THE date April 11, 2017 will be remembered as the day the dreaded kidnap-for-ransom terror organization the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) penetrated Bohol, an island province famous for its tarsiers, Chocolate Hills, and many other tourist attractions.
Onboard three pump boats, each powered by two 16hp engines, 11 heavily armed members of the ASG arrived from Sulu, rode up the Inabanga River and landed at remote Sitio Ilaya in Barangay Napo, Inabanga town. They were brought there by Joselito Melloria, a local resident who had become a so-called Balik Islam, a convert, when he married a woman from Mindanao.
The group was led by Maumar Askali, an ASG sub-commander whose name is linked to a long list of kidnappings of both foreigners and Filipinos, the beheading of those who didn’t pay ransom, and to bombings in Sulu. Also in the group was Edimar Isnain who was Askali’s companion in a number of violent, criminal operations.
On April 9, the US Embassy in Manila issued a travel advisory to its citizens. The basis for this warning was “unsubstantiated yet credible information that terrorist groups may attempt to conduct kidnappings in Central Visayas.” The embassy drew flak from Philippine government officials for issuing the travel warning though most likely, the Armed Forces was the source of the information. Central Visayas Police Director Noli Taliño on April 10 assured the public that there was no threat (Banat, April 11, 2017). A local police station that had posted a warning about two boats with ASG members on their way to the Visayas from Sulu, was sanctioned for spreading such information.
However, sometime on April 10, Askali’s group arrived at Sitio Ilaya. Alarmed residents reported it to the local police. Upon verification of the report, soldiers and police were deployed to the area. The exchange of fire started shortly after 5 a.m. on April 11. Askali and his group must have expected that they would have more time to prepare for their kidnapping mission. Instead, they found themselves cornered in unfamiliar, unfriendly terrain. However, being unprepared to face such a formidable foe, the government forces also suffered casualties. Before reinforcements arrived from Cebu, three soldiers belonging to the scout platoon of the Philippine Army’s 47th Infantry Battalion and one local policeman were killed.
Askali and Isnain were among the ASG members reported killed during the April 11 military operations. The body of another slain ASG member was found buried in a neighboring barangay two days later. As of April 15, a source in Bohol tells me, the military was still hunting six persons.
The fierce encounter claimed the lives of an elderly couple. The man was an uncle of Joselito Melloria. It is not clear why the couple didn’t evacuate with the rest of the village. But according to a local radio station DYTR report, the wife was a stroke victim and unable to walk. However, she was outside the house when she was killed. The couple was staying in the area from where Askali and company were firing on the troops.
After the main battle, the Armed Forces disclosed that it had monitored the Askali group’s departure from Sulu via Indanan on April 6. However, the military lost track of them after the group stopped over at Lazi, Siquijor, around April 8, and reportedly left in three newly painted boats. On their way to Inabanga from Siquijor, the ASG group must have passed near Panglao island where thousands of tourists go swimming, dolphin watching, island hopping and diving every day. Inabanga, on the other hand, faces Cebu across the relatively narrow Cebu Strait.
Technically speaking, there may not have been a failure of intelligence. Security forces have been on alert status since last year and once the ASG had been located, troops were immediately deployed. However, for a Cebu-based civilian like me, it looks like something went wrong since the ASG could penetrate such an interior part of the region – dropping by Siquijor on the way—before the military and police reacted.
Will this just be an isolated case of incursion into the Visayas by the Abu Sayyaf, looking for foreigners to kidnap? Or is this a warning that Mindanao’s terrorist organizations have been able to build their own networks in the Visayas? The bombing in Hilongos, Leyte, last December 2016, was the handiwork of the Maute Group but with no local contacts. In the Bohol case, Askali and company went to Inabanga with high-powered firearms, equipped to make explosives and to carry out kidnappings, because they had a local contact, a man who had connected with the ASG during his stay in Mindanao.
ASG, Maute and other extremist groups are evolving constantly. They might lose leaders and members, some of their missions may fail, but history shows the resilience of these groups. Collecting ransom money is not their only motivation.