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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 [email protected]
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