During 2016, the Philippines-based Islamist extremist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) changed its long-established kidnapping tactics. Having focused largely on onshore abductions of local nationals since its inception in the 1990s, some sub-commanders of the group increasingly took to the southern Sulu and northern Celebes Seas as they sought to target greater numbers of foreign nationals.

Additionally, as 2016 progressed, the Isnilon Hapilon-led Basilan faction of the ASG (which is not a cohesive unit, but rather a group made up of numerous autonomous sub-commanders) aligned with Syria- and Iraq-based Sunni Islamist extremist group Islamic State (IS). IS in April appointed Hapilon as its South-east Asia emir, thereby increasing the group’s profile among regional Islamist extremists. Meanwhile, in another move aimed at increasing the group’s international profile, some ASG kidnappers have begun to use victims in online propaganda, including extreme tactics such as beheading foreign nationals for publicity.

The Sulu faction of the ASG continues to be focused on kidnapping activities, and it is the transition towards kidnapping from vessels at sea that has proved most successful. The group kidnapped more than 50 foreign victims in more than 20 separate attacks during the last nine months of 2016, compared with five known foreign victims, all onshore, in 2015. As the ASG became more confident in targeting crew offshore, it carried out abductions both more frequently and more brazenly, boarding commercial vessels with freeboards of up to four metres.

Regional governments and the shipping industry have scrambled to respond to the changing nature of the threat. Although new initiatives may begin to bear fruit as the year goes on, 2017 will be a challenging year for foreigners both onshore and transiting the region by sea.

Surge in offshore abductions

Prior to 2016, the ASG largely relied on regular abductions of local nationals to generate a reliable income stream, abducting foreign nationals sporadically when the opportunity arose. As few foreigners strayed into ASG territory, the group extended its operational range, conducting intermittent operations as far afield as the eastern coast of Sabah, Malaysia. However, improvements in coastal security measures from July 2014 significantly diminished the ASG’s capability to operate there. Meanwhile, 2014 saw a jump in the average ransom payment received for foreign nationals, which likely motivated the group to look for new ways to target them.

Offshore kidnaps-for-ransom have seen an unprecedented increase in the past 12 months. These incidents have occurred exclusively in the southern Sulu and northern Celebes Seas. A closer look at the more than 20 successful offshore kidnaps recorded by Control Risks in 2016 shows that activity can be divided into two distinct phases.

In the first phase, between February and September, ASG kidnappers exclusively targeted local fishing vessels and tugs, exploiting the relative lack of on board security measures to successfully abduct crew members. Successful incidents typically occurred close to the coast. During this time, incidents were recorded once a month on average.

The second phase, from October until the end of the year, saw a notable increase in the frequency of incidents and a shift in the targeting profile of vessels. Kidnappers increasingly targeted a wider range of vessels, including general cargo vessels, bulk carriers, chemical tankers and a yacht. The perpetrators also significantly expanded their operational area. Incidents were mostly concentrated within 100 nautical miles (185km) of Tawi-Tawi, Jolo and Basilan Islands (Philippines), from where the attacks were launched. However, the ASG likely retains the ability to operate even further from its strongholds. It has previously carried out onshore kidnaps as far east as Samal Island, located off Davao (Philippines) nearly 300 nautical miles (555km) away. Meanwhile, in one off shore incident the group abducted crew from a tug sailing 115 nautical miles (213km) south of the Sulu archipelago.

In comparison with phase one, successful kidnaps-for-ransom trebled in frequency between October and December. Most notably, in October and November kidnappers carried out two abductions from general cargo vessels. These were the first offshore kidnaps in the region in the past ten years to target larger merchant vessels. The ASG in November also attacked a yacht sailing in the Sulu Sea, abducting one German crew member and killing another, highlighting the proclivity for violence often exhibited by the ASG during abductions.

The return of a high risk area

Lloyd’s Market Association’s Joint War Committee (JWC) in December 2015 removed north-eastern Borneo and the Sulu Sea from its listed areas for Hull War, Piracy, Terrorism and Related Perils, after years of limited attacks offshore. The more than 20 successful cases recorded since then demonstrate the dynamic nature of militant groups in the region, and how quickly the security environment can change. The surge in maritime attacks is significant, particularly as they are starting to affect regional supply chains. A temporary moratorium was imposed on coal transports from Indonesia to the Philippines amid ongoing fears of crew abductions, while the security of crew on tanker and cargo ships transiting between Australia and North Asia has also been called into question.

