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Regional partners confront increase in maritime crime

Tom Abke

Attacks on nonmilitary vessels in Indo-Pacific waters in the first quarter of 2020 increased by 300% compared with the same period in 2019, prompting regional partners to refocus their efforts to counter the threat.

The year opened with the kidnapping of five Indonesian fishermen in Malaysian waters off the northeastern coast of Sabah province. Six gunmen with reported links to the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) boarded a Malaysian-registered trawler on January 15, 2020, and took five of the eight crew members hostage. By the end of the month, Malaysia’s Eastern Security Command reported that its commandos had confronted and killed two of the kidnappers, but as of mid-May 2020, the hostages were still being held by a second group of captors.

The other 28 incidents across the region from January through March 2020 were broadly characterized as “incidents of armed robbery against ships” by the Singapore-based Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Ship robberies increased near Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and the Philippines and in the Singapore Strait.

ReCAAP reported May 22, 2020, that the Philippine Coast Guard was tracking a group of five armed ASG members planning to conduct kidnappings near Sabah, Malaysia.

“Kidnapping for ransom, or KFR, has been the primary motivator for ASG, while other criminal groups will steal cash and equipment,” Singapore-based defense analyst Blake Herzinger told FORUM. “There’s some reporting that ASG is contracting this out as well, using non-ASG groups to snatch hostages and deliver them to ASG.”

The majority of kidnappings take place in the Sulu and Celebes seas bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, he explained.

“There are a number of long-standing issues that create a sort of permissive environment for this type of crime,” he said. “Contested claims on Sabah, low penetration of state authority/law enforcement, and, until recently, very little control of the maritime domain.”

Unofficial ports scattered across the area facilitate the unmonitored movement of illicit cargos, he added, with the Philippines’ Sibutu Passage, just east of where the January kidnapping occurred, functioning as a critical shipping lane for extremist groups.

The Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA), signed by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in June 2017 to conduct regular air and sea patrols, focuses attention on the Sibutu Passage, Herzinger said. He characterized the TCA as the most promising multilateral mechanism to counter kidnappings for ransom and robberies at sea in the area. (Pictured: Indonesian Navy vessels and helicopters participate in security patrols in the Tarakan Sea.)

Joining the fight against maritime assaults in the wider Indo-Pacific is the Information Fusion Centre (IFC), hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy. The center involves 24 countries with interests in the region.

Through information sharing and collaboration to enhance maritime security, IFC has engineered security responses to threats of piracy, sea robbery, weapons proliferation and maritime terrorism.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.

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