Maritime Kidnappings: The Semporna - Lahad Datu Connection

Three attacks were reported on fishing trawlers off Semporna and Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia in September 2016. During two of these attacks on LD110/5/F and Puteri (SA2627/5/F) crew were kidnapped. A third trawler, SA848/5/F was robbed. The owner of the fishing trawler SA848/5/F, Chan Sai Chuin was kidnapped on 16 June 2014 from his fish farm on Borneo, Malaysia. He was taken to Jolo and released on payment of ransom on 9 December 2014. Two of the trawlers attacked in September 2016 is registered under the Sabah small ships register under Semporna (SA prefix) and the other under Lahad Datu (LD prefix).

Semporna is the base for around 70 wooden hulled trawlers with crew ranging from ten to 30. They regularly face pirate attacks, mostly from pirates operating cross border from Sulu in the Philippines. Abu Sayyaf or groups associated with the group are responsible for these kidnappings. The Muktadil brothers were involved with several of the ASG kidnappings. According to yet to be confirmed Philippine intelligence sources, the last of the three brothers were killed during a military raid on Sulu end of September 2016.
The Sultanate of Sulu in the Philippines has a history of piracy and attacks on settlements and towns in Sabah even predating the Colonial period. Between 1915 and 1941 the Spanish, Dutch and British navies disrupted large scale raiding of the Sulu pirates, but were never able to suppress small scale coastal raiding. People kidnapped from Borneo frequently landed in the great slave market on Sulu. Between 1959 and 1962, 232 pirate attacks were recorded in North Borneo.

According to the Malaysian Marine Police, nine attacks on fishing boats were reported in 2001, nine in 2002 and 12 in 2003. Outboard engines, valuables, equipment and communication equipment were stolen. Fishing vessels were also hijacked for ransom.

Tugs and fishing vessels are the predominant target in this area. Sporadically hijackings of tug boats were reported since 2004.  The tugs were release on payment of ransom. There was a change in this trend in 2016 as crews were kidnapped for ransom.
Serporna; Source Google Earth
Prior land based kidnappings from resorts and towns for ransom were the norm.

During these kidnappings crew are also robbed from valuables as before. Targeted vessels often ignored the curfew times set by the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). Speedboats with five to eight men, often in camouflage fatigues and armed with M14s and M16s, attack fishing vessels and tugs. Attackers of the Brahma 12 were allegedly in Philippine police uniforms. Boat documents, curfew order permits and passports are often stolen. In some cases attackers spoke Malay in the Suluk dialect.

The Suluks still regard the eastern part of Sabah as part of the Sulu Sultanate in the Philippines. A dramatic increase of illegal immigrants to Sabah was reported in the last few decades due to corruption in the illegal issuance of identity cards.

In February 2013 the Royal Sulu Force (RSF), a 200 strong group from the Tawi-Tawi in the southern Philippines, invaded a small Village in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia. The group was led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram the brother of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III. In the standoff with security forces 68 people were killed including ten Malaysian security personnel.

This led to the establishment of ESSCOM, based in Lahad Datu, and the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE). ESSCOM curfew hours are from 7pm to 5 am in a 3nm offshore zone. The State Security Committee placed a temporary suspension on barter trade in all barter ports as well as transhipment in the ESSZONE area to curtail unauthorized entry into Malaysian territorial waters as well as the use of pump boats by foreigners.

Several factors contribute to security instability in this area such as the proximity to the Philippine border; terrorist and organized crime groups involved in kidnap for ransom (KFR) of locals and tourists from resorts and violent mass robberies in towns; water villages; barter trading ports; and the free movement of illegal immigrants and sea gypsies.

Sabah with their long coastal border and numerous offshore islands is a favourite transit point for terrorists and weapon smugglers using vessels to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The centuries old custom of barter trading facilitates a legal way to enter Sabah. Malaysia sees barter trading as an opportunity to earn foreign exchange while the Philippines view it as smuggling. Cigarettes, liquor, rice, timber, and drugs are smuggled into Sabah.

Many illegal immigrants live in the ESSZONE areas and some are likely involved with KFR groups and smuggling. So are members of the security forces. Precise knowledge of victims of kidnappings of resorts and fish farms make the possibility of insider knowledge likely. In January 2016 three junior police members were detained for their alleged participation in a kidnapping in Lahad Datu. There were also concerns in September 2016 that information on ESSCOM operations was leaking to kidnappers. In addition ASG also conduct surveillance before some kidnappings.

Seven of the 11 ASG associated kidnap incidents against crews of fishing vessels and tugs in 2016 were located in the area between Semporna and Lahad Datu, Southern Sabah and the Philippines. As local fishing vessels and tugs are targeted, it is not possible to re-route traffic in this case. Malaysia and the Philippines will have to coordinate efforts to bring the situation under control. Joint and coordinated patrols, surveillance and shared intelligence operations will be needed to stop further escalation.

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