MANILA/JEDDAH: Ten years after being kidnapped and taken hostage by Abu Sayyaf terrorists, Arab News Asia bureau chief Baker Atyani is again reminiscing about his long days of imprisonment in the jungles of the southern Philippines, following news that one of his captives has surrendered. Philippine Army.
Attani was on duty in June 2012, reporting for the al-Arabiya news channel, when he was kidnapped for ransom by the Abu Sayyaf Group, a terrorist organization operating in Sulu province.
He was often held captive for 18 months in solitary confinement, before managing to escape.
In the years that followed, some of Atyani’s captors were executed by the military in the southern Philippines and others were arrested. This week, one of the group’s most infamous members, Ben Quirino, also known as Ben Tattoo, whom Atyani remembers as the strongest ASG fighter, surrendered to the Philippine Army.
Formed in 1991, the ASG emerged as a separate group from the Moro National Liberation Front, a movement demanding autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines. It was initially influenced by al-Qaeda, but has mainly involved extortion, murder and kidnapping for ransom since the early 2000s. Some of its factions, including the Savadjan group, of which Tattoo was a deputy leader, supported Daesh’s operations in Southeast Asia.
Tattoo, 41, has been linked to the murder of several foreigners, including two Canadian tourists who were kidnapped from the island resort of Samal in 2015 and held captive in the group’s stronghold in Jolo. He filmed himself beheading Canadians in 2016 after a $6.4 million ransom was not paid.
When news of Tattoo’s surrender broke on Friday, Atyani recalled how the terrorist used to point at him with his knife and M-14 rifle.
“He should face justice. He should be punished for what he has done,” said the veteran journalist.
He continued: “It feels bitter. My mind is filled with memories of the long days spent being held hostage in the forests of Sulu at the hands of Abu Sayyaf.”
For more than 500 days, Atiyani was kept in a hut, and tattoos were often checked on him.
“He used to be the talisman of the ASG Savadjan faction, which is considered to be one of the best fighters, a front-line fighter and the strongest of them,” Atyani said.
“Ben Tattoo was also known as Ben M-14 because he always carried an M-14, with a wooden butt that was specially made for him.”
Atyani said the brutality tattoo displayed over the years was part of the terrorist’s efforts to prove that he was a trusted member of a faction dominated by the Sawdan clan, of which he was not a member.
“He was always trying to prove that he was a good fighter, that the Savadan family could depend on him and that he could do the impossible,” Atyani said.
But his brutal attitude could not impress the leaders of the ASG and he was never able to come close.
In the video ASG took while killing Canadian hostages, the tattoo was the only militant who was not covering his face.
“Tattoo always tried to prove that he was someone he could be trusted with, and he was trying to be very close to the first circle of the group, but he never got the chance and so he himself was trying to prove it.”
Atyani believes that Tattoo’s efforts to achieve a higher rank in the group eventually resulted in him being isolated when the leader of the faction, Hadjan Savadjan, in Jolo’s Patikul region, ASG stronghold, 2020. were killed by soldiers.
“Savadjan’s sons did not want Ben to emerge as a leader,” Atyani said. “After Hadjan’s death, she received no shelter or support from the jungle community, which is mostly dominated by the Sawdan family and ASG chief Radulan Sahiron.”
Tattoo surrendered to the army at Patikul following the surrender of his half-brother, Almujar Yad, who was responsible for the ASG’s logistics and food supplies.
Major General Ignatius Patrimonio, Commander of the 11th Infantry, said, “We regard these two as the most notorious ASG leaders who have surrendered given the number of cases registered against them – of ransom, murder and many others. for kidnapping.” The division designated to fight terrorism in Sulu told Arab News on Friday.
“They got tired of chasing down the armed forces. In addition, he no longer has the support of the local population, his group has been horribly destroyed, and his brothers have been executed.”
The strength of the ASG has been dwindling since 2018, when the Philippine military intensified its crackdown on Daesh allies. Data from the 11th Infantry Division shows that the number of active militants has come down from around 300 in 2019 to an estimated 100.
General Benjamin Batara Jr., commander of Brigadier 1103th Infantry Brigade, which has jurisdiction over Patikul, told Arab News that the army had been tracking tattoos and memorabilia since last year.
“Obviously, they were already under pressure due to a series of continuous military and police operations and the surrender of their fellow Abu Sayyaf members,” he said.
The army handed them over to the police on Friday and both have a series of criminal charges.
Atyani believes that many of its fighters have surrendered because of the vulnerable position of the Abu Sayyaf group and other militant organizations.
Although the support of the local people has not waned – some still believe in “the cause of the people of Mindanao” – the killing or arrest of a string of terrorist leaders in the past three years has intensified extremist groups. Downfall.
“There has been no kidnapping for at least a year and a half, or a year and a half, which means they are facing serious financial issues – and without money they cannot survive,” Atyani said.
So far this year, a total of 67 Abu Sayyaf members in Sulu have surrendered to security forces in Jolo.
Nine years after her escape, Atani’s feelings are still raw.
“You imagine yourself in the same situation again. That’s why I feel for those who are actually in the hands of Abu Sayyaf or other terrorist groups.
He recalls his fear of the unknown, saying that this was the reason he kept going, leading him to make the decision to stay alive and not to be called “ignorant” – hence his many attempts to free himself. .
“I was ready to lose my life – but my way, not their way.”
Atyani’s ordeal ended on 3 December 2012, when he finally managed to break free from security.
For nearly a decade, the news of the death or capture of his brothers has brought a sense of relief.
“I could see that those who wronged me are now really facing what they deserve. Either they have been killed or arrested, or are now behind bars. That’s for sure.” There’s a kind of relief. But, again, this is a story that never ends. I feel like these traces of my kidnapping will never go away.
“So justice is being done and done.”