In June, Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia agreed in principle to establish a maritime transit corridor for merchant vessels, to be patrolled by an unspecified number of naval forces. However, the signing of the Sulu Seas Patrol Initiative (SSPI) (attempting to imitate the successful Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) framework), and the implementation of co-ordinated patrols agreed by the three states in August have done little to stem the frequency of offshore abductions.

Despite an increase in regional patrols and deployed assets in recent months, limitations in co-ordination between the littoral states and the size of the area to be patrolled limit their effectiveness, which the ASG continues to exploit. While these states have agreed to establish standard operating procedures for the right of hot pursuit into Philippine waters, there are practical constraints. Indonesia and Malaysia cannot pursue the assailants once they reach shore, while there are concerns as to how the Philippines would respond should either navy pursue a suspected kidnapping group in Philippine waters. The ease with which the ASG managed to circumvent naval assets deployed in the wake of the kidnappings to prevent perpetrators from fleeing back to the Sulu archipelago, also broadly illustrates the limited capacity of Philippine maritime law-enforcement agencies and the challenging geography of the area. Broad swathes of the Sulu and Celebes Sea continue to remain outside the writ of the Philippine government. The economic incentive further encourages attacks at sea, with offshore kidnaps so far proving to be relatively low risk and highly rewarding for the perpetrators.

The industry has years of experience gained from implementing Best Management Practices to counter the threat of Somali piracy, and more recently adapted to address piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. However, it is now looking for new guidance commensurate with the threat in the Sulu Sea. There is no hard and fast answer. Nonetheless, the successful execution of vessel hardening measures, such as increased speed, evasive manoeuvres, razor wire and access control, has deterred several attempted kidnaps in recent months.

Onshore risks

Although Control Risks is currently recording fewer onshore kidnaps by the ASG than in 2015, the risk has not disappeared. Some ASG sub-commanders have turned to maritime piracy, but others continue to ply the coastal areas of the Zamboanga peninsula and the Sulu Archipelago. The majority of victims continue to be local nationals, but foreigners are not immune. Although the most recent abduction involving foreigners occurred in September 2015, when the ASG kidnapped two Canadians, one Norwegian and one Filipina from a coastal tourist resort on Samal Island, further isolated incidents could occur in 2017.

Islamic state influence

The Samal kidnap was notable because it exemplified several of the ASG’s tactical advances and highlighted the complexities companies will face if dealing with ASG incidents in 2017.

First, the abduction took place outside the group’s usual operational range as the ASG demonstrated its refocused intent to pursue lucrative foreign nationals. Secondly, the group began to engage in online propaganda, publishing videos of the four victims online to raise its international profile. Thirdly, the ASG reverted to using more extreme tactics by beheading the two Canadians, having not harmed a foreign victim since 2001.

Nevertheless, the developments were unsurprising given the Basilan faction’s move in February 2016 to align itself formally with IS. The tactics mirrored those used by IS against its foreign kidnap victims in Syria in the second half of 2014. That said, the lack of cohesion within the ASG makes it difficult to predict how individual sub-commanders will seek to resolve cases and treat their victims. Knowledge of the specific actors involved, and their motivations and allegiances, is essential when predicting the potential outcomes of an incident.

The way forward

Developments such as the partial alignment with IS, introduction of propaganda tactics and an increasing operational range complicate today’s kidnap cases. The ASG’s lack of unity compounds these complexities. Although trilateral government discussions in the region have led to some progress in combating the threat at sea, there has been no reduction in the number of offshore incidents. In fact, the reverse has occurred and the threat is unlikely to decline in the opening months of 2017.

Access to up-to-date, accurate and reliable intelligence and a clear understanding of the threat environment are vital for security management planning when visiting the southern Philippines or transiting the region by sea. The creation and implementation of solid incident management plans familiarised and rehearsed by employees, including crew members, will go a long way towards navigating what has quickly become an established maritime kidnap risk.



  • Nicola White, Associate Director
  • Sebastian Villyn, Maritime Risk Analysts
  • Onika Adeneye, Maritime Risk Analysts

Get in touch

Can our experts help you?