Kuala lumpur: Kidnap-for-ransom groups in Jolo have become increasingly sophisticated and are now working in units that operate like a small army.
Using three glasses filled with kahawa (Tausug word for coffee), an intelligence officer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) illustrated how the kidnap-for-ransom groups have streamlined their cross-border kidnapping modus operandi.
“Imagine these glasses are cells. First cell will do intelligence gathering in Semporna, the second cell which is also based in Semporna will do the kidnapping and once they reach Philippines waters, they will pass the hostages to the third cell,” said the officer at a house of a prominent individual in Jolo town on Jolo island.
Jolo island in Sulu province is where most of the hostages kidnapped in Semporna in the east coast of Sabah end up. In 2000, Malaysians took note of Jolo when 21 people were kidnapped in Sipadan island in Semporna waters on Easter Sunday.
The latest victims abducted from Semporna are Gao Huayuan, a 29-year-old tourist from Shanghai, and Marcy Dayawan, a 40-year-old Filipina resort worker. Filipino gunmen kidnapped them from Singamata Reef Resort on April 3.
The kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) groups have changed their modus operandi, according to Filipino intelligence officers and security experts interviewed by The Star.
“In 2000, a KFR group consisting of 30 armed men traveled in several boats from Sulu to kidnap 21 people in Sipadan and then returned to Sulu. That was the same modus operandi when they kidnapped 20 people [including three Americans]from Dos Palmas Resort [in Palawan, Philippines]and brought them to Basilan island,” said the AFP intelligence officer who did not want to be identified.
“When you travel in a big group, there is a possibility that the Philippine and Malaysian navies will detect you. But when you travel in a small group, you don’t attract attention,” he added.
Learning from their mistakes, the KFR groups streamlined their operation.
“Post-Sipadan and Dos Palmas kidnappings, the KFR would send a cell group to Semporna. These operatives would either live as a local or work in a resort. That is their cover. Their actual job is to find a target and study the place and find the best time for them to kidnap.”
“The spotter will contact the mastermind and inform that the victim is in her room and security is relaxed,” he said.
His description of the modus operandi corresponds with what happened in Singamata Reef Resort on the night of the abduction. Armed men struck minutes after eight General Operations Force (GOF) personnel stationed in the resort had left the reef to conduct patrolling in a boat.
When a target was identified, the KFR mastermind would inform the second cell. It was a light and quick team consisting of about seven gunmen embedded in Semporna.
“Before, they needed about 30 armed men to execute a kidnapping. Now they can kidnap with seven gunmen,” he said.
The crew of the second cell would know Semporna waters like the back of their hand, said the AFP intelligence officer.
After entering Philippine waters, the intelligence officer said, the second cell would hand over the hostages to the third cell.
“This is so that they can avoid heat [pressure from security forces],” he explained.
Octavio Dinampo, the CEO of Assist Jolo, a non-government organization (NGO), agreed with the intelligence officer’s description of the KFR’s modus operandi.
Since he was kidnapped with Filipino news anchor Ces Drilon and others on Jolo island on June 8, 2008, Dinampo, a 57-year-old Suluk, has been investigating the business of kidnapping in Sulu province, nearby Tawi Tawi islands and Sabah.
Dinampo, who teaches political science in Mindanao State University on Jolo island, said the cross-border kidnappings between Sulu and Semporna were masterminded by smugglers.
He added that the actual kidnapping was not done by the Abu Sayyaf but smugglers based on small islands in Sulu province such as Pandami, Pata, and Siasi, which are near Jolo island.
“You need to be an expert on islands and the sea to do cross-border kidnapping over the Sulu seas,” Dinampo said.
Cross-border kidnapping is an expensive operation, he added.
“The kidnapping crew is presumed dead before he goes for the kidnapping. And the mastermind will set aside money in the event a crew member is killed so that his family can move on. Just say you have seven crew members and you have set aside P100,000 for each of them, that means you need to set aside P700,000,” Dinampo said.
The mastermind also needs to buy sophisticated weapons and equipment for his cells embedded in Semporna and on Tawi Tawi islands.
“He needs to pay for the house his spotters have to stay in Semporna. The spotters need to be equipped with satellite phones, which they use to communicate in split seconds with the mastermind in coded words,” Dnampo said.
What’s new for the KFR group, according to Dinampo, is they have placed their men in the Abu Sayyaf, Moro National Liberation Front and other armed groups on Jolo island.
“They need a trusted ‘branch manager’ in these armed groups as they will usually deposit the hostages with the Abu Sayyaf or other armed groups on Jolo island,” he said.
The moment the KFR group abducts hostages from Sabah, Dinampo added, the mastermind would contact his “branch manager.”
“For example, the mastermind will tell his ‘branch manager’ that he had spent about P1.5 million and he wanted to make a P5 million profit, so he would sell a hostage for P6.5 million to the Abu Sayyaf and it would be up to them to jack up the ransom,” he said.
The KFR mastermind outsources the holding of the hostage to Abu Sayyaf or armed groups on Jolo island because he does not have the “muscle” to keep them.
“Abu Sayyaf is a larger armed group. They have enough men and firepower to hold on to the hostages when pursued by the security forces,” Dinampo said.
“Once the KFR hands over the hostage to the Abu Sayyaf [or other armed groups]in Jolo, they are out of the heat generated by the kidnapping.”
When asked if another cross-border kidnapping would happen in Semporna, the AFP intelligence officer picked up a glass and said, “they are already there” and placed it next to a paper he had marked “Sabah.”