presence of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG, ‘bearer of the sword’ in Arabic) in the small Bohol town of Inabanga and the subsequent one-month hunt for the surviving members of the group was an unusual but not unique event.


The security forces’ early detection of the group, aided by the local community and the fact that the ASG fighters had arrived in three ‘banca’ or ‘pump’ boats of a design and paintwork normally only found in parts of Mindanao, the largest southern island in the country, may have helped prevent an attack or abduction bid on nearby resorts popular with foreign tourists. It has also been suggested that the purpose of the mission was to reconnoitre the region for future operations.

Regardless of the motive, what the abortive attempt primarily revealed was that ASG had once again demonstrated its ability to operate far from its hinterlands in south-western Mindanao, some 500km by sea from Inabanga.

What the abortive attempt primarily revealed was that ASG had once again demonstrated its ability to operate far from its hinterlands in south-western Mindanao

The Bohol operation closely resembles a successful ASG abduction raid carried out on 21 September 2015 at a resort on Samal island in Mindanao’s Davao del Norte province, again around 500km by sea from their bases in the Sulu archipelago. Three foreign nationals and a Filipina were kidnapped – two of the foreigners were subsequently murdered when ASG ransom demands were not met.

ASG’s previous, and most spectacular, major long-range attack occurred in late May 2001 when its fighters seized 20 hostages from the upmarket Dos Palmas Resort on a private island in Palawan’s Honda Bay. The hostages were taken back to Basilan island in the Sulu archipelago, a round trip of over 1,000 km, most of it over open water. In subsequent efforts to free the captives at least five of the hostages – including two U.S. nationals – were killed. This event led to the deployment of U.S. forces in support of the Philippine military in February 2002 specifically to help contain ASG, a mission which was largely ended in 2015.

While ASG did not carry out any long-range operations for more than 14 years after the Palawan attack, likely due to the subsequent arrival of U.S. forces and their advanced intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities, it did continue to carry out numerous short range abduction and pirate attacks against land and maritime targets. These were concentrated mainly in the Sulu Sea between Mindanao and the East Malaysian state of Sabah and were primarily to extract ransoms.

Although ASG is frequently identified in the media as a de facto arm of militant Islam, the group’s supposed allegiance to radical Islamic movements has largely been a secondary factor in determining its actions. Its members are from a loose confederation of clans drawn from communities in the Sulu archipelago, and a combination of external pressures, restricted economic options, remote geographical locations, communal cohesion and opportunism have helped create conditions that encourage the ASG and other similar groups in Mindanao to engage in piracy, often accompanied by extreme violence.

Although ASG is frequently identified in the media as a de facto arm of militant Islam, the group’s supposed allegiance to radical Islamic movements has largely been a secondary factor in determining its actions

However, the current extensive military operations against the ASG-linked ‘Maute’ group in Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province, notably the protracted battle for control of Marawi city may well prove to be decisive in terms of determining the future priorities of local criminal and political groups.

ASSESSMENT

Most of South-East Asia’s main cities and thousands of smaller communities are either located on the sea or connected to the ocean by river. While this reflects historical and current economic advantages, it has also left them vulnerable to attack from threats ranging from other states to pirates and raiders. The latter threat, in the form of terrorist or criminal groups, has long been recognised but rarely encountered.

As noted above, this threat is now emerging as a major challenge for the security and armed forces of a number of countries where regional insurgents or criminals have demonstrated their capability and willingness to undertake long-range raids far beyond their traditional hinterlands.

A successful long-range seaborne attack requires layers of planning, resources and training which few regional insurgent, criminal or terrorist groups either possess or aspire to

However, a successful long-range seaborne attack requires layers of planning, resources and training which few regional insurgent, criminal or terrorist groups either possess or aspire to, which in part accounts for their relative rarity. Further, although ASG’s 2001 Honda Bay and 2015 Samal island abductions may be counted as successful in their immediate aim of seizing hostages and extorting ransom, they failed strategically by respectively providing the Philippine government with the rationale to permit the U.S. military to return to country barely ten years after leaving at Manila’s request and increasing the tempo of military operations against ASG’s base areas.

Nevertheless, while the recent Bohol incident failed operationally by revealing ASG’s capabilities and assumed intentions it has caused economic harm to the region’s important tourist industry and forced the military to further dissipate its combat strength in order to detect and counter any further similar long-range raids.

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