Cash, not caliphate, drives kidnappers in Philippines

Those responsible for beheading Canadian Robert Hall this week — a group called Abu Sayyaf — have become gangsters posing as religious fanatics, experts and military commanders say.

Abu Sayyaf are gangsters posing as religious fanatics, experts and military commander say

An image released by the Philippine National Police shows a top commander of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group, left, posing with comrades on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. (Philippine National Police/Associated Press)

The captors' video has all the markings of the now-familiar terror genre. 

There are masked gunmen, handcuffed prisoners in orange shirts, a black flag with Arabic writing. There are threats to kill "infidels," and many references to Allah.

But for those responsible for beheading Canadian Robert Hall this week — a group called Abu Sayyaf — it's considered mostly a facade. They have become gangsters posing as religious fanatics, experts and military commanders say, using extortion to bankroll themselves.

They demanded more than $8-million for the release of Hall, and the same amount for the life of retired Canadian mining executive and journalist John Ridsdel in April. Sources say offers of more than $1 million were rejected as not enough.

Former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who advised Ridsdel's family during the ordeal, called the demands "ridiculous."
The killing of Canadian Robert Hall, right, was confirmed this week. The whereabouts of Norwegian national Kjartan Sekkingstad, left, are not known. (Reuters)

The Hall family put out a statement saying, "The efforts to free Robert were vast and exhaustive." They also said they "wholeheartedly" support Ottawa's position not to pay ransom to kidnappers.

Both Hall and Ridsdel were beheaded less than an hour after the last deadline passed with no ransom delivered. Many here think that's a warning to other hostages and their families. That includes two people kidnapped at the same time as the Canadians, a Filipina woman and a Norwegian man.
Canadian John Ridsdel was killed by Abu Sayyaf gunmen in the Philippines in April. (@JBR10000/Twitter)

"What's the purpose? Just to get the money," says Col. Roy Trinidad, a former commander in the Philippines Special Forces who spent years going after Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of the south.

Indeed, more than half the Philippine military is stationed in that region, with thousands of troops specifically targeting Muslim extremists.

For 13 years the U.S. had its own special task force in the region, 600 American soldiers training and helping Philippine forces. Recently, they were joined by at least two members of Canada's elite Joint Task Force 2, sent as military advisers after Hall and Ridsdel were kidnapped. For all that, Abu Sayyaf has been pushed back but not defeated.
Col. Roy Trinidad, a former commander in the Philippines Special Forces, spent years going after Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of the south. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Greed doesn't seem to have always been its driving motive. Abu Sayyaf ("Bearer of the Sword" in Arabic), started with solid credentials in the world of Muslim extremists.

Originally a violent offshoot of an independence movement for the impoverished islands in the south of the Philippines, it was funded by Osama bin Laden's brother-in- law, recognized by al-Qaeda, and led by jihadists fresh from Afghanistan. They wanted their own caliphate.

It had links to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian militant group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings. And most recently, it switched allegiances with a vow of loyalty to ISIS and a nod of support from the Syrian-based terror flag-bearer.

Westerners are the most valuable

But Abu Sayyaf gradually learned that human lives have a high cash value, especially if those seized are Westerners.

One security consultant in the Philippines says an informal ransom list is about $10,000 for Filipinos, $100,000 for others in the region and at least $1 million for North Americans and Europeans.

"Of course, the foreigners have the capacity to pay," says Trinidad. "These bandits have been involved in kidnap for ransom because it is lucrative. They have turned their backs on the ideological struggle that they once espoused."

The ransoms demanded increased significantly in 2014 after a German couple was kidnapped from their yacht and released after an unprecedented amount was paid, reportedly as much as $5 million each.

Even as Hall and Ridsdell were seen begging for their lives, others were being quietly released after ransom deals were negotiated on their behalf.

Fourteen Indonesian sailors left the Philippines just days after Ridsdel's execution.

Still, some say the ransom inflation isn't just about greed on the part of Abu Sayyaf.

'Everybody has their finger in the pie'

Many others in the southern Philippines also get a cut, says Marc Singer, director of business intelligence for Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a Manila security consulting firm that has been involved in some hostage negotiations. That's part of the reason many in the local community support Abu Sayyaf.

"Everybody has their finger in the pie," says Singer.

"If ransom money goes down there, it's getting divided in all directions. You'd be surprised to find that the most senior Abu Sayyaf leader isn't making as much as some military types and some more senior politicians down there."
'You know, it's your life,' says Ces Drilon, a Filipina TV reporter kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf in 2008. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Recently, a retired Italian priest and pizza restaurant owner in the Philippines was released after his family paid $600,000 in ransom, a relatively low amount. Singer says the key was that the family dealt directly with the kidnappers and cut out all government and military officials.

Ces Drilon knows all about the negotiations that can lead to success or failure, life or death.

The Filipina TV reporter was kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf in 2008. She remembers listening as her captors haggled on the phone over the price of her freedom, just minutes before the deadline.

"I was prepared. My prayers were for God to give me the grace to accept my death, if it happened," she says.

"But of course the idea of giving more money to these bandits, I felt ashamed in a way. You just make the problem worse. But … you know, it's your life."
Originally a violent offshoot of an independence movement for the impoverished islands in the south of the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf has become a group of gangsters posing as religious fanatics, experts and military commanders say. (Canadian Press)


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.