MANILA, Philippines – The breakdown of law and order on the island of Jolo in the southern Philippines spirals into chaos in the kidnapping of Filipino-Muslim filmmaker sisters nearly a month ago.
A Rappler investigation unveils an exorbitant ransom demand, shows how difficult it is to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and identifies at least one of the kidnappers.
One of the men who kidnapped broadcast journalist Ces Drilon and her crew in 2008 is not only free but is back at it.
According to surveillance photographs seen by Rappler, the man using the alias “Damz,’ one of Drilon’s kidnappers, is part of the group that abducted the Bansil sisters from Jolo on June 22, 2013.
They are unlikely victims for a group ostensibly fighting for Muslims. 39-year-old Nadjoua Bansil and her 37-year-old sister, Linda, worked together to produce low-budget, independent films showcasing Filipino Muslim life and culture. Linda also wrote for Amnesty International in the Philippines.
Their father, Abdulbassit Bansil, is a Muslim cleric — a close associate of the founding leaders of the Philippines’ two largest armed Muslim movements — the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He married an Algerian-Moroccan, to whom the ransom demand was allegedly made.
Classified documents obtained and verified by Rappler show the kidnappers are demanding P50 million (or nearly US$1.2 million) in ransom, two-and-a-half times the demand for Drilon and her crew in 2008.
Drilon’s kidnappers were led by the most senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf, Radullan Sahiron. As documented in my book, “From bin Laden to Facebook,” the kidnappers said they left the Abu Sayyaf soon after the ransom was paid because they believed their share of the money was too small.
The group, once a part of the Abu Sayyaf, is locally known as “Anak-ilu”* —Tausug for “orphans.” The Philippine military calls them the “Lucky 9” and says it is headed by Ninok Sappari.
“Anak-ilu” was allegedly kicked out of the Abu Sayyaf for violating its own internal rules soon after the Drilon kidnapping. In 2004, the Abu Sayyaf created a special council that cleared every kidnapping, its own attempt to create internal order while operating in an area where kidnapping-for-ransom is a cottage industry.
The classified documents say this group was behind “the abduction and beheading of Gabriel Canizares, school principal of Kanague Elementary School.” Canizares was kidnapped on Oct 19, 2009.
His family failed to raise a ransom of P2 million. About a month after he was kidnapped, the group beheaded him. The document says: “His head was placed inside a sack and was left at a gas station in Jolo town.”
Intelligence sources as well as those involved in the negotiations verify what the classified documents state — that the kidnappers are demanding “P50 million ransom money in exchange for the release of the victims,” Nadjoua and Linda Bansil.
On June 27, five days after they were abducted, the kidnappers told the sisters’ uncle “to contact the Algerian embassy,” according to the documents obtained by Rappler. It goes on: “One of the Bansil sisters was able to talk with the family but refused to answer when the uncle asked whether the abductors are mostly young members of the ASG [Abu Sayyaf Group].”
Abu Sayyaf protects sisters
This is where the breakdown of law and order in Jolo gets more chaotic and shows how difficult it is to tell friend from foe. While a young, more volatile breakaway faction of the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped the Bansil sisters, the Abu Sayyaf itself actually protected them.
Documents obtained by Rappler and verified in interviews with sources familiar with the case show a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf, “highly respected by the residents of Patikul including armed elements such as the MNLF and the ASG,” actually “extended protection” and guaranteed their safety on Friday, June 21, their first night in Abu Sayyaf territory.
The documents say the sisters were working with “relatives of Sultan Jamalul Kiram,” part of the family that sent hundreds of armed men on a ship to claim Sabah and sparked conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia early this year.
Kiram’s relative, Sultan Bantilan Muizzudin, has a separate claim to Sabah. He hosted the sisters the night before they were kidnapped, and according to intelligence documents, requested a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf “to extend security for the two sisters and their companions.”
On Friday, June 21, Nadjoua and Linda were safe in Sinumaan, a place the military and police call a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf. Members of the group said the sisters wanted to shoot video of the sunrise. They left Sinumaan safely “onboard a PUJ [private utility jeep] bound for Jolo town” — leaving the protection of the Abu Sayyaf.
The document adds “at about 9:00 am, their vehicle was stopped by eight armed men believed to be led by Ninok Sappari” and his breakaway group.
This kidnapping happens nearly 4 months to the day after the release of Australian Warren Rodwell, who was held hostage for a little more than 15 months. Sources say P7 million was paid in ransom with only P4 million or about US$100,000 reaching the kidnappers, the rest apparently taken by conduits and middlemen.
At the time of his release, there were 6 foreigners held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf. Today, at least 3 other prominent hostages remain: two European birdwatchers and a Jordanian journalist.
A Dutch, 53-year-old Ewold Horn, and a 48-year-old Swiss, Lorenzo Vinciguerra were bird-watching for 4 days on Tawi-Tawi when they were kidnapped by armed men on Feb 1, 2012, 17 months ago. They were ultimately brought to the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo, Sulu. Another classified document obtained by Rappler says they were held captive by Radullan Sahiron, the same leader behind Drilon’s kidnapping.
Jordanian Baker Atyani is a well-known journalist who interviewed Osama bin Laden. He was kidnapped on June 12, 2012 and has been held captive for more than a year.
While these 3 cases are linked in some way to Sahiron, the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping of the Bansil sisters show a further splintering of what one military source called Jolo’s “natural order” and may herald more difficult days ahead.
The host for the sisters’ visit is a breakaway group from the Kiram claim on Sabah, and they were kidnapped by a breakaway group of the Abu Sayyaf — despite being protected by the Abu Sayyaf the first night.
Two factors are key to unravelling and understanding events in Jolo: first, the names of groups don’t matter as much as social networks — families and friends. The reason why the senior Abu Sayyaf leader agreed to protect the sisters, according to another classified document seen by Rappler, was because he is a distant relative of their host, Sultan Bantilan Muizzudin.
Second, kidnapping-for-ransom fuels Jolo’s underground economy. This is not ideology, but a matter of money, and it has been going on unchecked for decades. It’s an established modus operandi: the kidnappers approach a larger armed group which helps protect them in exchange for a cut of the ransom.
The lines are also blurred between the good guys and the bad guys — with go-betweens, negotiators and even local government officials skimming part of past ransoms. Why is there a relationship of trust? Because often, the officials are related to the kidnappers, or at the very least, are part of their social networks.
This is the world that swallowed Nadjoua and Linda Bansil. – Rappler.com
* The spelling of the local name varies: one intelligence source says it is”Anak-ilu” while a Tausug says it’s “Anak-hilo” – the children of someone dizzy.
Maria A. Ressa is the author of FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism and SEEDS OF TERROR: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia. She led the crisis team which negotiated the release of Ces Drilon and her team kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf in 2008.
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