Subandi was asleep when the trouble began. He had spent the day at the helm of a 21-metre-long fishing trawler, navigating the slow, heavy boat through rough seas far off the coast of the Malaysian city of Sandakan, in Sabah state. The ship was battered by a relentless storm for much of the day, its bow rocked by five-metre high waves that endlessly jostled Subandi and his two crewmates, Hamdan and Sudarling.
Together, the men – all of them Indonesians who moved to Sandakan to find work in its fishing industry – kept a watchful eye on the waves, as well as the ship’s GPS and that line that marked the invisible divide between Malaysia and the Philippines’ nautical borders. Subandi knew crossing that boundary could be dangerous; the waters off the Philippines’ Sulu Island chain were patrolled by Abu Sayyaf, a feared terrorist organisation known for running a kidnapping-for-profit business that brought in millions of US dollars a year and left dozens of bodies in its wake.
Watch: Kidnapped By ISIS-Linked Pirates in the Philippines
Convinced that the boat was still in Malaysia’s territorial waters and exhausted from the storm, Subandi laid down to rest.
He awoke to the sound of strangers’ footsteps on the deck. Even through the darkness of night, Subandi could see the three men were carrying guns. Their small but swift speed boat was tied up alongside Subandi’s trawler.
“We’re the police, you need to come with us now!,” one of the men shouted.
The three fishermen, all unarmed, obeyed and climbed down to the speed boat. Subandi eyed the armed men suspiciously. They didn’t seem like police, but they weren’t acting like pirates either. The men seemed disinterested in the boat itself. It was the men they wanted.
The speed boat pulled away quickly, with Subandi and his crew on onboard. As the boat sped through the darkness, Subandi gathered his courage and asked his captors, “where are you taking us?”
“Just stay calm,” one man answered in Malay. “We’re going far away from here.”
Abu Sayyaf is a uniquely homegrown terrorist organisation in the Philippines. It was formed by a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the early 90s on the island of Basilan, a tropical island of nearly a half-million people off the coast of Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines.
Both groups—Abu Sayyaf and MNLF—were born out of the region’s struggles, an ongoing battle between the central government and those fighting for independence, autonomy, or somewhere in between for Mindanao, a large and predominantly Muslim region in majority Catholic Philippines.
In recent years, Mindanao has been home to some brutal fighting between the state and ISIS-linked militants who took over an entire city—Marawi, in the province of Lanao del Sur—for nearly half a year. Some 640 kilometres away, on the island of Jolo, a separate ISIS-linked group, Abu Sayyaf, continued their own insurgent campaign, one fuelled by a thriving criminal enterprise that touches everything from drug trafficking to kidnapping.
“Abu Sayyaf is a complex group,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based organisation that studies terrorism in Southeast Asia. “They’re terrorists, bandits, and rebels—all at once.”
In a given year, Abu Sayyaf can bring in as much as $25 million USD on ransoms alone—a sizeable sum by any metric and especially so in poverty-stricken places like Jolo, an island in the Sulu chain, home to some 500,000 people. Jolo, and its surrounding islands, is a base of operations for Abu Sayyaf.
The Sulu Islands are an ideal place for a terrorist group like Abu Sayyaf to hide. The islands are remote, heavily forested, and insular. It’s a place where, despite their brutality, Abu Sayyaf enjoys significant community support, according to experts. Some of the group’s most-visible members have been known to call in to local radio stations to brag about their latest kidnappings or shootouts with state security forces.
In the three decades since Abu Sayyaf’s formation—allegedly with a $6 million USD gift from Osama bin Laden himself—the group has gone through several iterations, each of them remarkably violent and focused on kidnapping. Experts and kidnap victims—Subandi included—all remarked that Abu Sayyaf, despite their outward appearance of an Islamic terrorist organisation, lacked the focus on piety and prayer.
Living in captivity
Subandi’s captors often cut their prayers short and he never saw them recite Quranic verses. They seemed far more interested in securing more money than long-term religious goals.
“We need money for food and ammunition,” the Abu Sayyaf kidnapper who spoke Malay told Subandi. “If you want your freedom, you must contact your boss, the Malaysian, and the Indonesian governments.”
Subandi was held in a series of jungle camps throughout the Sulu Islands over the course of 20 months. Abu Sayyaf was constantly on the move, shifting camps as Philippine army patrols inched closer. Sometimes, the military got close enough for a skirmish to break out. Subandi would wake suddenly to the sounds of gunfire and take cover behind a tree, watching as Abu Sayyaf members were shot and collapsed. The terrorists would pull back and flee into the jungle, leaving their fallen comrades behind but taking Subandi with them.
Subandi and his fellow fishermen were never hurt, but Abu Sayyaf made sure the threat of harm hung over their heads—literally. The terrorists would regularly show Subandi videos of them beheading other prisoners, warning him that he was facing a similarly brutal end if his ransom wasn’t paid.
