The Abu Sayyaf faction have pledged allegiance to Isil
CREDIT: ROMEO GACAD/AFP
Two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina held captive for seven months in the southern Philippines could be beheaded on Monday by an Islamic rebel group that operates a ruthless kidnapping and piracy enterprise.
The Abu Sayyaf faction, which pledged allegiance first to al-Qaeda and now Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), has set a deadline of 3pm for ransoms of £4.5 million to be paid for the three Westerners.
In videos chillingly reminiscent of those that have emerged from Syria, the three haggard-looking men plead with their families and governments to pay the money.
One captor presses a machete to their necks, while other armed men stand behind them carrying assault weapons and the distinctive black flag of Isil.
The shocking images and looming deadline have focused fears that Islamic extremists are carving out a safe haven for terrorists to use as a base to strike targets across South East Asia.
Abu Sayyaf splinter groups have also seized 18 Indonesian and Malaysian sailors in raids on coal tugboats in the past month, as they intensify their attacks in some of the world’s busiest waterways.
The surge in piracy prompted Indonesia’s security chief to warn that the trading route – part of major shipping arteries carrying $40 billion of cargo a year – could “become a new Somalia”.
Britain and the US last week urged their citizens to treat the Sulu archipelago region as a “no-go zone” because of the “high threat” of kidnappings, piracy and terrorism-related violence.
Abu Sayyaf has its roots in the long-standing Islamist insurgency in the southern islands of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, and has focused its operations on lucrative banditry.
The faction – a loose alliance of splinter groups – has survived the deployment of US special forces “advisors” as part of George W Bush’s “war on terror” and a series of offensives by the poorly-equipped Philippine army.
In the latest hostage video, John Risdel, 68, a Philippine-based Canadian businessman, said this was the “final absolute warning” from their hostage-takers.
The group has made similar threats to kill Western captives in the past, but released them after ransoms were reportedly paid. But it has also beheaded local captives – most recently two Filipinos this month and a Malaysian hostage in November.
Mr Risdel, fellow Canadian Robert Hall, 50, Filipina Tess Flor, 48, and Kjartan Sekkingstad, 56, a Norwegian resort manager, were seized in September from their boats in a sea-borne raid on the Holiday Oceanview Marina in Mindanao.
The first video featuring the Western hostages demanded the end to Philippine military operations in the region. But the subsequent three videos have involved ransom demands.
The “final warning” video was released on April 15 and included the threat that beheadings would start on April 25 if the ransoms were not paid.
The Philippine military campaign against the rebels has suffered a series of setbacks and a faltering peace process has also bolstered the insurgents.
Most recently, on April 9, 18 Philippine soldiers were killed in an ambush that also left more than 20 Abu Sayyaf fighters dead - including a Moroccan thought to be an explosives expert.
“With attention in the Philippines focused on the presidential election and the rest of the world distracted by the alarming increase in tensions between China and the US in the South China Sea, it is easy to miss the significance of the turmoil in the adjacent Sulu Sea,” said Michael Vatikiotis, a regional security expert who is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
Writing in the Nikkei Asian Review, he continued: “The presence until recently of around 200 US military advisors made a dent on Abu Sayyaf leadership and activity, but clearly has not eradicated the group, which is in reality a hydra-headed array of individual commanders and their dependent fighters.
“Without addressing the security situation in the Sulu Sea, however, the Philippines will face violent instability along its borders with Indonesia and Malaysia, with the prospect of both of them using force to defend themselves.
“Even then, it may be too late to prevent the movement of violent extremists who have been sheltering and training in the area to commit terrorist acts in the wider region.”