Dreaded Jolo kidnappers on the prowl again

TOLONG saya, boss. Tolong saya, boss. Tolong saya, boss (Please help me, boss. Please help me, boss. Please help me, boss),” pleaded a crying Samsul Sangunim, an Indonesian kidnapped in the waters off Semporna in the east coast of Sabah.

In the chilling 10-second video clip taken on the notorious Jolo island in southern Philippines, Samsul was in a freshly dug hole. The 40-year-old fishing boat crew member was topless and wearing pink shorts. Behind him were two men pointing their guns at him.

The boss he referred to was the Indonesian owner of a fishing company, who had paid for the release of two other crew members.

At around 1am on Sept 11 last year, men armed with M16s abducted Samsul and Usman Yusof, a 30-year-old Indonesian, while their fishing trawler was moored near Pulau Gaya in Semporna.

The kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) group from southern Philippines was targeting Malaysians. The spotters in Sabah waters had assumed the fishing crew were Malaysians as the fishing trawler flew a Malaysian flag.

However, they got it wrong and kidnapped Indonesian crew members, who fetched lower ransom amounts.

The video clip was to frighten and threaten Samsul’s family, employer or government so that his ransom would be paid.

The Indonesian fishing company owner had negotiated through the wife of a senior leader of the Moro National Liberation Front. The amount that reached the captors was 500,000 pesos (about RM39,300) for two. However, only one was released.

The official narrative – which is sometimes a cover story when ransom is paid – was that the hostage escaped.

Here’s how it was reported: Usman saw an opportunity to flee and he ran towards a village in Bual, Luuk, where locals rescued him at about 7.30am on Dec 5.

Samsul’s captors are now squeezing his family, employer and Indonesian government to pay for a second time.

It is interesting to note that when I shared on WhatsApp a report by The Star Online on the video of Samsul, many commented that they thought that the Abu Sayyaf militant group was no longer involved in a kidnapping. Many had assumed that Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had eliminated them.

They were not aware that after a lull of 21 months, the KFR group is back. Some top sub-commanders, who were thought to have been killed in Duterte’s 2016 all-out war against the Abu Sayyaf in their Jolo stronghold, have resurfaced. And they are now targeting the east coast of Sabah to kidnap “high-value” victims.

On the day of Usman’s release, there were two incidents involving KFR in the waters of Sabah.

The first was an attempt to rob or kidnap the crew of a tugboat named Magtranis II at the Pegasus Reef waters in Kinabatangan at around 6.30pm.

A boat approached the tugboat with a 13-man crew, including two Malaysians, and four armed masked men fired at them twice. One of the shots hit the left thigh of a crew member.

The crew locked themselves inside a room in the tugboat.

The armed men’s boat tried to get close to the tugboat as it sped towards the waters of Tambisan in Lahad Datu. The crew also managed to fire a flare to attract attention and make a distress call to security forces.

Three hours later, Malaysian security forces reached the tugboat and escorted it to safety.

The second incident was in Sandakan. A fishing trawler owner reported that his boat, which was fishing in the Kinabatangan waters, was seen floating without its crew.

Subsequently, the wife of one of the fishermen received a call to inform that they had been kidnapped and held on Jolo.

The three are Jari Abdullah, a 35-year-old Malaysian, and Indonesians Heri Ardiansyah and Hariadin.

Intelligence sources in Malaysia and Philippines have said that the four hostages (abducted separately on Sept 11 and around Dec 5) were held by 20 Abu Sayyaf gunmen led by Halimau, who is with Apo Mike, in Indanan, Jolo.

In the last two months, there was loud chatter in the southern Philippines islands close to the Sabah waters that the KFR was ready to strike. The chatter got louder with the sightings of Abu Sayyaf sub-commanders such as Salip Mura, Almujir Yadah, Indang Susukan and Apo Mike on these islands.

There was a possibility that these sub-commanders would do their Christmas shopping for hostages. There was also a possibility of a New Year’s Day strike.

But none of these happened.

“Why was the chatter loud but there was no strike?” I asked a regional security expert.

“They are looking for a really good target. The fishermen and tugboat crew were a mistake as they do not have much value,” he said.

The intelligence reports that I have sighted suggest that the KFR group through its spotters in Sabah have identified a potential target in Lahad Datu. It looks like an enemy within is providing intelligence to the kidnapping group.

When The Star Online shared the video of Samsul on Facebook, some asked why Malaysia or the Philippines cannot stop the cross-border kidnappings. Some even suggested carpet bombing the whole of Jolo, which doesn’t make sense as civilians would also be killed.

To answer their question, it is all about intelligence gathering. The problem is, according to the regional security expert who is on the ground, there are two types of intelligence officers.

One is called belang (stripe) as his skin is dark due to exposure to the sun as he goes on the ground to gather intelligence, while the other is tiada belang (no stripe), as he wears long-sleeve shirts when playing golf, which is presumably often.

To know what the KFR group is planning, we need to be on the ground, especially in the enemy’s territory. If not, more “tolong” video clips will surface.