Southeast Asia

The Philippines' kidnap industry
By Ted Lerner

If those in officialdom claim a wanted terrorist has been killed, yet cannot produce a dead body or any evidence to back up their claim, does that mean the world has been made a safer place? Does it also mean that the tens of millions of dollars that the Americans have poured in to the Philippines since September 11 have been worth it?

If you ask anyone in the Philippine and US governments those questions, the answers you'd receive would most definitely be "yes". Ask the general public the same questions, however, and you'll probably get either a hardy laugh or a puzzled look.

As the US forces working in the southern Philippines begin to wind down their training operations of Philippine troops, it helps to look at the latter question first. Clearly the professionalism of the Americans have helped Filipino soldiers raise the level of even their most basic fighting techniques.

"Filipinos soldiers were so casual in the jungle," one US intelligence operative told Asia Times Online. "When they take a break, they light up cigarettes. They didn't even realize that you can smell a cigarette in the jungle hundreds of meters away. And sometimes they play the radio. That's ludicrous. We've been teaching different techniques and these are some of the things they've picked up from us."

According to one Western diplomat who spoke with Asia Times Online, the very presence of the Americans has boosted morale among the local populace. "It has put some of the bad guys on the run," he said. "It has raised the confidence of the general public, especially the people of Basilan and Zamboanga. It has raised the level of security."

According to Philippine defense chief Angelo Reyes, the six-month US stint in the country has been such a big success that citizens in other communities in the oft-troubled southern part of the country have been clamoring to get the Americans to come over to their locales. Like the people on the island of Basilan, everyone everywhere likes it when good old Uncle Sam comes in and builds proper roads, administers free medical care, spends truckloads of money on the local community and chases the bad guys away.

Indeed, things have been such a success that the Philippine government has indicated it's going to ask the Americans to sign up for another stint. The Americans would not turn them down.

"We want to strengthen and enforce their ability to get the bad guys," said a spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Manila. "We're not seeking a permanent presence, nor are we seeking bases here. It's not specifically focused on terror. It develops the ability to work together to be comfortable together when the time comes."

According to the US Embassy, the United States has committed US$100 million to the Philippines in the form of military hardware, infrastructure projects and cold hard cash. Any new exercises, the spokeswoman said, would go toward the training of two quick-reaction teams and the training of Filipino trainers.

Officials on both sides claim that last month's bloody and deadly rescue attempt of American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipino nurse Edibora Yap, who were being held captive by the Abu Sayyaf gang, was a success. With the technical help of the Americans, the Philippine military was able to track the group down in the jungles of Zamboanga. A firefight ensued and, when the smoke cleared, Martin and Edibora were dead, while Gracia was minorly injured in the leg. Gracia Burnham was rescued and the bandit group fled in to the jungles.

"We consider it a success in the sense that we were able to rescue one of the three hostages," the embassy spokeswoman said. While one out of three alive may not sound that encouraging, few in the Philippines were in any mood to criticize the operation, as everyone was well aware that the dreaded Abu Sayyaf is a murderous criminal group and that escaping their clutches without payment of large amounts of ransom is next to impossible.

But two weeks later came the really big news. The Philippine military reported that it had killed Abu Sabaya, one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, in a surprise gun battle at sea in the middle of the night. Sabaya, a Filipino whose real name is Aldam Tilao, was once an engineering student who spent 12 years in Saudi Arabia before returning to the Philippines and joining the Abu Sayyaf, a group that originally professed to be fighting for a separate Muslim homeland but has deteriorated into a kidnap-for-ransom gang. Sabaya was one of five Abu Sayyaf leaders wanted by the Americans, who had placed a $1 million bounty on his head.

The story as related by the Philippine military is right out of a James Bond movie. Apparently two moles had infiltrated the group of Sabaya. Early on June 21, the moles were able to contact the military and inform them that Sabaya and his group were to board a pump boat headed from Zamboanga to Basilan island. The military prepared a team of 16 commandos who intercepted Sabaya and his crew at sea as they were riding in the pump boat off the coast of Zamboanga. The moles were on the boat but had been wearing special necklaces that flashed when the approaching commandos turned on their krypton flashlights in their night-vision equipment - provided by the Americans, of course - alerting soldiers not to fire at them. Since the commandos could see with their night-vision goggles, they specifically targeted Sabaya.

The commandos, riding in a speedboat that once belonged to the Abu Sayyaf, first rammed the pump boat. Then using M-16 rifles, they said, they pumped Sabaya and several other gang members full of lead and they fell in to the water and went under. Sabaya came back up bloodied but was shot again, this time in the head and back. He sank to the bottom of the ocean, 450 meters down.

The military said it would have gone after Sabaya's body but instead went after four other gang members who had tried to swim away. They caught the four, who later testified on video that Sabaya was indeed hit and was dead.

