[Jakarta, 9 January 2019] Military measures alone will not reduce the risk of Abu Sayyaf kidnappings or terrorist transit in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas. Regional initiatives such as the Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP) are useful for strengthening cooperation among the Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine militaries but they are unlikely to have much impact on curbing violent extremism. The trilateral countries should focus more on analysing ASG networks in Sulu and Sabah, strengthening law enforcement and improving the sharing of information, especially from debriefings of extremist suspects.
“Protecting the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas from Abu Sayyaf Attacks”, the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), examines the pattern of ASG kidnappings before, during and after the Marawi siege and the resulting regional response.
The TMP began as a response to a rise in kidnappings at sea in 2016. The fact that most of the victims were Indonesians, the attackers were Filipino and the raids were sometimes in Malaysian waters underscored the need for cross-border cooperation. After Marawi erupted in May 2017, however, counter-terrorism became the priority, as if the Sulu Sea was going to become a major terrorist transit route, and the TMP could help interdict the travel of pro-ISIS fighters (in fact, many would-be fighters came in by air). The counter-terrorism focus coincided with a lull in kidnappings that lasted from March 2017 to September 2018 when they started up again.
“It’s critical to try and understand why these kidnappings at sea started, stopped and resumed,” says Deka Anwar, IPAC researcher. “It almost certainly had little to do with the TMP.” He notes that targeting ASG suspects for killing was not the answer to stopping maritime crime, since a new generation of fighters was already appearing. “Anyone watching the Philippines should understand that as commanders are killed, their sons, brothers and nephews sooner or later will take their place, motivated by vengeance as much as profit.”
Separate from the local political dynamics in Sulu and Basilan, different agencies involved in the trilateral talks used the kidnappings and the Marawi crisis to promote their own bureaucratic interests. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the Indonesian defence ministry’s efforts to boost its argument at home for a greater role in counter-terrorism by focusing on the regional threat in the Sulu Sea.