Hostage Negotiation and Clerics


Various forms of violence in Mindanao, southern Philippines, such as hostage-taking, kidnapping and armed clashes, are not only happening continuously one after another over a long period of time but also looking like a tangled thread that is difficult to unravel. The series of violent incidents has deep historical roots involving many parties, starting from colonialist Spain and the United States to the mid-20th century, the post-independence era under the governance of the Philippines, and continuing with the emergence of various Moro nationalist groups demanding autonomy or freedom.

All of these situations have made it difficult to understand why all violent accidents, hostage-taking and kidnapping have occurred in the Muslim-majority southern Philippines. This time, 10 Indonesian citizens, all of whom were crew members of the Brahma 12 tugboat and Anand 12 barge, were taken hostage, reportedly by the Abu Sayyaf group in the waters of Sulu in the Mindanao islands. The hostage-taking must end immediately and the hostages must be freed using all possible legal options.

However, the hostage-taking incident should not be immediately associated with issues such as terrorism, connection with the Islamic State or the on-and-off peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), unless there is a direct acknowledgement of such connections by the hostage-takers.

Abu Sayyaf

The group popularly known as Abu Sayyaf began as an idealistic group within the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) armed secessionist organization at the outset of the struggle of the Moro people in the 1980s led by a commander named Abu Sayyaf. They have always demanded freedom and rejected the move by Professor Nur Misuari - a professor at the University of the Philippines' Faculty of Islamic Studies who later served as MNLF's grand leader - to peacefully negotiate for autonomy with the Filipino central government.

The MNLF's peaceful negotiation later resulted in the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in which the Indonesian government was heavily involved. The ARMM was a region with limited autonomy for the Muslim-majority Mindanao islands, with Nur Misuari installed as the first governor.

Apart from giving birth to Abu Sayyaf, the peace negotiation also led to the emergence of another insurgent group, MILF. MILF is even bigger than Abu Sayyaf and has allegedly taken more than half of MNLF's supporters into its ranks, including its armed forces,which have rejected joining with the Armed Forces of the Philippines as a consequence of the peace negotiation.

However, unlike the purely armed struggle of the Abu Sayyaf group, MILF is a more mixed organization. MILF is led by Hasyim Salamat - an alumnus of Egypt's Al Azhar university who previously served as Nur Misuari's deputy at MNLF - who also rejected the results of the negotiation by the Nur Misuari-led MNLF, sticking to its demands for independence. In political reality, MILF then became the opposition through a separatist movement against the ARMM that was the result of an agreement between the MNLF and the Filipino government.

As a consequence of rejecting the peace option, the Abu Sayyaf group later became a deserter group that splintered away from the troops brought by Nur Misuari to join the Filipino military under the peace agreement. In the beginning, the Abu Sayyaf group conducted its mission purely and with high moral standards to fight against both the Philippines and the ARMM for their independence. However, as logistics ran out, one by one its sub-groups parted ways, creating new fragments and spreading disunity. Some resorted to robbing and kidnapping just to stay alive.

The Abu Sayyaf group become disorganized structurally, with disjointed action taken by small groups uncoordinated with each other. The kidnapping and hostage-taking have become more like multi-level marketing (MLM) activities in entrepreneurship. Someone may act alone in kidnapping victims, but the hostages are always sold to the highest bidder. This process continues on and on until negotiation occurs with the embassy or representative of the respective nation.

In the end, Abu Sayyaf becomes a generic term for any group that kidnaps people and keeps them hostage, even though the group itself might have not been involved with the acts. Because of this, the kidnappers' demands often is exclusive, for example merely asking for a large sum of money, without any hint that they are connected to the demands of other groups, let alone global movements such as the Islamic State and terrorism. Therefore, this latest hostage-taking incident should be identified first in detail and with high caution. It can be that the hostage-taking was merely simple robbery conducted by a group just looking for money. Once again, unless they explicitly claim as part of a larger movement. The name Abu Sayyaf is also sometimes used by external parties or the local government to refer to groups of individuals acting like the group.

Social structure

Even though Islam entered Mindanao a long time ago, the religion's rise in the area has not changed the original social structure of the Mindanao people. The local population comprises social groups led by a "local king" called adatu. Each datu rules over a certain area and social group and often fights for influence with other groups led by other datu. Violent rivalries and conflicts are common. This tradition was later on brought into the struggle for autonomy or independence.

Mindanao is comprised of several ethnic groups. The largest ones are the Tausug group, the major ethnic group of the Sulu sultanate, and the Maguindanao people, who dominate in the Maguindanao sultanate in the area's main island of Mindanao. This polarization is also reflected in the difference between the MNLF, based in Sulu with a Tausug-majority membership, and MILF, based in Maguindanao with a Maguindanao-majority membership. Their leaders also have different ethnic backgrounds. Nur Misuari is of Tausug and Sulu origin, while Hasyim Salamat is from the Maguindanao sultanate and ethnic group.

As a matter of fact, both the MNLF and MILF were formed as progressive groups with sharp criticisms of the feudalism of the datu system. However, when faced with the Filipino central power and with each other, they resorted to the legitimacy of their respective ethnicities and sultanates. If the MNLF uses the legitimacy of the Sultanate of Sulu and the Tausug ethnic group, MILF seeks legitimacy from the ethnic group and Sultanate of Maguindanao.

In October 2014, a peace accord occurred between the Filipino government and MILF to replace the ARMM, the result of a previous peace agreement with the MNLF. However, once again the accord was obstructed by the move of the Filipino Congress, which questioned the agreement's constitutional foundation.

The halting of the peace accord between the Filipino central government and MILF opened two separate wounds that continue to play a part in the ongoing violence. The first wound was suffered by MNLF, as the agreement with MILF immediately erased the ARMM,which had been the result of an agreement with the MNLF. The second wound was the cancellation of the agreement with MILF, which had happened many times.


Regardless of the stagnating peace talks between MILF and the Filipino central government, the people of the Mindanao islands, especially in the Muslim-majority areas of Sulu Island, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Maguindanao, have very strong Islamic traditions despite their daily involvement in kidnappings and robbing. They have greater respect for religious leadership than for the administrative governments, especially the Filipino central power. Therefore, the involvement of religious leaders in the possibility of negotiation with the hostage-takers must be strongly considered.

Indonesian clerics also have their standing in the general Muslim population of Mindanao, especially those from prominent organizations such as NahdlatulUlama, Muhammadiyah and Islamic boarding schools. It is not entirely impossible that the hostage-takers may be more open if the negotiations involve these organizations.

More than that, the Indonesian government needs to be involved in the Mindanao peace process amid all the stagnation and increasing threats of violence, as it was in the 1980s and 1990s.


Commissioner at the National Ombudsman Commission and deputy chairman of NahdlatulUlama's Human Resource Research and Development Center

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