Terror at Sea: Thousands of Indonesian Fishermen Under Threat of Abu Sayyaf Kidnappings

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*This is the original version prior to editing that cut the story in half. Published on VICE Asia (https://www.vice.com/en_asia/article/4ag95d/terrorism-indonesia-philippines-abu-sayyaf-kidnapping). Translation by Jade Poa and Adi Renaldi.

In the 1990s, thousands of Indonesian fishermen migrated to neighbouring Malaysia for a better catch and a better life. Some risked being kidnapped by the notorious terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.

In the middle of the Sabah sea in Malaysia, five metre-high waves rocked a 21 meter-long fishing trawler manned by a modest crew of three Indonesian fishermen. The captain, Subandi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, steered the old boat through the relentless storm, accompanied by his two crew members, Hamdan and Sudarling. Every once in a while, Subandi glanced at the radar screen to ensure his boat did not enter Filipino territory.

This type of fishing trip was typical for them. Subandi was used to going out to sea four times a month for up to six days at a time. Despite the short downtime, Subandi and his crew caught up to 5 tonnes of fish per trip, which earned them 2000 MYR. That’s ten times what they could make fishing near their village. In Sabah, the crew always managed to bring home fish, no matter how bad the weather was.

Slowly but surely, at a speed of 9 knots, the fishing boat braved the storm. When the weather improved, Subandi decided to doze off for a few hours. He awoke when he heard footsteps on the deck. Even through the darkness, he could make out three barefoot men in black pointing shotguns in his direction.

Beside Subandi’s fishing trawler was a big black speedboat with an 80 horsepower engine. The crew had failed to detect the speedboat on their GPS radar.

“We are police from Taganak island,” one of the armed men said in Malay. Subandi figured he must have been in his early twenties. Subandi was familiar with Taganak island, having frequently passed it on his fishing voyages.

“Come with us now!” one of the armed men demanded.

Threatened at gunpoint, the three fishermen had no choice but to follow the orders and board the speedboat. Subandi was puzzled. The men did not seem like real policemen, but they were certainly not robbers either.

The speedboat sailed off into the darkness. My old fishing trawler would never get away from a speedboat this fast, Subandi thought to himself, watching the ship that had been his home for the past decade being dragged away by the waves.

At that moment, Subandi remembered that Malaysian sea patrol had warned fishermen to avoid speedboats like these, as the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf had committed a string of kidnappings in recent years.

The speedboat veered further and further away from Taganak island, which was roughly an hour away from Sandakan.

“Where are you taking us?” Subandi finally gained the courage to ask.

“Just stay calm,” his Malay captor answered. “We are going far away from here.”

Subandi then realised he had fallen into the hands of Abu Sayyaf.

***

Subandi, a simple and soft-spoken man, was born in 1976 in Liukang Loe, a small island off Bulukumba Regency in the province of South Sulawesi. Liukang Loe is home to only 218 families. While Bulukumba is famous for its traditional boat, known as Pinisi, which has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage, Liukang Loe is relatively unheard.

Liukang Loe is a rich habitat for coral reefs and mangroves. There are no paved roads on the island, just pathways connecting the few houses. Residents of the island depend heavily on tourism; they provide transportation to and from the island and entertain guests with their traditional fishing method. Locals also sell seafood, with each fisherman on the island catching roughly 5 kilograms of fish a day. But most families depend on income earned by family members fishing in Malaysia.

All of Subandi’s seven siblings fish in international waters, except for his sister. His father, Sattu, is a traditional Bugis fisherman who sailed between the Java and Arafura seas in his youth. As a traditional fisherman, Sattu struggled to make ends meet to support his eight children. All of his children only completed secondary school.

Since he was 10 years old, Subandi has been fishing with his father. When he was 17, he could operate a traditional fishing boat and went as far as the Bone Strait and Flores Sea. He left Liukang Loe for Sandakan in his twenties. Like many other Bulukumba fishermen, he relocated to Sandakan in 1996 with his wife during the boom of the region’s fishing industry. For the past decade, Subandi has been captain of a ship owned by a Chinese-Malaysian businessman in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia.

“It was difficult caring for them when they were young,” Sattu, now 80 years old, said when asked about his children. He still actively fishes in a modest sailboat. “When they were in school, I always told them to educate themselves to become better people, but they preferred to go to sea.”

