The death of Abu Rami, the Abu Sayyaf leader, came as no surprise to those who knew him and the life he led.
“IT’S him,” Baker Atyani, a Jordanian hostage held for 18 months by the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo island, southern Philippines, WhatsApp-ed me from Dubai.
I had sent him the photograph of a dead Abu Rami, the spokesman of the Abu Sayyaf group. I wanted Baker to confirm whether the man in the photograph was really the notorious Abu Rami, who had been involved in abducting hostages from the east coast of Sabah.
Baker, the last journalist to interview Osama bin Laden before 9/11, was kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf on Jolo island on June 12, 2012. He should know Abu Rami well. The 20-something gunman was the only person in the community of 200 holding him captive in Jolo who spoke English.
“How do you feel, knowing that Abu Rami is dead?” I said.
“I really have no feelings. It is just that he has really met his natural end. The road he took led him to this end,” he said.
However, Baker said the death of Abu Rami doesn’t really mean the Abu Sayyaf threat in Mindanao will lessen.
In fact, he said, it will be a long time before the problem can be settled. “And dealing with militants is one side of solving the issue,” he said. “The other side is to deal with the corrupt elements within the local government and law enforcement agencies in the Philippines, mainly in Mindanao, who in one way or another are behind the Abu Sayyaf.”
In October last year, I met Baker in Kuala Lumpur, as the former hostage was in town to shoot a video documentary, Undercover Asia: Kidnapped. Abu Sayyaf, on his return to the Philippines.
It was Baker’s article, “Rare glimpses into the lives of Abu Sayyaf captors”, published in Al Arabiya on Oct 20, 2014, that gave me an insight into Abu Rami.
“Among my kidnappers, he was the first person to speak to me and was also the translator between me and their leader (Kasman) Sawadjan,” he wrote.
It was Abu Rami’s idea, according to Baker, that he should be filmed with a knife held to his neck. Baker strongly resisted Abu Rami’s photo opportunity idea, pushing the knife away with his hand, which left a deep cut on his finger and damaged the tendon.
Abu Rami, narrated Baker, “didn’t even feel ashamed to send text messages using my mobile phone to all of my contacts, including my then seven-year-old son.”
The gunman threatened to behead Baker if the ransom was not paid.
“Whenever Abu Rami expected the ransom to come he would call me ‘brother’ and when he felt there was no ransom he termed me Khawarij (a person astray from Islam). When I asked him if he knew what the word meant, he stuttered with no answer,” he wrote.
Baker said Abu Rami was the most civilised among his Abu Sayyaf captors. The gunman once asked Baker if the Americans were Shiites. He also asked if London was in the United States.
The Jordanian journalist met me in Kuala Lumpur to interview me on Abu Rami, whom I had spoken to several times via telephone. He also wanted to surprise the gunman, who was in Jolo, with a phone call. Unfortunately, the gunman had switched off all three of his phones.
Through someone in Jolo, I was put in contact with Abu Rami on Sept 20, 2016. For the next few weeks, I was almost in daily communication with him. He would call me and say, “Call me back.”
I always wondered why an Abu Sayyaf sub commander, who made millions from ransom money, would get me to call him back. My journalist friend in Zamboanga City also said the Abu Sayyaf gunman was in the habit of asking her to top up his prepaid account.
The media-savvy gunman wanted me to write a story on the five Malaysian hostages (from Tawau, who were all related by blood or marriage) abducted by kidnap-for-ransom gunmen from Lahad Datu waters off the east coast of Sabah on July 18, 2016.
There was no negotiation for the five Malaysians and it was as if they were left to rot on Jolo island, so Abu Rami had to do something.
Later, he arranged for me to speak to 33-year-old Mohd Ridzuan Ismail. The hostage told me that the Abu Sayyaf was demanding 100 million pesos (RM8.5mil) for their release.
Abu Rami also arranged to have the Malaysians photographed in the standard Abu Sayyaf hostage pose – on their knees with masked gunmen pointing the muzzles of their guns at their heads.
“Call me back, call me back,” he said on a morning I was sending Apsara, my nine-year-old daughter, to Sunday school in Subang Jaya.
I obliged. “Open a Facebook account and I will send you the pix of the hostages,” he said.
I opened an account with the name “Abu Philip” and gave him the password. He then uploaded several photographs.
On Monday, Abu Rami and several Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed by Philippines security forces on Bohol island, far away from their Jolo island home base.
Two days later, I visited Mohd Ridzuan in his house in Tawau. I always wondered what went through the hostage’s mind while I was talking to him.
“I was afraid. There was someone behind me pointing a gun at my back.
And in front of me was someone making sure I followed the script that they wanted me to follow,” the sailor told me.
“They wanted me to talk about the ransom. I wanted to tell the Malaysian special forces to rescue us,” he said.
“But I couldn’t say ‘rescue me’ or give a hint as some of the Abu Sayyaf gunmen can speak Malay.”
On Wednesday, I posted on my real Facebook account The Star front page story on the death of Abu Rami, the rising leader of the Abu Sayyaf (which means bearer of the sword). I wrote: “You live by the sword. You die by the sword.”
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