Politics Over Security: The Sulu – Sulawesi Seas Dilema

The much anticipated launch of The Sulu Sea Trilateral Initiative, a joint maritime patrol between Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia aimed to curb kidnappings and terrorist activities by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants has been delayed for the second time this year.


 The trilateral defence and security cooperation was again stalled because the Philippines defence chief was unable to join his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts in signing the trilateral security pact scheduled yesterday (Tuesday) in Sandakan. Indonesia had earlier delayed in confirming attendance at the meeting, suggesting the launch be staged on Indonesian soil instead because many of ASG’s kidnapping victims were Indonesian.

It was a huge blow in securing a much needed ‘security zone’ in the Sulu – Sulawesi seas and the surrounding islands of East Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. It was hoped that the initiative involving joint training operations, coordinated maritime patrol and air patrol on maritime waters and coastline near the east coast of Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, and the ‘Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for “Hot Pursuit” into the Philippines waters would finally restore peace and security in the region from terrorist and criminal activities.


One of the oldest terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is a violent jihadist – separatist group that is linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). Since 2014, ASG has become increasingly notorious for using kidnapping-for-ransom (KFR) as a way to fund itself.

The group have shifted from its original ideological goals to more financially oriented ones, engaging in criminal and terrorist activity both on land and at sea. Through collecting ransom money for hostages in its captivity, the militant group is evolving and expanding their capabilities to conduct long-range KFR operations and now the number one threat in the southern Philippines and Sulu-Sulawesi Seas.

Maritime kidnappings worldwide set a 10-year record in 2016 with an alarming increase in abductions from Indonesian and Malaysian vessels in the Sulu – Sulawesi seas. With 62 incidents overall, nearly half of them are from the Sulu seas. Reports estimates that the ASG have collected at least USD7.3 million from ransom paid for hostages, with the average ransom rate of ranging 50 to 100 million pesos for Europeans/Americans, 10 to 15 million for Asians and 1 to 10 million pesos for Filipinos.


 The theatre of conflict in the Sulu – Sulawesi seas is shifting and expanding, and the lack of government’s capacity to fight back terrorist and transnational crime is becoming increasingly evident in the region. The Philippines and the Indonesian government needs to work together with Malaysia to fight against not only the ASG threat, but also the spread of extremism and IS ideology.

The problem is likely to persist and worsen unless the respective governments put aside their political differences and build greater counter-terrorism and enforcement capabilities to counter transnational crimes. Only then will stability and prosperity return to the once beautiful and peaceful Sulu – Sulawesi seas.