The Bugis tribe is well-known for their experienced sailors and accomplished divers. In Subandi’s village, fishermen use compressors to breathe while diving to hunt fish using spears.

Still, his family lived in poverty. They had to spend money to make money, which entailed leasing a boat and purchasing a week’s worth of sustenance at a time. His job also required him to find markets to sell his catch, cooling facilities, and transportation. Liukang Loe fishermen lack these resources. Many of them can only afford small boats that can only travel up to 30 kilometres from the coast. Subandi knew from a young age that he needed to leave the island to pursue a better life.

When young men came of age, they left the island one by one, leaving their elders, wives, sisters, and children.

Sunawir, Subandi’s neighbour and childhood friend, also moved to Sandakan when Bulukumba’s fishing industry declined.

After 20 years in Sandakan, Sunawir returned to Liukang Loe, built a brick house, and opened a small shop using the money he had earned fishing in Malaysia. He had also earned enough to send his child to university. Sunawir still fishes today, but only in Indonesian waters.

“Many of my friends ended up there [Sandakan],” said Sunawir. “I was left alone in this village. There was nothing here. It was no place to gain experience.”

There has never been a serious attempt to develop Bulukumba’s fishing industry. The local government focused the bulk of its resources on farming freshwater fish. The regency encompassing Bulukumba produced 54,000 tonnes of fish in 2014. Meanwhile, Sabah produced 200,000 metric tonnes of fish the same year, accounting for 2.8 percent of the region’s total GDP. But with an area of 950,000 square kilometres, Bulukumba has the potential to rival Sabah’s production.

“We are waiting on assistance from the government,” Sunawir said. “As we are fishermen, they should equip us with what we need. We have some of the tools, but we still lack the funding that could help us maximise our potential.”

As long as the government neglects Bulukumba’s fishing industry, the region’s young men will continue to migrate to Malaysia.

***

The speedboat slowed down as it approached the edge of a mangrove forest. Although the sun had risen, Subandi could not guess what island he was on. For the next two days, Subandi was held captive in the mangrove forest, before he was forced to walk further into the island, accompanied by Abu Sayyaf members armed with grenades and semi-automatic weapons.

“Just do what we say and you’ll be freed as quickly as possible,” said the captor. From the mangrove forest, they crossed to Jolo island, a volcanic island in Southeast Philippines, on a fishing boat, again settling in a forest.

A few days after being kidnapped, Subandi’s captors allowed him to call home. In the two-minute conversation, he told his family in Sandakan that Abu Sayyaf was demanding a ransom for his return. If the Indonesian government did not comply, ge would be killed.

While living in the jungle, Subandi and his friends lived in a tent lined with tarp and ate whatever they were given. To avoid the Filipino military, they never stayed in one place for too long. Abu Sayyaf intel was constantly monitoring the military’s movement.

Conflict between Abu Sayyaf and the Filipino military became part of daily life for Subandi and his crew, who were constantly awoken by the sound of bombs and gunfire. “They were often asked to hide behind trees and await further instruction. They witnessed two Abu Sayyaf members fall dead to the ground, only to be left behind by the rest of the group.

Despite the black Laillahaillah banner flown by Abu Sayyaf–the symbol for modern jihadism–Subandi said his captors were not devout Muslims in the truest sense. They often cut their prayers short. They never recited Quranic verses. Subandi noticed a contrast between their ideology, which aimed to build an Islamic state, and their actual practices.

Although they were constantly surrounded by heavily-armed men, the three prisoners were never physically harmed. They even conversed with their captors, discussing Abu Sayyaf’s mission and why they kidnapped innocent sailors. The Abu Sayyaf members showed their prisoners videos of beheadings they had done, just to show them how badly their lives could end.

“We need money for food and ammunition,” the Malay man said. “If you want your freedom, you must contact your boss and the Malaysian and Indonesian governments.”

The ISIS-affiliated group is based in Jolo and Basilan and has been working since 1989 to fulfil their mission of establishing an Islamic State in the southern Philippines. To fund their operations, Abu Sayyaf routinely kidnapped tourists and fishing vessel crews. In 2000, Abu Sayyaf collected an estimated US$10-US$25 million, making them the richest terrorist group in Asia Pacific.

The group is united by blood relations between the Tausug and Yakan clams. Various factions exist within Abu Sayyaf, and not all of them are involved in kidnapping, said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta.

“Abu Sayyaf is a complex group,” Jones said. “They’re terrorists, bandits, and rebels all at once.”

