MANILA: Downtown Jolo, a busy port city on Sulu island, bustles with activity. Tricycles cram themselves into the narrow streets, the shops see a steady flow of customers going about their daily shopping. A typical downtown scene in the Philippines - except for the extra security guards placed in front of certain shops and the constant presence of military and police in the area.
John (not his real name) runs a small convenience store just across from the police station. Originally from China, his family has been here for generations and has come to call Jolo home. But it has not been easy. He has seen his son, brother and nearly his wife taken hostage by extremist group Abu Sayyaf. He also lost an aunt from a bomb planted just outside his store.
“The kidnappings always take place en-route from the shop to home. A big car will just pull up and drag the person inside at gunpoint. When it first happened, we didn’t know what to do and how to negotiate the ransom fee. It’s like a business deal. You have to keep bargaining down from the original price they set,” John explained.
His experience isn’t unique. Other shop owners speak of kidnappings, extortion and even beheadings if the amount demanded in the ransom letter isn’t paid. Over the years, John has seen many of his neighbours shut up shop and move out to safer cities nearby.
Only a few months before, a young man’s headless body was found near the bakeshop he owned. He had allegedly refused to pay money after receiving a letter demanding a certain percentage of his earnings was paid to the group. His family moved to the nearby city of Zamboanga after the incident.
Jolo is one of the strongholds of Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group which was formed in the early 1990s as an offshoot of a separatist rebellion by minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
Many see them as bandits rather than an ideological group. Over the years they have survived off a lucrative kidnap-for-ransom racket that has terrorised sailors, tourists and residents in the area. Between July 2015 and September 2016, they abducted 38 foreigners and dozens more locals.
“The kidnapping in Jolo started back in 1999 and then it continued on. It was most rampant in 2012 and 2013 - almost every day there were kidnappings,” said John.
He added that it reached a point where it was unusual if there wasn’t gunfire or an incident in the area for a whole day.
Like many of the people Channel NewsAsia approached, he was reluctant to talk for fear of reprisal.
However tides have started to shift. John said that more recently, since President Rodrigo Duterte boosted the number of troops deployed to the region, things have quietened down and there have been fewer incidents.
Soldiers in Sulu practise at the firing range. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
TAKING THE FIGHT TO ABU SAYYAF
After taking power, President Duterte wasted no time in ordering the largest-ever mobilisation of Philippine troops to eradicate the group and stop its activities. It is a battle many previous administrations have fought and lost, despite their best efforts.
It is easy to see why. The fight against terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf has been a long and dangerous one. The Philippine military is fighting an enemy on its own turf, where the terrain is mostly jungle and difficult to penetrate, and where strong family ties and alliances make it hard to determine who is the enemy.
“Because of the strong ties between community and blood relations in the area, we cannot eliminate the possibility that those in villages will extend their support to Abu Sayyaf," said Brigadier General De La Vega. "Some are even earning some form of living by hiding them,” he added.
Soldiers in Jolo get ready to go off on a week-long operation to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
De La Vega heads the joint task force in Jolo. His troops go out on week-long operations scanning the jungles of Sulu for Abu Sayyaf strongholds. Little by little, they have been gaining ground.
“We have gained considerable support from the community," said De La Vega. "Their (Abu Sayyaf's) movement corridor is restricted, they are on the run and they have tried to splinter into smaller groups for us to not detect them quickly. If we can get rid of the community support and get even with the familiarity of the terrain then we can defeat them easily."
In September, the Abu Sayyaf group released 17 hostages. A small number of Abu Sayyaf members have also surrendered.
But the war has been long and tough with many casualties on both sides. The military forces stationed in the area have to barricade themselves in their camps. They know they each have bounties on their heads and even just going to the local shops can lead to death.
“There is a safety protocol whenever we have to leave the military base," explained Colonel Rodrigo Gregorio, spokesperson for the Joint Task Force, Sulu. "We know people get paid every time they kill someone in uniform - there was an incident where a soldier was shot while he was waiting to withdraw money from an ATM."
The fight is far from over. The Abu Sayyaf continue to carry out kidnapping activities and have found more places to hide and lie low until the military passes. And while the number of Abu Sayyaf members has been decreasing, there is evidence of the group recruiting new members.
The islands in which they operate are some of the poorest areas in the Philippines. According to De La Vega, people with few opportunities join out of desperation, tempted by the money generated from the kidnappings and in some cases, drugs.
A military helicopter above Sulu. (Photo: Aya Lowe)
RISE IN MARITIME KIDNAPPINGS
Meanwhile in the nearby islands of Tawi Tawi, marines patrol the oceans monitoring for any suspicious activity.
Since March there has been a rise of maritime kidnappings of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors plying the waters in between the three countries.
This has had an impact on regional trade in the area. Indonesian coal exports from East Kalimantan account for 70 per cent of total Philippines coal imports and an estimated 55 million metric tons of goods transit the waters annually.
In April, Indonesian authorities temporarily blocked ships from sailing to the Philippines while Malaysia imposed a trade embargo between Sabah in Malaysia and Tawi Tawi.
In May, the three countries' foreign ministers agreed on launching maritime patrols in the area.
“There were already joint exercises previously in our area, mostly with the Malaysians," said Major Franco Alano, spokesperson for the Western Mindanao Command. "The area is very porous and we are in constant coordination with our counterparts but we still need to enhance it, since there are still terrorist activities happening in this area,” he added.
But for the Philippine marines patrolling the seas near Tawi Tawi, finding and catching a boat carrying Abu Sayyaf is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
“They have the mastery of the water so they can go wherever they want and the mastery of the terrain so they can fit [in] wherever they want. They can use the civilians as their cover, they can easily blend in with them,” said Captain Amir Cabrera, a marine stationed in Tawi Tawi.
NEW APPROACH TO FIGHTING
While an increased military presence has gone some way towards reducing the threat, all those involved in the fight are realising it is not just guns that are needed to completely remove Abu Sayyaf.
“The armed forces realise that the military solution cannot be a solution to the issue especially in Sulu," said Alano. "That’s why we’re encouraging other stakeholders to be actively involved in poverty alleviation and other areas."
The group thrives off the instability of the area it operates in so to stop the group, the government needs to focus on giving potential recruits a reason not to join. They need to be lifted out of poverty and out of conflict.
“Radicalisation of young Muslims is related to a larger problem - the failure of the government to provide opportunities and to address poverty in the area," said Dean Macrina Morados, from the Institute of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines. "If you look at the statistics you can see the poorest provinces in the Philippines are mostly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao."
An aerial view of Sulu island. (Photo: Aya Lowe)