Sulu Sea as Southeast Asia’s Somalia

A surge in piracy and kidnapping-for-ransom attacks has made the southernmost Philippines one of the most dangerous maritime areas in the world

Mindanao, March 14, 2017 5:26 PM (UTC+8)
Members of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) anti-terrorist unit apprehend mock pirates who hijacked a vessel during a combined maritime law enforcement and anti-piracy exercise at a bay in Manila. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Members of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) anti-terrorist unit apprehend mock pirates who hijacked a vessel during a combined maritime law enforcement and anti-piracy exercise at a bay in Manila. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Unable to stem a rising trend of piracy and kidnappings, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is seeking foreign assistance before its Sulu Sea devolves into the region’s version of Somalia – where terror group-linked pirates threaten to disrupt a waterway through which billions of dollars worth of trade flows annually.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had earlier called on China to help maintain freedom of navigation in the piracy-ridden area, a proposal that if implemented would give Chinese naval vessels cause to float deeper into the contested waters of the South China Sea.

His government appeared to change course on March 8 when AFP Chief of Staff Eduardo Ano proposed to hold joint patrols in the maritime area with Malaysia and Indonesia. The proposed patrols will be discussed at the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) Maritime Transport Group meeting to be held in Manila between April 4-6. 

Philippines_Kidnapping-01
A rising trend of piracy and kidnapping-for-ransom attacks has made the Sulu Sea one of the world’s most dangerous maritime areas. Several of the hostages indicated in this June 2016 graphic have since been killed because ransoms were not paid. 

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an al Qaeda-linked Islamic terror organization situated in the Philippines’ southernmost Sulu archipelago, is known to be responsible for the recent surge in piracy. The militant group has traditionally funded its fight against Manila through kidnapping-for-ransom rackets, but has recently ramped up piracy activities to net more victims and demand higher pay-offs.

The Associated Press estimated in February that the terror outfit had raised nearly $7.3 million in ransom payments this year. Analysts believe the group aims to leverage those funds into larger terror attacks, which in recent years have been confined mainly to the country’s remote southernmost area. A recent report by IHS Markit, a strategic intelligence consultancy, estimated the Sulu Sea was the most pirated area of the world, followed by Nigeria and India.         

Upon taking office, Duterte vowed to annihilate Abu Sayyaf by deploying 10,000 highly trained soldiers to Basilan and Sulu. The terror group, estimated to consist of a few hundred foot soldiers in remote jungle redoubts, was thought to be on its last legs after a series of assassinations of its leaders by US-guided Philippine troops. However, the group has seen a resurgence of relevance as it has ventured into more maritime disruption.

Ano recently announced that the Philippine Navy has designated a safe sea-lane through the Sulu Sea, where the military conducts regular coastal monitoring. He has appealed to commercial vessels passing through the area to only use the designated safe channel. Ano proposed that Malaysia and Indonesia will also deploy naval assets adjacent to the sea-lane to expand the safe passage area.

That may or may not work. The Singapore-based Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) argued in a recent research report that the spate of piracy and kidnappings showed that the Sulu Sea was under de facto control of “bandits, criminals and extortionists”, with their hideouts situated in remote areas beyond state control.

Soldiers distribute pictures of a member of extremist group Abu Sayyaf Isnilon Hapilon, who has a U.S. government bounty of $5 million for his capture, in Butig, Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Marconi B. Navales - RTX2Z9II
Soldiers distribute pictures of a Isnilon Hapilon, a member of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf, who has a US government bounty of US$5 million for his capture. Photo: Reuters / Marconi B. Navales

Originally confined to attacks on small fishing trawlers, tugboats and yachts, Abu Sayyaf last year worryingly started to hit much larger cargo ships.

Despite recent collaborative meetings between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, it is not clear the rising problem will be solved any time soon. The ocean between the southern Philippines and eastern Malaysia is vast and home to many small islands where suspected pirates can readily evade pursuing authorities. All three neighboring countries lack strong maritime policing capabilities.

Security analysts and regional officials have repeatedly warned the Sulu Sea region is at risk of becoming Southeast Asia’s version of Somalia, where terror-linked pirates attack merchant ships for profit while severely disrupting trade. Duterte’s appeal to China for help was acknowledgement of Beijing’s intervention in protecting its ships that passed by Somalia around the piracy-prone Gulf of Aden.

Abu Sayyaf has taken hostage and demanded ransom for dozens of Malaysians and Indonesians in recent years, according to local news reports. In recent weeks the terror group nabbed 11 Vietnamese sailors and demanded ransom for their release in two separate attacks near the volatile border island grouping of Tawi Tawi.

While the Philippines is making overtures to improve policing and security, there is still official denial the situation is spinning out of control. After Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan warned that the region was in danger of becoming a “new Somalia”, then Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay countered that the situation in the region was more stable than in Africa and that the government was “full in control.”

In reality, Abu Sayyaf has fought and survived against five successive Philippine governments since 1992 in a region Manila has arguably never really controlled. All five presidents over that period, including Duterte, announced that they would eliminate the militant group through tough security measures. But 25 years later Abu Sayyaf continues to sow fear and loathing through a campaign of terror and violence it has successfully extended from land to sea. 

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