Then, after nearly two years in captivity, Subandi and his fellow Indonesians were told they were being released. They were driven out of the jungle and transferred to the MNLF, who brought the captives to a military base in nearby Zamboanga City, where they were debriefed and received mental health treatment for dealing with the potential PTSD of spending so much time in captivity.
By the end of it, Subandi was left to deal with deep scars of trauma.
“I’m still afraid,” he told VICE. “The whole time I was there, I never slept well because of the sounds of gunfire and bombs.”
How Subandi was released, and who paid his ransom, remains a mystery. Subandi was transported back to Indonesia by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where they were welcomed with a group hugs and sent back to their families. Both the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Philippine government denied paying a ransom. But experts believe a ransom was indeed paid, and that it was likely shifted through a third party so both governments could maintain a veneer of plausible deniability.
“I think that on one side, the Indonesian government wants to seem like a country that doesn’t negotiate with criminals,” Jones explained. “Indonesia’s image would certainly be tarnished if they had paid a ransom.”
Abu Sayyaf, historically, hasn’t been the kind of organisation to release a captive without receiving a ransom. In the past, when ransom negotiations fell through, Abu Sayyaf beheaded the captives, leaving their heads in heavily populated towns, and using their deaths as a powerful propaganda tool to drive up the prices of the captives who were still alive.
Their threats of beheadings were real and if Subandi’s ransom wasn’t paid, there would be little reason for Abu Sayyaf to release him, with even less reason to continue kidnapping Indonesian sailors. Subandi wasn’t the first Indonesian taken by Abu Sayyaf, and he was far from the last.
In the months since VICE visited Subandi at his home in South Sulawesi and other Indonesian fishermen in Sandakan, Malaysia, the kidnappings of Indonesians continued to rise. Nearly 50 Indonesians were captured by Abu Sayyaf between 2016 and 2020. One man drowned in an escape attempt while five more remain in captivity. Three more Indonesian men were recently seen in a ransom video making desperate pleas for the Indonesian government to help them.
Experts believe the steady rise of Indonesian victims has a lot to do with the outcome of the first big kidnapping incident. In 2016, ten Indonesian sailors were taken off a coal barge slowly sailing through the sea between the Sulu Islands, Philippines, and Sabah, Malaysia. Abu Sayyaf quickly demanded $1 million USD in ransom. All ten were released less than two months later after an undisclosed sum was handed over to Abu Sayyaf.
It was this, the fast payment of a ransom, that might have caused kidnappings to rise. Before the coal barge kidnappings, Indonesians were rarely seen as potential victims by Abu Sayyaf, explained Deka Anwar, a researcher at IPAC who authored a report on the incidents.
“For one thing, they were fellow Muslims,” Deka wrote in the report. “For another, they were considered poor. Whatever the reason, the Indonesian response may have inadvertently triggered more kidnapping.”
But there’s another reason so many Indonesians are in harm’s way right now—the economics of the fishing industry. Working as a fisherman is far more lucrative in Malaysia than it is in Indonesia—even when both countries are fishing in the same waters.
Sandakan, a sizeable city in Sabah, is located on the island of Borneo, half of which is Indonesian territory—the five Kalimantan provinces. But fishermen earn far more in Malaysia than they do in Indonesia, partly because Malaysia is itself a wealthier country, but also because the city of Sandakan has better infrastructure to ensure that catches sell for a higher price.
For fishermen who grew up in poorer eastern provinces like Central Sulawesi, where both Subandi and his friend Syahir came up, the draw of places like Sandakan is strong. It’s so strong that Syahir, a man who knows Subandi and was out at sea the same day he was kidnapped, is still in Sandakan regardless of the risk.
“In Indonesia, there isn’t enough work,” said Syahir. “On top of that, the salary gap between Indonesia and abroad is so big.”
Even in cities like Bitung, North Sulawesi, one of the more developed fishing towns in Indonesia, there is a large gap between the facilities of Bitung and those of Sandakan. Bitung has port-side cold storage facilities, large freezers that help fishermen store their catch faster, and for longer. Cold storage is vital to increasing the quality of a catch, but in Indonesia, even when these facilities exist, they are unable to meet the demand.
Inadequate facilities and government policies that were meant to protect local fishermen but also hurt them at the same time, make it more appealing to seek work overseas than ever before, said Djefrie Sagune, the head of the Small Entrepreneurial Fishermen’s Association (HIPKEN).
Djefrie explained that the bulk of fish caught in Indonesian waters are offloaded in General Santos City, in the Southern Philippines, where cold storage facilities are better.
The jobs and wages are what keep Indonesian fishermen coming back.
“I have raised the issue of cold storage several times to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries,” Djefrie said. “But nothing has come of it. The [ministry] says they want to develop Bitung like Gen. Santos developed in the Philippines. But that won’t happen if our facilities stay the same as they are now.”
And as long as the money is better in Sandakan, Indonesian fishermen will continue to go, regardless of the risk. The key, according to experts like Djefrie, isn’t an increase in military patrols in Sabah, it’s a better support system and economy back home.
“If fishermen are given a sufficient support system, no one will be migrating,” he said.
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.