Threats Along the Sulu Sea: Exploring the Land-Sea Nexus

 Sulu Sea and Maritime Terrrorism
Sailors aboard three Armed Forces of the Philippines rigid hull inflatable boats perform a maritime interdiction operation exercise. Photo: Lt. Anthony Waters, US Navy.


Guest Post By Kenneth Yeo Yaoren

The recent series of kidnappings along the Sulu Sea raises concerns for the security forces in the region. The Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA), a mechanism that has facilitated joint patrols in the area between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia since July 2016, does not yet appear to have deterred criminals and terrorists from conducting kidnappings, armed robberies, and other forms of maritime crime. This article analyzes the land-sea nexus of the maritime threat and proposes the adoption of new measures to enhance the TCA.

Maritime Crime

The kidnapping of the Hyrons, a British-Filipino couple, from a resort at Tukuran Town, Zamboanga, on October 5, 2019, was part of a recent kidnapping spree along the Sulu archipelago which began in late 2018. Despite the couple’s rescue shortly after, this incident indicates an increased threat level along the Sulu archipelago. Kidnappings have steadily increased following a nearly two-year lull in the Sulu Sea. While the recent spike in the volume of kidnappings is not comparable to that of 2016, the re-emergence of the tactic raises security concerns.

Maritime crimes like kidnapping for ransom (KFR), hijacking, maritime robbery, and smuggling have occasionally been conducted in the Sulu region to raise funds for terrorism. This has been prominent in the area since the 1990s when the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) became notorious for KFR operations. Their maritime efforts intensified after the financial ties between Al Qaeda and the ASG were cut after the death of the ASG’s founder, Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. The ASG was also involved in the deadliest maritime terrorist attack in the world; the bombing of SuperFerry 14 on February 27, 2004, sank the cruise ship and killed 116 passengers. Today, maritime crime activity is led by Hajan Sawadjaan, who is speculated to be the current emir of Islamic State-affiliated networks in the Philippines. Hijacking of vessels serves two objectives: to kidnap the ship’s crew for ransom and loot supplies. 

The Influence of Land on the Sea

Land-based operations appeared to have an influence on maritime crime in the Sulu Sea. In early 2017, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) launched a series of counter-terrorism operations in Sulu after Isnilon Hapilon, then emir of Islamic State (IS) Philippines, moved his militants from Basilan to Lanao. Despite Hapilon’s non-involvement in kidnappings, the overall reduction of militant strength in Sulu allowed the AFP to attack the KFR sanctuaries of other militant factions, including one led by IS Sulu leader Sawadjaan, which contributed to an extended lull in KFR operations in the area for almost two years, until late 2018.

Such operations highlight how important it is for groups involved in maritime crime to have land-based territorial sanctuaries. Pirates need to hold territory in order to keep hostages and deposit looted items. The number of hostages ASG’s cells can hold is dependent on the relative strength of its militants on land. Every additional hostage held by the group decreases its maneuverability, rendering it more vulnerable to attacks by government forces. The ASG has been known to prematurely kill or release hostages in exchange for nimbleness during past confrontations with the AFP. This was observed during the series of confrontations between the ASG and the AFP in 2017 which led to the killing of six, release of two, and rescue of eight hostages in exchange for the maneuverability of the ASG. More recently, ground campaigns initiated by the AFP on April 4, 2019, led to the killing or escape of hostages.

Assessing the Effectiveness of the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement

Neither the reduction of maritime crime since December 2016 nor the resurgence of kidnappings in Sulu from September 2018 is easily attributed to the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement. The TCA was established on July 14, 2016, between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia as part of the effort to jointly patrol the Sulu-Celebes Seas, and was created in response to the repeated kidnappings of Indonesian and Malaysian fishermen in the Sulu Sea. The TCA has led to the creation of Maritime Command Centers (MCCs) located in Tarakan, Indonesia; Tawau, Malaysia; and Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi, in the Philippines. The MCCs coordinate joint patrols and share intelligence among the three countries. Despite the presence of the TCA and MCCs, maritime kidnappings have persisted. While the TCA has contributed to the arrests of several maritime criminals, its efforts have had limited impact on the more highly organized maritime operations of the ASG. 

