Kidnapping in the Philippines: How will strongman Duterte react?

Seven Indonesians taken hostage Thursday represent the latest in a spike of kidnappings plaguing the Philippines. 

Lean Daval Jr./Reuters
Filipina kidnap victim Marites Flor (c.), who was abducted with Canadians John Ridsdel and Robert Hall who were executed by Abu Sayyaf militant group, walks with incoming peace negotiator Jesus Dureza (r.), after she was released, in Davao City, in southern Philippines, Friday.

Militants in the Philippines freed one hostage Friday and kidnapped seven more Thursday, the latest developments in an Islamist insurgency plaguing the southern reaches of the nation.

A group with ties to both Al Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, known as Abu Sayyaf or "bearer of the sword," is blamed for the uptick in activity, having recently beheaded two Canadian captives.

The militants challenge President Rodrigo Duterte, elected only last month as the country's leader, and given the people's mandate in no small part because of his tough talk on crime, having promised to "dump the corpses of 100,000 gangsters in Manila Bay." His response to this insurgency could play a significant role in the success, or otherwise, of his presidency.

"He has really staked his political reputation on getting rid of terrorism and crime," Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview. "If he shows himself to be a paper tiger, it really undermines his credibility across the board."

The latest kidnapping saw 13 Indonesians ambushed on their vessels in the Sulu Sea Thursday, with six already released but the remainder still in captivity.

This is the third time Indonesians have been taken hostage this year, and their government's response on this occasion has been to impose a moratorium on the shipment of coal to the Philippines until security is guaranteed. In announcing the suspension of deliveries, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi said that "more than 90 percent of the coal demanded by the southern Philippines depends on imports from Indonesia."

The following day, Marites Flor, a Filipina abducted nine months ago by Abu Sayyaf along with three others, was released. Two of her fellow hostages, both Canadian, have been beheaded by the militants, and the fate of the fourth, a Norwegian, is unknown.

Flor was abducted with Robert Hall, John Ridsdel and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad from a resort on southern Samal island in September last year, reports Stars and Stripes. The militants executed the two Canadians after ransom deadlines lapsed.

"Duterte has repeatedly said that he sees Abu Sayyaf as a threat that must be confronted and beaten," Gregory Poling, a fellow with the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tells the Monitor in an email exchange.

Indeed, Mr. Manning of the Atlantic Council expects President Duterte to "deploy special forces and try to wipe them out," but Mr. Poling is less convinced, saying that the president of the Philippines himself admits to "capability gaps" in the military, which need to be addressed before decisive action can be taken.

Comments by Duterte following a meeting with the freed hostage suggested that any immediate assault may be unlikely: "There will be a time that I will have to confront the Abu Sayyaf," said the president. "The kidnapping must stop."

The group is described by the BBC as "one of the smallest but most radical" of the Islamist separatist groups in the southern Philippines, having split from the larger Moro National Liberation Group in 1991. Some of their leaders have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, but there is some dispute as to how determined they really are to set up an Islamic caliphate, as opposed to simply extorting money through kidnappings.

As for Duterte, his response to the increased threat of kidnappings is just one measure, albeit an important one, of his presidency. But in all things, it is hard to predict the direction he will take, with Manning describing him as a "wild card."

One of the biggest foreign policy challenges he faces is the dispute with China over territory in the South China Sea, due to be ruled on by The Hague at some point this month. China is likely to ignore any decision made against it, but quite what Duterte will do "is a mystery," as The Economist notes.

He has declared that he would ride a jet ski to a disputed island "personally to plant a Philippine flag," while at other times insisting he is open to bilateral negotiations.

Put simply, it is hard to know where Duterte will take his country.

"It's like if you were to predict what a [Donald] Trump presidency would be like," says Manning. "It's hard to say because he's all over the map. Duterte is like that."

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