Taken: Maritime Kidnappings

All current maritime kidnappings have financial gain as main objective. At the end whether it is Abu Sayyaf or a gang in the Niger Delta kidnapping crew, the motivating factor is not politics, nor religion, it is all about money. Kidnapping is simply a business model.

The root cause of maritime kidnappings are found in the socio-economic, political and security circumstances on land.  Where we find kidnappings on sea there will always be land based kidnappings. The opposite is not true. Several countries with high levels of land base kidnappings do not record kidnappings in the maritime domain. Maritime kidnapping groups have a maritime capability and often a history of kidnappings. We also find inadequate security measures in the host country where maritime kidnappings occur. In the Philippines, Nigeria and Bangladesh kidnappings are cyclical - it happens now as it transpired before, stretching back decades and even centuries.

Gulf of Guinea

14 incidents of kidnapping were reported in the Gulf of Guinea in 2016. For the most expat Captains and Chief engineers of vessels operating in the oil industry are at risk to be kidnapped.  Fishermen and passengers of small passenger boats were also kidnapped in 2016. All but two kidnappings occurred on the internal waterways or off the coast of Nigeria. Hostages are held for 21 to 28 days on average and are usually released on payment of ransom.

In most cases five to ten men armed with automatic weapons approach in speed boats and fire on the vessel. They board using a grappling hook and ladder.  In some cases pirates are wearing masks. In addition to kidnapping, stores and valuables are often stolen and electronic equipment is damaged.

Attackers are brazen in this area and are not always discouraged by armed guards. There are many examples where vessels escorted by patrol boats were attacked. There are also cases where the citadel was forced open to get to crew.  During one such an attack on 23 October 2014 on an OSV off Bayelsa, Nigeria pirates broke into a citadel to get to crew. Another example was the OSV C-Retriever where kidnappers used angle grinders to cut into a Bulk tank room where the crew had barricaded themselves in. After the attackers created an opening, they stuck an AK-47 through the hole and fired blindly into the room.

Vessels following predictable schedules work in the favour of kidnappers.  In cases crews are complicit in the kidnappings or the kidnappers use informants to gain intelligence on the schedule, cargo and heading of the vessels. This is true for commercial and fishing vessels.

Kidnappers use satellite phones to negotiate ransom. Tribal chiefs often act as intermediaries in ransom negotiations.

Deliberate torture of victims is rare, but victims are often not fed well. Hostages will at times suffer from malaria. Rescue attempts by the military frequently placed hostages in danger. There are also cases where hostages are taken from a kidnap group by another gang while in captivity.
Philippines and Sabah

16 separate incidents of kidnapping from vessels were reported in the Sulu and Celebes Seas between the Philippines and Sabah, Malaysia and Indonesia in 2016. Fishing vessels and tug boats were the preferred target until October 2016 when crew of a commercial vessel were kidnapped.

Well established patterns of harassment of fishermen once again evolved into kidnappings in the Sulu Sea between Sabah and the Philippines. Tug boats follow schedules that are easy to follow over time and are also published online at times. They make use of informers in ports and in the area to gather intelligence.  Foreign Sailors on yachts that had been captured have been in the area for some time.

During attacks Abu Sayyaf or affiliates often wear black clothes and masks similar to those of police and the coast guards in the area.

Kidnappers are often young and have an affinity for American All Star tees which they wear with camouflage uniforms. They have extensive local knowledge and maritime capabilities, numerous times kidnapping hostages over great distances. Abu Sayyaf uses the sea not only for maritime kidnappings, but also to move hostages by boat to Sulu.

Abu Sayyaf members have family connections with local government and police. Contact with the families of hostages as well as exchange of hostages may often occur through these connections or organizations that will act as intermediaries such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Middlemen frequently take a cut of the ransom. Villagers supplying food to the group will also receive a cut. The local economy benefits from these kidnappings.

There are cases where the military was able to trace Abu Sayyaf cell phone calls, but generally ASG members talk briefly on the phone and get rid of the SIM card after.

They move hostages around the jungles of Patikul, Indanan and Parang in an attempt to hide and evade the military. They move at night and by first light. Weak hostages are carried. Unfortunately once a hostage is weak or sick, slowing the fighters down, they may become a liability. If ransom demands are unreasonable or take too long it may influence their decision to behead a weak hostage. Hostages have a better chance of survival if they are seen as valuable. Ransom payments fuel more kidnappings but the alternative is also unacceptable.

Treatment of hostages varies. Some hostages report that they were treated well, while others receive harsh treatment and are used as porters. There are also reports of female hostages being raped. Food is often scarce and hostages will not always be fed well. Hostages frequently end up in the middle of firefights between the military and Abu Sayyaf.  There are cases where kidnap victims were able to escape.

On the Southwest Coast of Bangladesh reaching over the border into India’s State of West Bengal, lies the Sandarbans, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. Fishermen, honey collectors and wood-collectors all live off the natural wealth in the Sandarbans. 12 to 30 Bahinis (fighters/Gang) operate in this area as well as on the Meghna River at any given time. Rahman Bahini, Jahangir Bahini, Abbas Bahini, Awal alias Sotta Bahini, Saheber Golam Bahini, Nayan Bahini ,Noyon Bahini, Zero Bahini, Shanta Bahini, Noa Bhai Bahini, Alauddin Bahini and Samsu Zillu Bahini are some of the groups focussing in kidnapping fishermen.

An Indian gang, Nirab Bahini, operates cross border into Bangladesh. Abducted fishermen will be taken into Indian Territory.

Fishermen fish in large groups to improve their safety, but the Bahini also operate in groups of seven to 40, often kidnapping 50 or more fishermen at a time. They operate from trawlers or speed boats and are armed with firearms or knives. Crew of commercial vessels are not targeted for kidnapping as this will increase the profile of kidnappings and with that also the risk to the Bahini.

Fishermen pay protection fee or a toll to the gang as safeguard against kidnapping. They will carry a token such as a flag, indicating that they had paid the “toll”.

If the protection money is not paid they face the risk of kidnapping. During these attacks, boats, fish, nets, fuel, money and cell phones are looted as well. Boats and nets will be sold back to the fishermen through middlemen. Kidnappings are frequently violent with fishermen killed by gunshot or stabbed. Uncompliant fishermen are also thrown overboard to drown. Cases have been reported where their hands were bound before throwing them overboard. Families are contacted on cell phone to negotiate ransom.

Some fishermen will collaborate with the Bahini. So will some officials.

Sometimes fishermen take matters into their own hands. On 21 August 2014 a group of fishermen beat-up 13 suspected robbers when they were attacked in the Bay of Bengal. The fishermen also scratched out the eyes of five suspects before handing them over to the police. The robbers were admitted to Hatia Upazila Health Complex. Fishermen want permission to equip themselves to protect them against such attacks.

The human impact on kidnap victims are the same all over. Violence is frequently high during kidnapping. In cases victims are tortured to keep pressure on their families during ransom negotiations. In many instances sailors and fishermen suffer from Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after they were kept in captivity for days, months or even years. Even after release they are held hostage by the traumatic experience they endured.
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