In addition to kidnappings, the group is also involved in drug dealing, rape, extortion, and a laundry list of other criminal activities. They’re also behind a series of deadly bombings across the Philippines, including the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing that killed 116 people.

Since 2000, Abu Sayyaf has relied on kidnappings to make a quick buck. In 2016, the group began to target Indonesian fishermen near the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, an area that had previously been avoided by Abu Sayyaf, likely due to cultural, racial, and religious similarities. The group kidnapped 14 crew members near Kalimantan between March and April 2016.

Deka Anwar, a researcher at IPAC, said the kidnappings of Indonesian fishermen by Abu Sayyaf started by accident. One of the sailors kidnapped near Kalimantan was on a ship with the Malaysian flag, which was believed to have belonged to a businessman of Chinese descent. The Indonesian government panicked and paid the ransom. Since then, Indonesia has been viewed as a relatively easy target for extortion.

“For one thing, they were fellow Muslims. For another, they were considered poor,” Anwar wrote in a report. “Whatever the reason, the Indonesian response may have inadvertently triggered more kidnapping.”

In late July 2016, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 13 sailors from a vessel heading toward Samarinda, Indonesia. The Indonesian consulate in Tawau, Malaysia noted that 39 Indonesian nationals have been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf between 2016 and 2019. Between September 2019 and January 2020, the group kidnapped 8 Indonesians from Tambisan beach. Three of them were freed in December 2019, while the remaining five are still being negotiated.

Since 2016, Sulu’s waters have been deemed the most dangerous for trade by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a title previously held by Africa’s western seas.

In response to the string of kidnappings at the beginning of 2016, Indonesian, Filipino, and Malaysian security forces united under the command of the Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP).

But IPAC researchers believe that these joint patrols are not enough to hinder Abu Sayyaf’s militant actions. Their powerful speed boats are capable of escaping ambushes in a matter of seconds. Their arsenal of weapons is not to be underestimated. Their hiding places are widespread, with the group occupying tiny islands in the Sulu sea.

“Military cooperation between the three countries did not act as a significant deterrent,” Deka said. “Looking back, non-militaristic steps should have been taken.”

Abu Sayyaf was the target of Operation Enduring Freedom between 2002 and 2015, as part of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror after 9/11. But subsequent joint operations between Filipino and American military forces failed to weaken Abu Sayyaf.

“It’s crucial to understand that Abu Sayyaf is united by clan and culture,” Anwar said. “So when the commander dies; children, relatives, they will arm themselves, seek revenge, and try to maximise profits.”

***

Sandakan is the second-largest city in Sabah after Kinabalu City. Sandakan’s topography consists of a hilly landscape that slopes toward the sea, forming a beautiful coastline. Sandakan, located in western Sabah, has a long colonial history. In the 19th century, the British colonial government made Sandakan the centre of trade, encouraging Hong Kong residents to migrate there to boost the economy. Sandakan became known as Little Hong Kong.

Sandakan is a huge player in Malaysia’s fishing industry. The city is located near the South China Sea, which provides an ample supply of fish. Between 50 and 100 species of fish are sold in Sandakan. In 2016, fishermen in Sandakan caught nearly 25,000 metric tonnes of fish valued at 78 million MYR. The fish was exported to Hong Kong, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei Darussalam.

Dozens of ships unload at Sandakan’s fish market daily, stocking an array of fish, from yellowfin tuna to rare sharks. In 2015, the Sabah government announced plans to build the region’s largest cooling facility worth 2.5 million MYR to fulfil demands for exports.

Sandakan, on the surface, looks like a wealthy peaceful city. But inside the city, the atmosphere was actually tense. It didn’t take long for the news of Subandi’s disappearance to reach Sandakan. Syahir, Subandi’s uncle who has lived in sandakan as a fisherman for decades, was the first person Subandi called from the mangrove forest.

“When we first heard the news, the fishermen panicked. Some wanted to immediately return home. I told them not to be afraid because the government can escort us,” Syahir said.

The night Subandi and his fellow fishermen were kidnapped, Syahir was nearby. Syahir attempted to radio Subandi’s ship in the morning, but did not receive an answer. Two days later, he received a phone call from Subandi, who was being held hostage in a forest, confirming his suspicion that his nephew had been kidnapped.

