An incident this week in the region of the Sulu-Celebes seas near the Philippines has prompted ReCAAP, the regional cooperation on security in the region, to renew its warnings of the potential for boarding and kidnappings. While the last kidnapping was more than a year ago in the area and the Malaysian and Philippine authorities had taken several actions in 2020, ReCAAP is warnings about the Sulu-based Abu Sayyaf Group/Kidnap-for-Ransom Group, which has been targeting crews on slow-moving ships as well as wealthy businessmen.
The master of the 56,045 dwt bulk carrier Akij Pearl reported to the Philippine Navy that his vessel had been approached on March 3. At the time, they were sailing off Sibutu Island, Tawi-Tawi, in the Philippines. An unidentified speed boat with three perpetrators on board attempted to board the Bangladesh-flagged ship. The captain was able to evade the perpetrators and reported the incident. The Philippine Coast Guard was alerted and they relayed the information to ReCAAP prompting the general warning to ships in the region.
The previous incident in the region happened in January 2020, when six perpetrators armed with guns, dressed in black and wearing masks boarded a Malaysia-registered fishing trawler. The trawler was later founded abandoned with its eight crew having been abducted by the ASG.
Malaysian authorities mounted a search and recovered three of the eight crew members the following day. The body of a fourth crew member was found by the authorities in September while the four other crew members remain in captivity.
ReCAAP issued two warnings in 2020 about the activities of the ASG. In May, they warned that five members of the group were planning to conduct kidnappings in the region. They later warned that the group had been spotted in a speedboat and were still believed to be attempting to carry out kidnappings.
In response, Philippine and Malaysian authorities increased patrols. In June, the Malaysian authorities arrested three members of the group followed by a firefight with members of the AGS during which the military believed it killed and wounded members of ASG. The group, however, reemerged in November when the authorities again located a boat and fired upon it. It was believed that the group was attempting another kidnapping plot.
Since March 2016, ReCAAP reports that a total of 86 crew were abducted in the area. The four crew from the January 2020 incident are the only ones believed to still be in custody.
The threat of kidnappings is generally lower in this region compared to the more frequent assaults in West Africa. However, based on the belief that the ASG is active in the region, ReCAAP urges ship master and crew to exercise extra vigilance when transiting the waters off Eastern Sabah and in the Sulu-Celebes Seas, in particular waters off Sibutu Island.