Combating maritime crime in the region is difficult due to the prevalence of the use of small boats which are difficult to detect via satellite and radar systems. In addition, such actors often operate under the cover of night to reduce their exposure to naval and aerial patrols. Limited exposure at sea is used to execute quick strikes with fast, custom-made pump boats to overpower and hijack the targeted ship. 

In addition, maritime enforcement efforts are hampered by the archipelagic terrain and uneven depth of the seas. The Sulu archipelago’s shallow shoals and mangroves obstruct the maneuverability of larger vessels. This creates a mismatch in capabilities where the conventional blue-water and green-water naval capabilities—vessels designed for deployment into open seas—cannot be deployed into critical regions of the Sulu archipelago that are used as safe havens for illicit groups.

Revisiting the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement

In light of these challenges, the region must recognize the influence of land-based insurgency on maritime crime. Arguably, the foundations for maritime crime lie in the illicit actors’ ability to operate on land. Hence, the reduction of maritime crime cannot be solely reliant on the current intelligence-sharing arrangement, naval patrols, and the airpower of the TCA. To effectively combat organized maritime crime, the governments of the region should consider supporting the Philippine authorities in denying land sanctuaries and developing the economies of islands in the Sulu archipelago.

Efforts on land appear to have significant impacts on the reduction of maritime crime. Throughout 2017, the AFP launched attacks against the sanctuaries of Abu Sayyaf militants. This appears to have impacted maritime crime, as Abu Sayyaf ceased its KFR operations over that time period. However, troops on the ground are facing problems with apprehending militants, as they are able to flee between the islets in the archipelago. Hence, coordination of operations on shore and at sea appear to be vital to a comprehensive and effective response to these kinds of maritime security threats.

In response, the Philippine National Police (PNP) have invested in 35 high-speed tactical boats to synergize operations between land and sea. These armored boats are designed to maneuver in shallow waters to pursue illicit maritime actors. However, due to the complex archipelagic terrain of the Philippines, the PNP has been forced to deploy many of these assets to other islands in the Philippines. Hence, only five of these assets have been deployed to Jolo as of September 2019 to support policing operations against maritime crime. Moreover, these boats are also limited in their fuel capacity and can only be deployed for approximately five hours. Ultimately, there is insufficient capacity to address the scale of maritime crime in the area.

To address militancy in Sulu, land operations that target militant sanctuaries will need to be pursued in coordination with joint operations at sea. The TCA launched its first land exercise in August 2019, signaling the intentions of all parties to heighten levels of onshore collaboration. However, concerns over sovereignty may make onshore security collaboration in the region more politically difficult than coordinated maritime operations.

An alternative may be for the TCA to consider expanding its naval and air operations to complement the Philippines’ ground operations. To do so, Malaysia and Indonesia could deploy tactical boats to provide logistics support to the Philippines’ land-based operations and to apprehend militants attempting to flee land operations at sea. Additionally, airpower could be deployed sparingly to provide intelligence support for land operations. Admittedly, combined arms operations between militaries with different doctrines and practices could be difficult to execute, but such cooperation could help address capability gaps present between members of the TCA.

Finally, an expansion of the TCA to incorporate an economic element to jointly develop the maritime economy of the Sulu region could be considered. Counterinsurgency experts have long recognized that hard power alone is insufficient to eliminate insurgency. Addressing economic and governance concerns must also play a central role in any counterinsurgency effort.

There is tremendous potential for economic development in the Sulu archipelago. An estimated $40 billion worth of cargo passes through the Sulu-Celebes Seas every year. However, maritime crime has deterred many cargo ships from traveling through this region. More broadly, the absence of economic opportunities compels some to participate in maritime crime, which further limits the economic opportunities of the region. Hence, broader efforts must be made to create legitimate employment opportunities to provide individuals with an alternative to maritime crime.

Economic development that provides alternative legal employment opportunities for coastal communities will be key. Investment in industries such as ship maintenance, vessel refueling, agricultural exports, ecotourism, aquaculture, and other services could potentially undermine the economic incentive to participate in maritime crime. Ultimately, collective economic progress can be a strong facilitator of the governments’ efforts to ensure the long-term reduction of organized crime and terrorism in the Sulu region.