RECENTLY, Malaysia was again shocked by the kidnapping of five Malaysian tugboat crew by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) off Lahad Datu. This Kidnap for Ransom (KFR) which is a blatant act of ruthless banditry and piracy is the second case recorded in the last few months following the heartless beheading of Sarawakian Bernard Then last year. The sailors, Ferry Arifin, the tugboat skipper; and M. Mahbrur Dahri, Edi Suryono, Ismail, M.Nasir, M.Sofyan and Robin Piter were heading to Samarinda in East Kalimantan from a trip to the Philippines when gunmen on speedboats intercepted it and abducted the crew.

The recent disappearance came two weeks after ASG bandits kidnapped three Indonesian crew of a Malaysian trawler in the area and seized seven Indonesian tugboat crew on June 22 in the Sulu Sea near the Philippine border.

Image via Eagle News

The Abu Sayyaf previously kidnapped 14 Indonesian tugboat crew in separate attacks at sea off Sabah and brought them to Sulu province and eventually released through the intercession of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). These bands of hostage-takers have become increasingly brazen in their speedboat-borne raids, selectively kidnapping targets and raising fears and alarms of possible raids on popular tourist areas. Sources stated that the ASG has carried out at least 20 high-profile abductions in the span of 3 months, attracting growing international attention.

The ASG was formed by radical Muslim insurgents in the 1990s with funding from Osama bin Laden. The group cloaks itself in the trappings of religious terrorism, though several commanders have switched loyalty from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State faction (ISIL-ISIS).

However, the black flag has been used more as a marketing ploy to further their piracy and abduction operations. It is used to attract attention, recruits and to heighten their ‘terror-factor” for leveraging during ransom negotiations. It is feared that these KFR ‘business model’ has gotten better with every ransom payment.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Recent attempts by the Philippines armed forces to eradicate the ASG has fall short if its objectives. Armed clan rivalries, endemic corruption, and the pull of a quick and lucrative payoff has made the effort that much harder. Ransoms paid for the release of hostages has fuelled the underground economy, which is shared by the armed clans, used to pay off corrupt officials and finance future ASG KFR activities. It is a vicious cycle that seems to only benefit the ruthless and corrupt, and cause ceaseless pain and suffering to the victims and their families.

It falls on shoulder of Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected Philippine president to deal with the growing problem. Stronger military and security cooperation with the Malaysian and Indonesian government is also crucial to halt future kidnappings and piracy in the Sulu and Celebes seas. Let us pray for the safety and freedom of all the ASG hostages and hope that  the reign of terror ends soon.