Vessel boarding and kidnap threat, Philippines and Borneo


Since the end of March 2016, there have been three separate maritime kidnappings of crewmembers from tugboats operating in Malaysian territorial waters between Sabah State, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. Each incident was perpetrated by the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf – a recognised Islamist organisation known to engage in criminal and terrorist activity in the region, including attacks, kidnappings and bombings on land. The three recent incidents are, however, the first recorded maritime kidnappings of persons in the region, and indicate an emerging piracy threat to vessels and crewmembers operating in the seas east of Sabah State and south of the Philippines.

The kidnappings occurred on the Indonesian tugboats BRAHMA 12 (IMO: 9765407), MASSIVE 6 (IMO: 9265823) and HENRY (IMO: 9302231), all of which were trading in the waters offshore Sabah, Malaysia, when they were boarded. On all occasions, the Abu Sayyaf militants used small, skiff-like boats powered with outboard engines to out-run the tugs. The militants, once boarded, then ordered the crew to hand over personal possessions and valuables, before rounding up and kidnapping a number of the crewmembers. Four men were taken from each of the vessels MASSIVE 6 and HENRY, while ten Indonesian crewmen were kidnapped from the BRAHMA 12. The militants numbered between eight and 17 and were armed during the incidents. A crewmember on board the tug HENRY was shot in the chest after the militants fired on the vessel during the approach.

The three incidents have led to concern among the shipping industry, and galvanised a response from governments in the region. The Malaysian government has imposed a ban on vessels trading between Sabah and the southern Philippines, stating that it will remain until, ‘a comprehensive plan is formulated to ensure the safety and security of crew.’ A number of Malaysian law enforcement agencies have deployed assets to the area to police the ban. In addition, round table discussions have been held between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the result of which has led to the imposition of joint patrols in the area.


Analysis and Assessment:
Militants affiliated to the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf have been known to kidnap persons on land. The most recent incidents are, however, the first recorded maritime kidnappings undertaken by the group. This is a different form of ‘Asian piracy’ from the tanker hijack-for-petroleum-thefts recorded off Singapore and the Malacca Straits in recent years. These recent incidents are localised attacks centred on the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi Provinces of the Philippines, and conducted by a group with criminal and terrorist operations spanning from the Philippines to Borneo. The kidnapping business model is comparable to that seen off the Niger Delta, West Africa, in that it is financially rather than ideologically driven. Abu Sayyaf militants out-run small vessels – the three vessels were between 200-250-dwt – in order to abduct crewmembers to hold to ransom onshore. Ransom amounts are negotiated by shipping companies, through middle-men, and can take approximately four to five weeks to settle from capture to release. According to unconfirmed Indonesian press reports, a sum of USD $1.064 million was paid to Abu Sayyaf in order secure the release of the ten men abducted from the BRAHMA 12. We are, however, treating this information with caution as we cannot confirm the reliability of the reports.

In terms of location, each kidnapping has taken place within 60 nm of the eastern coast of Sabah, Malaysia, and within 20 nm of Sibutu Island, which is part of the Philippine province of Tawi-Tawi. This is a region through which a significant level of regional trade passes and is a transit point for approximately USD $40 billion worth of cargo a year, including vessels that re-route to avoid the Malacca Straits. The three tugs targeted were believed to be employed in the regional coal market when they were boarded. Indonesia is the world’s largest thermal coal exporter and supplies roughly 70% of the Philippine’s coal exports through this region. Coal is typically loaded onto barges, and then towed through this region. There is a large throughput of this type of vessel in this area. We assess that, much like kidnap off the Niger Delta, West Africa, Abu Sayyaf militants target tugs due to their relatively slow speed, low freeboards and predictable operations. Out-running a tug and boarding would present little barrier for a group of men operating in a small speed boat with an outboard engine. We note that during the kidnapping on board the BRAHMA 12, three outboard engines were used to power the speedboat carrying the Abu Sayyaf militants.

While Abu Sayyaf has so far targeted tugs, the risk extends to all commercial and pleasure vessels operating offshore Sabah, and within 100 nm of the Philippine archipelagos of Sulu and Tawi Tawi. This is a choke point for ships trading between Australasia and China, and an area in which commercial ships, tourist ferries and yachts are known to operate. Despite the Malaysian Government’s ban on trade in this region, we assess that a significant volume of traffic will continue to pass through these waters, providing ample opportunity for Abu Sayyaf members to continue to conduct such attacks. We recommend that all operators and masters consider the high risk to crew, and implement security procedures to counter the threat from boardings and kidnappings.

This article is an enduring risk which can also be found in our Threat Picture


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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