Rumours about Abu Sayyaf kidnappings circulated among Sandakan fishermen. In 2016, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped two fishermen from Southeast Sulawesi. Malaysian sea patrol had constantly warned fishermen not to cross any borders.

Syahir initially believed that Subandi and his crew had fallen asleep and unknowingly drifted into Filipino territory; after all, Sandakan was only 28 kilometres from the border. Every fishing trawler is equipped with an Inshore vessel monitoring systems (IVMS), a GSM-based system that monitors the movements of boats. Fishing boats also have a GPS radar that maps out islands and borders. If Subandi had been keeping an eye on these things, he would have never been kidnapped, Syahir said. “The kidnappers wouldn’t dare cross the border into Malaysia,” said Syahir.

He was wrong.

Abu Sayyaf kidnappings have been common in Sabah since 2000, both on land and sea. The group kidnapped at least 32 people in the area between 2000 and 2015. On 14 May 2015, four armed Abu Sayyaf members dressed in military gear raided a seafood restaurant on the Sandakan coast, kidnapping manager Thien Nyuk Fun and electrician Bernard Then.

Fun was freed six months later for a ransom of 30 million pesos. Then was not so lucky. His severed head was found near a government office in Jolo, making him the first Malaysian to be kidnapped and murdered by Abu Sayyaf.

Kidnapping attempts are so frequent, that the Malaysian government claimed to have disrupted 40 attempted kidnappings in Sabah in January 2020 alone. The Sabah government even issued a daily curfew between 6 PM and 6 AM in some cities, including Sandakan.

Despite the constant patrolling of the South China and Sulu Seas, fishermen are essentially on their own when they go out to sea. Although the Malaysian government has installed eight high-tech coastal radars in Sabah, they still lack maritime personnel to monitor the 1400-kilometre stretch of coast. The Indonesian government cannot guarantee the safety of its fishermen, only issuing warnings when the situation does not appear to be conducive.

The possibility of being kidnapped at any moment did not deter most Sandakan fishermen from going to sea. When VICE visited the port in September 2018, they did not show any concern on the kidnappings. Fishermen were gambling, relaxing, and calling their families on their day offs.

According to the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 6,000 and 7,000 Indonesian fishermen reside in Sabah. Malaysian media has predicted that the country’s fishing industry would fail if the Indonesian fishermen went home.

Still, Syahir has no plans to return home to Bulukumba, even though his family insists.

***

It was not just money that led thousands of Indonesian fishermen to migrate to Malaysia, it was also for the sake of their stability and well-being. Sabah’s fishing industry had more compelling regulations and infrastructure, which made life easier for fishermen. Malaysia did not ban the use of fishing trawlers and had more lax regulations for seafood merchants and fishermen.

According to data from the Sabah Department of Fisheries, the state owned 1,442 fishing trawlers in 1998. The number increased dramatically in the early 2000s. Trawlers are usually medium-sized boats measuring 20 metres in length and 10 metres in width. Nets are installed on either side of the vessel, accompanied by weights for a balance.

The nets on these boats can often reach the seafloor, picking up various sizes of fish, prawns, and mussels. The catch is then sorted, with the small fish being processed as livestock feed and the larger fish being sent to the markets.

Fishing trawlers have been banned in Indonesia since the 1980s. These vessels are responsible for damaging ecosystems, habitats, and coral reefs. The nets also pick up small fish, depleting the stock of prey for larger organisms. According to data from World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, between 60 and 82 percent of fishermen’s catch is bycatch with little market value.

Since Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti assumed power in 2014, she introduced a number of new fishing regulations, also reinforcing the ban on fishing trawlers. Pudjiastuti also issued a moratorium banning the operation of ‘ex-foreign vessels’ and refusing to issue permits for foreign fishing vessels in all of Indonesia’s territory to prevent theft of fish. Finally, she issued a ban on transhipment, or the unloading and reloading of fish en route to a destination, reportedly to reduce rates of unreported fishing.

Unfortunately, Pudjiastuti’s new regulations were not accompanied by sufficient infrastructure, leaving fishermen to fend for themselves in a maze of bureaucracy.

According to data from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Indonesia’s fishing industry has the potential to generate US$2.5 trillion yearly. Roughly 25 percent of the coastal population depend their livelihoods on the sea. This potential, however, has only been 7 percent realised.

Although Indonesia has claimed that the moratorium has restored balance to Indonesia’s fish trade, a roadmap compiled by the Indonesian Trade Chamber shows that Indonesia has not realised its fishing potential on smaller islands. A lack of infrastructure, fuel, and logistics is also holding Indonesia back.