When the news broke of Sabaya's death, officials on both sides basked in the glow of victory. Sabaya was probably the most hated criminal in the Philippines. He wore army fatigues and dark Oakley sunglasses and had a cocky, arrogant sneer. He constantly taunted the Philippine and US governments to come and get him and he literally seemed to get away with murder as his small band constantly eluded thousands of pursuing troops. His demise provided, for once, welcome news.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had taken a lot of heat for allowing the Americans in the combat zone and for buttering them up but now she could claim that it was all worth it. Within mere hours of the reported killing of Sabaya, Arroyo came out with a statement claiming that "the Abu Sayyaf problem has been largely neutralized". She proudly went on to say that US President George W Bush had called and congratulated her on a job well done and for making the world a better place.

"He was happy the Abu Sayyaf problem has been solved," Arroyo said at the time. But there was only one nagging problem. While the military claimed it had killed Sabaya, it couldn't produce a dead body as evidence. It produced what it said was some of Sabaya's personal possessions, a backpack, a pair of Oakley sunglasses, a satellite phone, and his Philippine driver's license, apparently found in the jungles of Basilan after the Burnham clash. But no body.

Arroyo said military search crews were scouring the waters to look for Sabaya's body. Everybody expected the US military to provide some of its high-tech search equipment but it declined, claiming it was a waste of money. Several days went by and still no body. People quickly got skeptical.

"We don't know him," said a former hostage of the Abu Sayyaf about the mole who supposedly infiltrated the group. "It's unfair for the victims and the public as well to be given a false sense of security just because the military wants to look good." Then after four days, Arroyo called off the search. Anyway, she said, a US spy plane had captured the whole sequence on video and she was convinced Sabaya was dead.

"I saw the movie," Arroyo said. "But I can't show you the movie because we cannot expose the details of the technological capabilities of the Americans."

"If there is a movie," the US Embassy spokeswoman told Asia Times Online, "I haven't seen one." The embassy also wouldn't say whether it released the $1 million reward, citing reasons of privacy.

Regardless, a beaming Arroyo called in the media and presented her own bounty check to one of the moles who tipped off the military. The money was dispersed and everyone was happy. The problem's been solved. It's time to bring in the free-spending tourists to the Philippines.

Even giving the military people here the benefit of the doubt that Sabaya is dead, does that mean the Abu Sayyaf problem is solved, that the Philippines is safe? Hardly. Several days before the mysterious Sabaya episode, another bandit group raided an Indonesian freighter and took hostage four Indonesians. At first the government claimed that this group was another faction of the Abu Sayyaf. Then it said the group was just a bunch of common bandits. One Indonesian escaped and the other three are still being held, with nobody quite sure who is holding the men hostage.

As for the Abu Sayyaf, there are at least four other Abu Sayyaf groups, all having splintered off because of factionalism and infighting over ransom money. Then there are the "lost commands" of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). There is also a group that calls itself the Pentagon Gang that is just a ruthless in its tactics as the Abu Sayyaf and has been placed on the United States' list of terrorist organizations.

Clearly nobody knows how many kidnap-for-ransom groups there are in Mindanao. The large island exists in a lawless, faraway nether world where the many tangled relationships among the people living there makes it nearly impossible to tell who's who. Many Filipinos are convinced that their own military is involved in the shenanigans, keeping the chaos going so as to keep the cash flowing.

But it's not just in Mindanao. Metro Manila has been hit with so many kidnap-for-ransom cases in the past two years that the crime is now simply referred to as KFR. The government has identified 21 KFR syndicates, but again, as in Mindanao, nobody really has any idea of the numbers. The Philippine National Police claims that 45 people were kidnapped in 34 incidents between January and May of this year. Two private watchdog groups claim otherwise. They say 104 people were kidnapped in 69 different incidents during that time. They also go on to say a that a whopping $1 million in ransom was paid out in those six months.

But even these numbers may not reflect the exact extent of the problem. Often victims' families don't even report a kidnapping to the police for fear that the police will bungle a rescue attempt and kill the relative, or because of the distinct possibility that the police are involved in the crime.

Arroyo will soon invite the Americans to stay on in the south - where they call it terrorism - and she has ordered her police generals to wage an all-out war against the kidnap gangs in the rest of the country - where they call it KFR. Either way, the bottom line is that all over the Philippines, snatching people for large amounts of money is still one of the country's hot growth industries, no matter if one of the leaders of the one of most notorious gangs is dead or not.

Clearly if you're kidnapped in the Philippines, it also won't matter if it's the Americans who are around or one of the new quick-reaction teams organized by the president. You better have a lot of money available, or else your prospects for survival are looking pretty bleak.

Ted Lerner is the author of the book Hey, Joe - A Slice of the City, an American in Manila. He can be reached via e-mail at

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Jul 17, 2002


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