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Jakarta Post

Who released the sailors? Untold story behind hostage rescue

  • Nezar Patria and Marguerite Afra Sapiie

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, May 4, 2016   /  06:07 pm
Who released the sailors? Untold story behind hostage rescue Ahmad Baedowi (left), one of the negotiators who helped in the release of 10 members of an Indonesian ship’s crew held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu, South Philippines, shakes hands with the ship’s crew coordinator Julian Philip in a jungle in Sulu on May 1, during the release process (Exclusive/

On the heels of the heart-warming return of 10 Indonesian sailors previously held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines, the details of the release remain cloudy as the government seems reluctant to disclose the events that led to the rescue.

Following the sailors' return, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi asserted on Monday that the release was made possible through intense coordination with numerous parties, including Filipino authorities and the sailors' employers, Patria Maritime Airlines.

However, government officials have not revealed further details, including Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, who refused to name the groups and non-governmental parties involved in the rescue operation.

While some media reports have named numerous public figures rumored to have led the process of releasing the crewmen, several sources – who personally took part in the rescue efforts but asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the information and the safety of other four Indonesians still being held by another group – told The Jakarta Post that the operation actually involved more than just old-school diplomacy.

How much was the ransom?

Sources have confirmed that neither Indonesian officials nor the sailors' employer Patria Maritime Lines paid a ransom demanded by the militant group.

The negotiations instead comprised people-to-people dialogue, involving a respected figure from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which was made possible due to a friendly promise made by the Sukma Foundation's humanitarian team to provide aid to support young generations of the Moro tribe in the Philippines.

The 60-year-old MNLF senior commander, codenamed Grand Alpha, who headed 300 to 400 combatants in the Sulu area, has helped the Sukma Foundation since the beginning of April, when he assisted the humanitarian team to make contact with Tawing Humair, the leader of the kidnappers who hijacked the Brahma 12 tugboat in March.

"Grand Alpha said [to Tawing] that there is bigger opportunity than just transactions [...] bigger opportunities for Moro people's future, education and welfare," the source said, citing what happened during the negotiations.

The Indonesian government mistakenly thought the crewmen had been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf commander Al Habsi Misaya, who was in fact handed the sailors after Tawing Humair abandoned the hijacked tugboat on his way back from the Tawi-Tawi islands.

Believing Al Habsi was the kidnapper, an Indonesian negotiation team led by retired Army general Kivlan Zein made efforts through contacting Nur Misuari, the founder of the MNLF, who later appointed a subordinate named Tahir to negotiate with Habsi.

Without Misuari's knowledge, Tahir communicated with Grand Alpha, who said they should hold back their troops and not make any offensive moves against the group as the hostages' lives would be at risk.

Later, Grand Alpha's team decided to step in to the rescue efforts as they knew the Indonesian government had negotiated with the wrong party. They were afraid that if a ransom was paid, the hostages would not be freed as there were a lot of similar cases going on.

Meanwhile, Patria Maritime Lines decided to pay the ransom of Rp 15 billion (US$1.14 million) for the hostages' release and brought the money to Zamboanga on April 29, but Tawing refused to hand over the hostages to either the company or the government due to the promise he made with Grand Alpha.

Tawing, reportedly a 30-year-old madrasah (Islamic school) graduate, was said to respect Grand Alpha as the senior militant had protected him and Moro youngsters on several occasions. When Grand Alpha called him to negotiate the release of the seaman, Tawing obeyed him reverently.

Promise of humanitarian aid

Edo, not his real name, MNLF member and a distant relation of Grand Alpha, who was also present during the negotiations, said the idea of humanitarian assistance for younger generations of Moro suddenly emerged as part of the trade-off in return for releasing the hostages.

Even though the commitment was still being questioned, Edo said, Grand Alpha had convinced the militants and said Indonesian Muslims were the only Asian neighbor that had good relations and could help Moro people with a peace process, as well as educational assistance and other transformative projects.

"The negotiation team also said younger generations [of the Moro tribe] would have the privilege of being sent to schools in Aceh," Edo said.

The Sukma Foundation, founded by media mogul Surya Paloh, helped child victims of the Aceh tsunami by establishing the Sukma Bangsa school to ensure their access to education, and therefore Moro people believed in it.

When the government's negotiations reached a dead end, the Sukma Foundation's humanitarian team contacted its deputy chairman Rerie L. Moerdijat to ensure the continuance of the operation, a case in which she first consulted with Surya. Later, she deployed a team in the Philippines to immediately help rescue the hostages.

Under the instruction of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, the team from Jakarta landed in Manila on Saturday evening and immediately met the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Foreign Ministry.

