Wiping out Piracy
(Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines)
© 2017 FrontLine Security (Vol 12, No 1)

Malaysian authorities recently announced the violent death of Al-Habisi – a key ring leader of the violent terror group called Abu Sayyaf.

A serial terrorist, Al-Habisi was wanted for some of the most notorious high-profile kidnappings in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. His death follows a high-noon stakeout by Philippine security forces as they began swooping down on militants.  

While his death may leave the Abu Sayyaf without a vital source of leadership, it may be too soon for Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to uncork the champagne bottle (as the United States did in the aftermath following the death of terror master mind Osama Bin Laden).

But, there is something of a saving grace from Al-Habisi’s death. It is in the home truth that an in-principle agreement – an actual agreement will be forged in May – among the three nations have borne fruit than not having a transnational arrangement at all.

And now, for the first time in history, the Abu Sayyaf will have to tackle a new set of political and security dynamics. It will no longer battle a single force in the Philippine Defence Forces but now three armies; all united in the avowed aim of defeating them and the trade they ply the Sulu Seas with: piracy and kidnappings.

“This bodes well for the future of maritime security and safety in our common areas”, the Philippines Department of National Department public affairs office chief Arsenio Andolong was reported as saying to the Philippine News Agency on the prospect for future collaboration.

Cmdr. Gregory Adams, attached to Commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific, leads a planning conference for Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) on 18 Feb 2016.  SEACAT focuses on regional cooperation to security challenges such as smuggling, piracy, and other illicit activities by bringing together liaison officers from Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States to collaborate and execute practical maritime responses to multiple realistic scenarios. (U.S. Navy photo: MCS 3rd Class Madailein Abbott)

That ASEAN thing…
For years, such a collaboration was stymied by a tacit understanding among the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) – a trade bloc, of which the three nations are a part of – from interfering in the affairs of others. That stance gave the Abu Sayyaf just what it wanted. With no interference, and therefore no transnational military effort to battle it, it had all the lead time it needed to grow and sustain its campaign of terror across South East Asia, even as most of its earlier campaigns were initially confined to battling its own government. In no time, the hydra-headed monster in the terror group soon became fully capable to unleashing its monstrosities across the neighbourhood it operated in.

For all that has been documented about the Abu Sayyaf it has an uncanny savviness that enables it to stay relevant. It knew that in the afterglow of a new and changed geopolitical climate since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s coupled with the constant political paralysis in the Philippines the era of hostage taking over ship hijacking presented it with not just an opportunity but also of the need to adopt brand new battlefield tactics.

The group’s recent headline-grabbing tactics of kidnapping and beheading captives in their jungle hideouts were reminiscent of what the ISIS did in Iraq and Syria. For a long time, a sense of paralysis gripped South East Asia, however, those yearning to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf once and for all have a new strategy.

Christopher Trelawney, who advises on maritime security to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Secretary-General, recently said at the Maritime Week in Singapore, that South-East Asian pirates are increasingly trading shipboard cargo for human cargo - a point echoed in gripping, chilling fashion by Dr Pornchai Danvivathana, chair of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (RECAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) Governing Council.

How it turned hapless
How the situation in South East Asia sank to such a hapless level can be summed up by the ‘complicity factor’ of regional politics and rivalries aimed at brinkmanship that have been played in the region. Malaysia, which has long been the Asian branch of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), has not been inclined to complicate its role of monitoring piracy and sea robberies with what the Singapore-based RECAAP decides. That causes immense difficulties when navy and enforcement boats are in hot pursuit of pirates in international waters, because they are often prohibited from entering the territorial waters of their ASEAN counterparts. This situation has frustrated attempts at interdicting and arresting pirates on many occasions.

Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines Special Boat Team on training exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt.j.g. Theresa Donnelly)

Then there is Indonesia. The vast expanse of its sea boundaries for all its intents and purposes, provides some of the most fertile of grounds for the growth of the menace owing nothing more than to its loose, fragmented and informal way of administrating its coastal frontiers.  

Within the subtext of that maladministration is the guile exhibited by pirates as they disguise themselves as fishermen. That tactic effectively undermines efforts to eradicate them aided in no part by a well-oiled regime of connivance by enforcement officials that is made worse by very slender clutch of resources and manpower. And with its motley group of shallow-draft coastal craft, Indonesia’s patrol boats are visibly ill-equipped to scour the vast oceans.

‘We need to strengthen our maritime capability. [Our] capability is weak and spending on maritime security is low’, were the laser-like focussed words of Dr Siwage Dharma Negara, an academic at Singapore’s Institute of Strategic Studies, Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore to Frontline Safety and Security.

Poor intra-island connectivity, which Indonesian President Joko Widodo has vowed to address is the other problem, aiding and abetting the cycle of sea robberies and piracy across the seas.

“This bodes well for the future of maritime security and safety in our common areas”, the Philippines Department of National Department public affairs office chief Arsenio Andolong was reported as saying on the prospect for future collaboration.​

Is Piracy Really Tanking?
While piracy may be declining in the rest of the world, its alarming rise in South East Asia has also had the IMB worried. Its website announced that “South East Asia still accounts for most of the world’s incidents.”

But, now the new face of piracy in South East Asia is eerily beginning to look like the ‘old tricks of the game’ in Somalia a few years ago.

As recently as March 2017, while reporting on the rescue of two Malaysian hostages, the Inquirer News simultaneously announced the capture of yet another two new hostages, a development following close on the heels of the beheadings of a Canadian and a German hostage.

While an actual headcount of hostages and guerrillas may be sketchy at best, there is little doubt that the Sulu Sea, north of the Makassar Straits, is perhaps one of the most dangerous of hot spots in the world, even risking being labelled as a ‘war-risk’ zone.

The Abu Sayyaf formed by disgruntled Moro Islamic fighters in 1991 with funding from Al-Qaeda has adopted all the tactics of its benefactors in extortions, kidnappings for ransom and bombings. But all that will soon change because for the first time the Abu Sayyaf will have to contend with the combined might of three nations determined to stamp them out.

Malaysia is considering using the Starstreak missiles against the Abu Sayyaf and skiffs that harass maritime shipping. Packing power and accuracy of considerable magnitude the Starstreak promises to crush skiffs and pirate boats and mother ships nurturing pirate activity.
The soon to be forged agreement has undoubtedly been hailed by security experts and leaders of nations leading the charge against the Abu Sayyaf.

‘To get these three countries to cooperate on this effort is a big deal, especially considering the geopolitics in the region. But it gives us a good chance when going up against the combined terrorist threat of the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Islamic State and Daesh militants. It is not easy to come to a three-country agreement, but with a common enemy, it is not hard to unite for a bigger cause,” declared the Malaysian Defence Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, in a quote carried by the Malay Mail.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, well-known as intolerant of criminals and crimes, chimed in, urging and endorsing foreign navies to pursue pirates and terrorists right into Filipino territorial waters.

That may be a break from protocol, but in times of emergencies, such as the one confronting the nation now, even Duterte is entitled to pursue whatever it takes to ensure security.

Jaya Prakash is a maritime He can be reached at prakruby@hotmail.com