Bitung, North Sulawesi is one of the areas affected by this lack of infrastructure and Pudjiastuti’s strict policies. The port city has been the backbone of the Indonesian fishing industry for decades, producing 45,000 tonnes of fish yearly. Bitung is known for its canned tuna, but there is not enough cold storage to accommodate the large amount of fish brought to the port.

Djefri Sagune, head of the Small Entrepreneurial Fishermen’s Association (HIPKEN), has been vocally critical of Pudjiastuti’s policies. He once led hundreds of fishermen in a demonstration against her regulations in Bitung in 2014. They believed that the moratorium on ‘ex foreign vessels’ only put fishermen out of work. The regulation essentially outlawed the use of foreign-made ships weighing over 30 tonnes.

“Since 2014, hundreds of ships have been unable to sail because they were denied permits from headquarters,” Djefrie said. “Cooling facilities and transportation mechanisms to aid in distribution are also inefficient.”

Due to the lack of sufficient cooling facilities, Sagune said fishermen are forced to unload and reload in the Philippines near the port city of General Santos–one of the largest fishing hubs in Asia Pacific–just so that their catch does not spoil. But Pudjiastuti has become less tolerant of this practice too. In recent years, fishermen have had their catch sold to middlemen who have their own cooling facilities. Because of poor transportation logistics, roughly 35 percent of their catch ends up wasted.

“I have raised the issue of cold storage several times to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries,” said Sagune. “But nothing has come of it. The Minister [Susi Pudjiastuti] always says she wants to develop Bitung like General Santos developed the Philippines. But that won’t happen if our facilities remain as they are now.”

Djefrie is certain that if Indonesia maximises its potential and develops its infrastructure, fishermen will no longer have to pursue a better life in Malaysia.

“If fishermen are given a sufficient support system, no one will be migrating,” said Djefrie.

***

On 12 September 2018, Subandi, having been held hostage for 20 months, heard a rumour that was to be released. Three days later, an Abu Sayyaf member told Subandi that someone would come to take him out of the jungle on a motorcycle.

The motorcycle arrived at 10 AM and took Subandi on a 20 minute journey to a main road, where a car awaited the three captives. As they traveled to Jolo, Subandi overheard that they might be transferred to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which works alongside the Sulu government in freeing Abu Sayyaf captives.

From Jolo, Subandi and the other captives were flown to a military base in Zamboanga, where they received treatment at a trauma healing centre. On September 19, they finally arrived in Indonesia and were officially handed over to their respective families by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Subandi’s release raised several questions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Filipino government denied that Abu Sayyaf had been paid a ransom. But Sidney Jones from IPAC believes that the government has reason to cover up a negotiation process with Abu Sayyaf.

“I think that on one side, the Indonesian government wants to seem like a country that doesn’t negotiate with criminals,” said Jones. “Indonesia’s image would certainly be harmed if they had paid a ransom.”

Secondly, Jones suspects that ransom money may have been funneled to Abu Sayyaf from donors or third parties. She believes the prisoner would never have been released for no reason.

When an Indonesian national was kidnapped in 2016, the Indonesian government also denied that any ransom money had changed hands. But IPAC found that such funds were transferred to Abu Sayyaf by two independent parties: the Sukma Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, and a team formed by an Indonesian military commander and a logistics company led by Kivlan Zein.

Zein once mediated conflict between the MNLF and the Filipino government. His relationship with the MNLF leader, Nur Misuari, is believed to be the reason prisoner negotiations run so smoothly. There are also suspicions that the MNLF receives a cut of the ransom.

VICE attempted to contact the Sukma Foundation to confirm this, but did not receive a response.

One day in October, VICE visited Subandi in his home. One month after regaining his freedom, he was still reluctant to return to sea, instead preferring to spend time with his family. After his traumatic experience, he has no plans to return to Sandakan.

“I’m still fearful,” Subandi said. “The whole time I was there [in captivity] I never slept well because of the sound of gunfire and bombs.”

But Subandi’s trauma ended up being temporary. After a few months of rest, he returned to sea. This time limiting himself to the waters off Bulukumba, just like he did in his youth.

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Adi Renaldi

Jakarta-based freelance multimedia journalist. Award-winning and award-losing. Has written for various publications around the world. www.adirenaldi.com