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[12 April, 2017] Philippines: Abu Sayyaf Group’s kidnapping cell intercepted in Bohol; highlights the group’s intent to target foreign tourists in the region

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Five Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) terrorists were killed on 11 April during an armed confrontation with the Filipino security forces at the outskirts of Barangay Napo, Inabanga in Bohol province, Central Visayas. Four security forces were also killed during the gunfight. The incident took place when civilians reported the presence of three suspicious pump-boats to the police. The three boats were carrying 10 well-armed ASG members, revealed to be a known kidnapping cell of ASG and were en route to a remote area of the resort island when intercepted. The dead ASG militants include Abu Rami (Muamar Askali), a sub-commander and spokesman linked to many of their kidnap-for-ransom operations. Five of the ten ASG members remain at large.

ISS Risk Assessment

  1. The incursion of Askali’s group indicates that the kidnapping of foreign tourists during the forthcoming holiday season has been prioritised. Although the government claims ‘business as usual’; ASG’s attempted operation signifies the group’s targeting of high-value foreigners at tourist locations. The profits from kidnapping and subsequent attention the kidnappings have generated have assisted in increasing ASG’s profile in 2016. They are pursuing this strategy again in 2017.
  2. The location of the event confirms not a shift, but a return to ASG kidnappings on coastal land targets. A switch to parallel land- and sea-based kidnapping operations reflects not only profit-opportunity-minded thinking but also a security strategy. The threat of attacks in multiple land locations and sea channels affects a force-displacement burden on the Philippine forces.
  3. The latest incident does not indicate that ASG is being forced out of its traditional stronghold in Basilan and Sulu. This attempted attack does not reflect a degraded capacity of the ASG. However, ASG need to increase revenue to sustain operations under increased pressure from the government forces in the Sulu archipelago. The group will therein continue to prioritise kidnap-for-ransom operations.

Impact to Clients

  1. The threat to foreign nationals, particularly in tourist areas close to ASG’s areas of operations, is high.
  2. Targeting Central Visayas over traditional sites in Mindanao (Zamboanga Sibugay, Davao del Norte) or in Malaysia (Sabah) is now to be expected. Inabanga is 30 minutes from Cebu by sea.
  3. ASG will continue to launch kidnap-for-ransom operations on maritime targets (private and merchant) in traditional sea channels near the Sulu islands.

Abu Sayyaf Group Kidnappings

In 2016, marine seajacking of sailors was ASG’s preferred strategy after multiple land kidnappings in Sabah, Malaysia and southeastern portion of Mindanao in 2014-15 brought intense military operations on their Sulu archipelago strongholds. Although they had clear success in seajacking operations in 2016, early 2017 has seen the Philippine Navy intercept and foil attempted attacks. A move to parallel kidnap-for-ransom operations is a prudent and sound strategic decision. The Philippine military and police force’s inability to recover kidnapping victims, payment of ransoms by companies / insurers, and extremely limited ability to curtail ASG’s kidnapping activities to date will not hamper their revenue ambitions.

As well as being a revenue generator for the wider ASG entity, the ASG-Basilan faction under Isnilon Hapilon are looking to relocate to Central Mindanao in line with wider ISIS-backed ambitions for a more defensible ‘wilayat’ (province) in the country. To affect this strategy and achieve buy-in from the Maute Group or BIFF will be expensive. ISIS’ emir in the Philippines, Hapilon, will therein only re-prioritize kidnapping operations.