Another two hostages have returned to the light of freedom after a six-month ordeal that put their lives on pause by militants in the island of Sulu, south of the Philippines.
No one is happier today than Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen, the German couple released last Saturday, and who knows better what an overwhelming happiness this is – when life seems to be caught between dream and reality – than one who has experienced his own freedom being snatched away.
I have been following the developments and the threats extended by the couple’s kidnappers as if I was reliving the same moments. But more interesting was when I read that the spokesman for the kidnappers was a man named Abu Rami.
Abu Rami is in his mid-twenties. He left his education after his first year in university and joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Sulu Island. He later joined a subgroup that comes under the incumbent leader of Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) named Radolan Sahiron. But Abu Rami did not stay for long and soon joined a community linked with Abu Sayyaf led by Kasman Sawadjan, who was a known thief and led till his death the second-largest community linked with ASG in Sulu Island.
Abu Rami is the only person in the community of around 200 who speaks English, the others do not know except the Island's local language, Tausug. Even his broken English does not hamper his yelling and threats. Abu Rami is also known by the name Ams, a short form of his alias Ammar. Among my kidnappers, he was the first person to speak to me and was also the translator between me and their leader Sawadjan. It was Abu Rami's idea that I should be filmed with a knife held to my neck exactly how Stefan appeared in one of his pictures. I strongly resisted and pushed the knife away with my hand which left a deep cut on my finger and damaged the tendon.
Abu Rami didn’t even feel ashamed to send text messages from my mobile phone to all of my contacts, including my seven-year-old son, threatening to behead me in case the ransom was not paid. This was the same pattern seen in the German hostages' case. Whenever Abu Rami expected the ransom to come he would call me "brother" and when he felt there was no ransom he termed me as "Khawarij" (a person astray from Islam). When I asked him if he knew what the word meant, he stuttered ignorantly with no answer.
‘Are Americans Shiites?’How deeply drenched they are in their ignorance; knowing nothing but the rules of the jungle in which they live. They know little, if nothing, about their religion. Even their knowledge of their religion is a mixture of their faith and traditions. They are also blind of the purpose for which they carry their arms.
I found Abu Rami, who is the most civilized among them, asking me once if the Americans were Shiites?! He later asked if London was situated in the United States. I had no option but to answer, "Until the day I was kidnapped, London was somewhere else. I have no idea what happened after that."
I believe the most accurate way to define these people is to say they are human settlements spread all over Sulu and the Basilan islands, in the south of the Philippines. These communities have adopted kidnapping as a profession. Every community comprises of different families and is led by the strongest of these families in terms of arms and money. The one leading the community provides the other families with ammunition and food on daily basis. In return, the members of these families obey every command and serve the largest family. Every community leader is obliged to give the biggest community, which is led by ASG leader Radolan Sahiron, 20 percent of any income generated through kidnappings, robberies or even charity, in order for the act to carry the name of Abu Sayyaf.
What is worst still is that these communities are protected and supplied with all kinds of resources to maintain their livelihood by influential elements in the Philippines. And why shouldn't this be the case? Kidnapping is a boom business fetching big incomes. There are people who plan and trap the targets and victims bringing them to these communities in the jungle and the moment a target is found, many raise their heads, from politicians to members of the police and civil society, offering to work as mediators to secure the release of the hostages.
And for this business to continue, these communities are linked with militant groups that are internationally underlined as terror outfits such as al-Qaeda. Though, most experts on militant groups maintain that Abu Sayyaf and its auxiliaries are interlinked locally with currently no sponsorship from outside. Even majority of the members of Jamaa Islamia (JI) in Southeast Asia, who took refuge in the south of Philippines before and after the Bali bombings, left Sulu while a few of them were actually hunted by some of the communities and groups belonging to Abu Sayyaf, just to get the death money placed on them.
It is, however, worth mentioning here that the recent support shown by some of the communities to ISIS, including demanding Germany to withdraw from the international alliance against ISIS as a condition to release the German couple, could be explained in the context that these communities are very much influenced by the ISIS’ practices and are looking to seek some sort of patronage from the group. The possibility of the ISIS adopting these communities at a later stage should not be ruled out.
One would be surprised to know that the location of these kidnappers and communities is not a secret; asking any local in that island can easily lead to their whereabouts. Moreover, all their communications and negotiations over their hostages take place via their cellphones while their pictures are floating all over social media.
My heartiest congratulations go out to Stefan and Henrike on getting their freedom back but there are still other hostages in the shackles of these communities who await every one of us to work for their release and pressurize the Filipino government and its institutions to apply serious efforts for hostages. The authorities would have to deal with all those who are harboring and protecting these kidnappers with an iron hand. The representatives of the Muslims of Philippines also have to rise up to their responsibilities and expose these communities who have adopted kidnapping as their sole means of living, all in the name of religion.
[Baker Atyani is Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief in South and East Asia. He is a veteran journalist, covering conflict zones in Asia for the past 16 years and is an expert on militant groups in Asia. He has produced numerous documentaries, articles, and investigative stories and was the last journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. He has been honored by MCF with "Exceptional Courage in Journalism" award.]