A tale of negotiations gone wrong

  • One Man's Meat
  • Saturday, 16 Jan 2016

Local experts claim that Bernard Then (pic) was cruelly beheaded not only because the ultimatum was not met, there was also friction between the groups involved in the kidnapping.

COINCIDENTALLY, when the body of beheaded Malaysian hostage Bernard Then was flown from Zamboanga City to Manila on Thursday night, I was flying from the city, where his cadaver was kept, to the Philippine capital.

The body was on its way to be reunited with the Then family who flew to Manila to collect, cremate and bring the ashes back to Malaysia today.

My colleague P. K. Katharason, who was with me in southern Philippines, remarked that sometimes life was a coincidence.

From day one on May 15 last year, we had covered the kidnapping of the 39-year-old Sarawakian and restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun, a 50-year-old Sabahan, at Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan, Sabah. And this week, we were with him on his way to be with his family.

Hopefully, receiving and cremating his remains will bring closure to the Then family whose son/sibling was horrifyingly beheaded by his Abu Sayyaf captors in Jolo island on Nov 17 last year.

But it will not bring closure for me.

I was in Zamboanga City, about a three-hour ferry ride from Jolo island, as I wanted to find out why the Abu Sayyaf gunmen senselessly murdered a Malaysian who was worth at least RM3mil in ransom.

It is still a big mystery why Bernard was beheaded nine days after Thien was released for about 30mil pesos (about RM2.7mil at the exchange rate at that time).

I’ve spoken to several Philippine military and police intelligence officers, Jolo kidnappings experts and informants on why Bernard was beheaded. I have also partially watched the video of the gruesome decapitation of Bernard. (This is not the South American or Mexican drug cartel beheading video, allegedly that of Bernard, which had gone viral soon after his death.)

Last year in this column, I wrote about why Bernard was killed.

“Most likely – and this is corroborated by intelligence and security expert sources who told me slightly different but similar information – Then was murdered because of failure to meet the ultimatum given by the Abu Sayyaf to the negotiators on the day Thien was released,” I wrote.

“The captors gave the negotiators nine days to give them ransom money which they believed was brought to Jolo but pocketed by Filipino politicians acting as middlemen in the negotiations.”

(Update: negotiators too pocketed some of the ransom money.)

Another reason Bernard was beheaded has emerged. The stories that I’ve been told are roughly the same. It is just that who took the money that caused the friction and which faction cut Bernard’s head were different.

I can’t name my sources as some of them live or operate in Jolo and could be killed by the Abu Sayyaf if their identities are revealed.

Here’s the first version.

“The original ransom demand was 30 million pesos for both. This was agreed by Idang Susukan (who partially financed the Sanda­kan kidnapping as he lent the kidnappers his Volvo-engine-powered fast craft),” said the source who keeps tab on cross-border kidnap groups in Jolo.

“However, it was the Al Habsi group which were holding the two hostages. And Al Habsi wanted 80mil pesos for the two.”

(Idang, according to the source, had entrusted Al Habsi to guard the hostages in Indanan about 10km or five hours’ trek from where he was based in Talipao, as he was fighting with the military forces and did not want the Malaysians to be harmed in the gunfight. “They played hide and seek with the military hunting for the hostages,” he said.)

On Nov 8 last year, when the Malaysian and Philippine negotiators exchanged about 30mil pesos for Bernard and Thien, only the Sabahan was released. Al Habsi had decided to keep Bernard as he wanted 50mil pesos for his release.

This caused friction between Idang and Al Habsi. “They almost shot each other. However, a core Abu Sayyaf gunman stopped them,” said the source.

Nine days later, Al Habsi executed Bernard because his demand for 50mil pesos was not met.

“My group had managed to talk to Al Habsi to reduce his ransom demand to 15mil pesos. He had agreed to that amount. However, the Malaysian officials I spoke to could not commit to that amount,” said the source.

“The Malaysian and Philippine negotiators were still trying to talk to Idang, who was not holding Bernard. And it was Al Habsi who had issued the beheading ultimatum.”

Here’s the second version.

“Idang and Al Habsi had a fight as Al Habsi betrayed him. Al Habsi took the 30mil pesos in ransom money and did not give any to Idang,” said a source who has Abu Sayyaf informants in Jolo island.

“Al Habsi is a drug addict. He was not in the right state of mind when he took the money.

“Al Habsi is now on the run as Idang wants him dead. He has been hiding with his 20 gunmen somewhere in Jolo, Tawi Tawi and Palawan.”

In early January, according to the source who keeps in constant contact with Abu Sayyaf gunmen, Idang started a rumour that he was killed in a military operation in Jolo island.

“He did it as he wanted Al Habsi to come out of hiding so that he can kill him,” said the source. “I spoke to Idang’s wife and she said, ‘We want Al Habsi to come out from hiding so that we can talk to him’.”

On Nov 8 last year, said the source, Idang issued an ultimatum that if the 30mil pesos was not given to him, he would behead Bernard.

“When no money was paid, Idang cut off Bernard’s head as he already had given the ultimatum,” he said.

“Who beheaded Bernard?” I asked.

“If you watch the video, look at the hand that cut the head. There’s a distinctive tattoo on the wrist. I know that the tattoo belongs to Idang, whom I know personally,” he said.

Today Bernard’s ashes return to Malaysia. From the video, he died a gruesome death. May he rest in peace.

Related story:

Why Bernard Then was beheaded

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Opinion , Philip Golingai , columnist


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