US practically declares Mindanao no-go zone for Americans

NEW YORK – The United States told Americans to pretty much stay away from the southern island of Mindanao due to the triple threat of terrorism, rebel activities and kidnappings in the region.

In its latest advisory issued on Thursday afternoon, April 21 (US time), the State Department said US citizens will need to reckon with “the high threat of kidnapping of international travellers” in the vicinity of the Sulu archipelago, home to terror groups such as the Abu Sayyaf.

The State Department said the danger zones run from the southern tip of the resort island of Palawan, along the coast of Sabah, Malaysia, and the islands of the Sulu archipelago going up to the city of Zamboanga.

“Terrorist and insurgent groups based in the Sulu archipelago continue to target foreigners for kidnapping in the Eastern Sabah province of Malaysia and in the southern Sulu Sea area,” the warning said.

It added that since January 2015, at least 15 separate kidnappings have been reported across Mindanao island.

Most of the abductions are carried out in Western Mindanao where a potent mixture of terrorist, insurgent and criminal gangs have turned kidnappings into a cottage industry, “regularly conducting kidnappings for ransom,” the report said.

One group called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) “remains active” in Cotabato City, and the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.

That of course does not mean that the areas in eastern Mindanao are safe from threats to foreigners.

Samal kidnapping

In September 2015, 3 foreigners who are now facing the threat of being beheaded were taken from Samal island resort, which is 15 minutes by boat from the Davao city that presidential contender Rodrigo Duterte touts is one of the safest cities in the world.

“There have been no reports of US citizens in Mindanao targeted specifically for their nationality; however, general threats to US citizens and other foreigners throughout Mindanao remain a concern,” the State Department warning said.

US government officials would travel to Mindanao to conduct official business,  but “the embassy has imposed strict restrictions on all but the most essential travel to the area,” it added.

US officials would need “special authorization from embassy security officials to travel to any location in Mindanao or the Sulu archipelago” given the magnitude of the security threats facing Americans there.

The main threat to foreigners is posed by the Abu Sayyaf, which acquired notoriety for beheading an American hostage taken from Palawan a few years ago and regularly seizing foreigners such as Roman Catholic missionaries in the area.

The American the Abu Sayyaf decapitated in 2001 is Guillermo Sobero, a tourist who was seized along with American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham. 

Martin Burnham was killed over a year later in a gunbattle with Philippine troops. His wife Gracia survived.

The Abu Sayyaf group was blamed for the worst terrorist attack in the Philippines, the bombing of Superferry 14 in 2004 which killed 116 people.

An Abu Sayyaf leader named Isnilon Hapilon swore an oath of loyalty to ISIS, or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2014. (READ: ISIS to declare a province in Mindanao?)

Unrest in the southern islands of the country has caused the area to steadily lag and fall behind the development seen in the rest of the largely Catholic nation. – Rappler.com