Government News Analysis

You only die twice?

A Philippine Army commander has claimed an Abu Sayyaf leader, Badong Muktadil, was killed on Saturday during a firefight off the coast of Jolo Island, the terror group’s stronghold in the Sulu

A Philippine Army commander has claimed an Abu Sayyaf leader, Badong Muktadil, was killed on Saturday during a firefight off the coast of Jolo Island, the terror group’s stronghold in the Sulu Archipelago, west of Mindanao, the country’s southern island region. The report appeared in Al Jazeera on Sunday. The only problem is, Muktadil, has been dead for more than 10 months. His body was recovered from a pump boat off Siasi Island in the southern part of the archipelago on 28 September last year. He had fled, wounded, from close-by Pata Island where Philippine forces had overrun his camp.

Unless he’s discovered how to reincarnate, he can’t have possessed both bodies. The question is then; which body belonged to Badong Muktadil?

Brigadier-General Cirilito Sobejana, commander of an anti-terrorism task force, was quoted as saying: “The neutralisation of Badong is another big setback on the Abu Sayyaf group, particularly on their kidnapping and terroristic activities”. But in here somewhere is also a setback for intelligence sharing between the Philippines and Malaysia.

Reports of Muktadil’s original death – if we can put it like that – were reported extensively at the time by Malaysia’s regular media as well as by Bernama, the government-run news agency. Malaysian intelligence sources were quoted as confirming his demise. As far as we’ve been able to find out that killing was never refuted by any member of the Philippine Army or anyone in the Philippine defence establishment.

Clearly, then, there’s been a crossing of wires here – something which the fight against terror groups such as Abu Sayyaf can ill afford. What might help, however, is a decision taken recently at an INDOMALPHI Trilateral Intelex meeting on security in Manila – that each of the three countries (Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) designate “points of contact” from among their military and police personnel to smooth intelligence-information sharing.

“Indeed, this initiative is very important and historic for Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines as it is the first collaboration involving all three countries that combine military and police elements to discuss and share intelligence information,” Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said of the decision. The approach, he said, would provide a positive impact in addressing the threats facing Southeast Asia – a reference to Islamic State’s designs of turning the region into an Islamist caliphate.

There’s no question intelligence-exchange has been a problem in the past – particularly between Malaysia and the Philippines. The reason for this has been the deep undercurrent of mistrust between the two countries amid simmering territorial disputes such as the conflicting Philippine and Malaysian claims to Sabah in North Borneo and their counter claims to the Spratley Islands – a scattered group of atolls, cays, islets and reefs in the South China Sea waters between their coasts.

The two countries’ limited separate naval capabilities have also been a handicap to dealing in any meaningful way with terrorists and freelance pirates in the Sulu and Celebes Seas – though this is now being addressed with recently agreed joint naval and coast-guard operations.

Another piece of “intelligence” that needs clearing up is who exactly Badong Muktadil was. According to reports of his latest death, he was an Abu Sayyaf “sub-commander” – in other words, a ranking member of the rebel force.

But where’s the intelligence to support that? Hitherto, he was portrayed as the eldest of six brothers – from Mindanao – who ran a kidnap operation supplying victims to Abu Sayyaf. In other words, it was a family-run business with Abu Sayyaf as its main client. According to that, Muktadil Bros & Company were provisioners to the terror group, feeding their kidnap-for-ransom trade. They would have charged so much per head and, presumably, would have had their invoices settled once ransoms had been paid.

Certainly, they were deadly criminals and legitimate targets for Philippine law enforcement – in the same way that drug gangs who supply their product to Islamist groups for distribution are. But neither of these are the same thing as being terrorists.

They may – and probably were – joined by Abu Sayyaf marine units on some of those raids, but that doesn’t make them members of Abu Sayyaf. While all terrorists that deal with criminals are terrorists, the same isn’t true for all criminals that deal with terrorists – even if they’re working alongside them on certain projects. So the intelligence needs to be cleaned up.

Here’s what was formerly known about Badong Muktadil and his brothers – all of whom, bar one who’s in Philippine police custody, have been killed. Their heyday was from 2000 to 2015 when they carried out a number of high-profile cross-border raids on the east coast of Sabah – murdering and kidnapping as they went.

Among these operations was the 23 April 2000 kidnappings of 21 tourists – from the East Sabah resort island of Sipadan. Abu Sayyaf’s demands for the safe return of the hostages included a US$2.4 million ransom; the release of Kuwaiti-Pakistani terrorist, Ramzi Yousef – responsible for the New York City World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434 the following year – as well as a complete withdrawal of Philippine Government troops from around Jolo Island, another of the terror group’s bastions in the Sulu Archipelago.

On 15 November 2013, the Muktadils raided a resort on the coral reef island of Pom Pom in the Celebes Sea in the southern reaches of Sulu, abducting a Taiwanese tourist after killing her husband. The following year, the gang of brothers, attacked the Singamata Reef Resort on 2 April, abducing a Chinese tourist and a Filipina staff member; a Malaysian fish farm at Baik Island on 6 May, seizing the farm’s manager and taking him to Jolo island for ransoming; and on 16 June, snatched the manager of a fish farm along with a member of his staff from the small Sabah town of Kunak.

In all these cases, Malaysian authorities clearly identified the Muktadil brothers as the main perpetrators.

While it remains unclear exactly where and when Badong Muktadil met his death, there’s little doubt about what happened to his brothers. Nelson, alias Nikson, and Braun, alias Brown, Muktadil were killed near Poh Tambulian following the Pata Island raid by Philippine law enforcement last September – the one from which Badong fled wounded. Nelson and Braun were shot dead as they tried to escape while being escorted from the island.

In 2015, two other brothers – Sampas and Minas – were killed in separate actions by Philippine police, while Minas’s twin brother, Kadafi, was arrested in Jolo and remains in jail.

There’s also little doubt that the Muktadils had close operational involvement with Abu Sayyaf units and contact with key organisation figures including Alhabsy Misaya, a notorious Abu Sayyaf commander who was killed in April – though there’s some doubt who should be credited with his killing.

Philippine Marines (photo) claim it as theirs while counter claims have been made that he was shot by his former comrades in the Moro National Liberation Front, the Muslim separatist movement that started its military campaign for an independent Moro (Muslim) homeland in Mindanao back in 1972.

Malaysian security forces also believe the brothers worked with another Abu Sayyaf commander, Indang Susukan. According to them, the Muktadils – possibly Badong and Nelson – had handed over two hostages to Susukan whom they’d seized from the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan, Sabah on 14 May 2015. One of those taken was Malaysian engineer, Bernard Then, who was later beheaded.

Good intelligence is essential in defeating terrorism. But equally important in successfully combating terrorism and transnational crime is that such intelligence is shared between nations. And particularly, given the gravity of the Islamist threat to the immediate region of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, there should be no reluctance on any side to pool all relevant information. If there is, effectively the terrorists’ job is being done for them. By such division they can conquer; they can also use ill-informed or dubious information to their advantage.

For Malaysia and the Philppines, in particular, this is the time to work closely on the same side. Any territorial differences they have need to be shelved right now; any claims to superiority by their respective counter-terrorism outfits need also to be dropped.

In Abu Sayyaf, and other terror groups which have spawned in Mindanao, they have a serious common enemy. Only together, and by mutual reporting of sound and accurate intelligence, do they stand any chance of dealing with the radical Islamic extremism that stalks the waters that link their coastlines.

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