Ahmad Baedowi (wearing glasses), one of the negotiators who helped in the release of 10 members of an Indonesian ship’s crew held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu, South Philippines, shakes hands with a ship’s crew in a jungle in Sulu on May 1, during the release process (

Sunday’s surprise release

The team stood by in Zamboanga from Saturday night and went down to Jolo, the capital of Sulu, at around 5 a.m. local time on Sunday. They approached the militant's camp located in the jungle at around 7 a.m. and waited for about four hours until midday, when the sailors appeared safe and sound.

While the negotiation team remained hidden, the sailors were brought by Grand Alpha subordinates by car to the house of Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan II, who had been briefed about the hostages' arrival the night before. They were dropped off near a gas station and told to walk directly to Tan II's house.

Julian Philip, a hostage, said following his arrival at the Foreign Ministry office that the sailors' release came as a surprise, telling the same story behind their sudden arrival at the governor's house.

"We were just suddenly put in a car, dropped off at a location and told to find the governor's house," Julian said.

Following the release, the sailors were transported by two Filipino police helicopters to an airbase in Zamboanga, where they underwent verification and health checks, before departing for Balikpapan and onwards to Jakarta on Surya's private jet.

The 10 seamen arrived at Halim Perdanakusumah Airport in East Jakarta around midnight on Sunday, with the assistance of NasDem Party deputy chairman Victor B. Laiskodat and a counsellor from Indonesia's embassy in the Philippines, Eddy Mulya.

The government is now focusing its attention on securing the release of four Indonesian sailors who were taken captive later in April by another group demanding a ransom in Sulu province, which did not have links with Tawing Humair.

Coordinates denoting the location where 10 Indonesian ship crew were held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu, southern Philippines, were released on Sunday. A mobile device using a global positioning system (GPS) detected the location. (JP/Exclusive)

Retno and Luhut attended a meeting with Indonesian Military commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo and National Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief Lt. Gen. (ret) Sutiyoso on Monday at the Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Minister in Jakarta, where they discussed intensifying coordination to release the four crewmen.

The sources said the Sukma Foundation humanitarian team was not yet involved with the government in the efforts of releasing the remaining four crewmen and would only come onto the scene if Jakarta failed in its attempts.

Snack diplomacy’

With a successful and safe release mainly due to civil society and humanitarian-based negotiations, the government should begin to see that diplomacy can also be effective at civil society level.

"Diplomacy does not only mean that we should deploy ex-military generals or intelligence officers; our civil society is also strong," one source said.

Samsu Rizal Panggabean, a researcher from Gadjah Mada University (UGM) who is a consultant with the Sukma Foundation, said the operation was made possible through the bond between the Indonesians and local figures of the Moro tribe.

Not only did they share the same Muslim faith, Samsu said, but Indonesian snacks, such as bakpia cakes, tempeh chips and rempeyek crackers, as well as Indonesian cigarettes that the team shared with the Moro people had touched their hearts.

When the Sukma Foundation gave copies of the Koran not only to the Grand Alpha team but also to Tawing Humair, they seemed moved and expressed their thanks.

“We met them as friends. So it [the operation] was based on mutual trust,” Samsu said.

New hope

Edo said a military offensive would not actually tackle the problem of extremism in the Philippines, let alone annihilating Abu Sayyaf, as by using force, the younger generations would instead bear more hatred toward the outside world.

Abu Sayyaf members themselves are in fact sons of MNLF commanders who passed away during the revolution.

Many MNLF and Abu Sayyaf members are related by blood, but they have had different principles and doctrines from the start, as the MNLF struggles for its rights of determination while Abu Sayyaf leans toward extremism. The fact that they have family relations makes the government mistakenly regard them as the same group.

Edo said children in the Abu Sayyaf group were forced to replace their predecessors to keep the leadership relay going because all branches of the militant group had lost hope of entering mainstream society as they could be jailed without dialogue or negotiations, and they are not offered amnesty.

"They want to change their lives, but they are prompted to continue their terror because they have no hope of going back to the mainstream government," Edo said, adding that the Filipino government should rework its antiterrorism policy.

The fact that Tawing and his compatriots were moved by the offer of education and humanitarian assistance programs was due to the glimmer of hope of ending the cycle of violence in the country, where the wives of rebels are forbidden from visiting the city and children are not allowed to go to school, the source added.

Rerie said over the phone that the Sukma Foundation had released a statement on its involvement as its role in the operation was being questioned.

“But the most important thing is that the 10 sailors have returned safely to Indonesia,” Rerie said. (dmr)

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