SEVEN days after the Inspector-General of Police stated that every day there was a cross-border kidnapping threat in the east coast of Sabah, an Abu Sayyaf-linked kidnap group struck.
At 2.20am on June 18, gunmen wearing military fatigues abducted 10 of 16 fishermen from two fishing boats in the waters of Lahad Datu and headed to Jolo island in the southern Philippines.
On June 11, Datuk Seri Abdul Hamid Bador said there was a daily Abu Sayyaf threat to islands in the east coast of Sabah.
“This is because Sabah is very near to the Philippines; it only takes 15 minutes by speedboat to reach Philippine waters,” he said, adding that it was easy for KFR (kidnap for ransom) groups to intrude into Malaysian waters.
Even I receive intelligence reports from the Philippine and Malaysian security forces that there is a possible kidnapping on a weekly basis because there is a movement of known kidnappers near the border of the two countries.
The threat is there, but it doesn’t happen.
That’s why I’ve stopped telling my editors that there will be a kidnapping as I would risk being labelled as the journalist who cried wolf every day.
For example, I received a Philippine intelligence report that one male and one female were allegedly abducted in Semporna on June 10.
“Accordingly, the duo were forcibly taken by 20 armed men believed to be ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) members led by Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Salip Mura and Apoh Mike at the above-mentioned place onboard one jungkong-type watercraft and one speedboat. Further, the group with their KV (kidnap victim) is now monitored at Siyantok Talipao, Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi,” the report stated.
It was a false alarm.
A check with intelligence contacts revealed that there was no such kidnapping of a Malaysian couple who owned a fishing farm in the east coast of Sabah.
The report, according to some intelligence contacts, was probably from KFR-linked sources who wanted to distract the Malaysian and Philippine security sources so that they could conduct a kidnapping operation.
The other theory was that the couple was kidnapped but they dealt directly with the KFR group and paid for ransom to secure their release. This theory, however, has been debunked by intelligence sources.
A few days later, the 10 fishermen were kidnapped.
They were sea gypsies holding identity documents such as Lepa Lepa card (which allows them to remain in Sabah).
When news broke that the hostages were Filipino, one of my contacts who follows the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping closely, told me: It was like balik kampung or balikbayan (homecoming in Malay or Tagalog respectively) for the KVs as they are from the Philippines.
There are big questions as to why Filipinos from the southern Philippines were kidnapped.
Usually, when KFR gunmen board a vessel which their people were on board, they would release them. But this time, despite having time to check the identities of the fishermen, they abducted them.
“If they were Indonesian fishermen, they would have been of value as they could get ransom money.
“But these are hostages with almost little value,” an intelligence contact told me.
Some intelligence contacts said that the KFR group might have been desperate as the cage in Jolo island was empty.
After Ewold Horn, a Dutchman held since 2012 was shot dead on May 31, there is no known kidnap victim on the island.
When I was asked on WhatsApp groups why kidnapping still happened even after the change of government, I was tempted to answer: “We have to study deep inside this terrorist, who’s the father and mother. Our intelligence must expose who their father and mother, then we can reduce their activities throughout the world.”
But I didn’t as I’m not Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu and kidnapping is not a joking matter.
On why kidnapping still happens, my answer is it is all about geography and poverty.
The east coast of Sabah is a few minutes away from southern Philippines where kidnapping is a business.
There are enough poverty-stricken people who have access to weapons there. There is no cross-border kidnapping in Johor Baru as it has a rich neighbour in Singapore.
Someone noted that kidnapping still happened in Sabah although Wisma Putra’s protest on April 17 against the US government’s decision to list Malaysia as a country where kidnapping and hostage-taking were a risk.
To be fair to Malaysia, the last kidnapping of a tourist in the east coast of Sabah was when Chinese tourist Gao Hua Yuan was abducted in Semporna waters on April 2, 2014. That was five years ago.
Since then our security forces have tightened security at our island resorts and tourists are safe.
That’s in the lingo of our Defence Minister: “Hard touch. We have also improved our intelligence gathering, which is ‘soft touch’.”
The last several kidnappings involved low-value targets such as Indonesian, Malaysian or Vietnamese boat crew or fishermen.
And these kidnappings are not on our island resorts but in the open seas in the triangle of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
If the southern Philippines is a prosperous neighbour, the cross-border kidnappings will stop.