Pirates, Smugglers and Terrorists Flood the Western Pacific
The search for four kidnapped Malaysian sailors offers a window into a brutal underworld
by KEVIN KNODELL
Johnny Lau Jung Hieng was just 20 years old when he was kidnapped. Born in Sarawak, Malaysia, he found work as a sailor on a tugboat as the youngest member of nine-man crew. Young men like Hieng commonly take work at sea to find comradery, adventure and to support their families back home.
But on April 4 as the tugboat sailed off the island of Borneo, eight men inside a second boat and armed with AK-47s pulled alongside. The gunmen opened fire, injuring one of the crew members of the tug. The attackers then boarded the tug and nabbed four sailors, including Hieng, and left the rest behind.
Malaysian maritime agencies have combed the waters looking for the missing sailors, their kidnappers and other criminals. During an Interpol-coordinated investigation between April 18 and May 5, officials searched 332 vessels and arrested 30 people for charges ranging from drug smuggling, “irregular migration” and illegal fishing.
But no sign of the missing sailors. On May 26, Interpol put out a “Yellow Notice” for the missing men — calling on law enforcement agencies from other countries to help locate them.
The kidnapping has elicited controversy in part because similar violent incidents are a growing problem in the Southwest Pacific.
A wide range of international crime syndicates, pirate clans and terrorist groups exploit the region’s open seas. Governments in the region also rarely chase pirates past international boundaries, granting criminals freedom to maneuver.
“The tri-border area between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia is overrun with various criminal and terrorist elements,” terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna told Malay Mail Online shortly after the kidnapping. “The terrorists are engaged in hostage taking with the aim of eventually turning the area into a ‘safe zone’ to conduct attacks against these countries.”
If terrorists are responsible for kidnapping the sailors, they would have likely taken credit for the attack and made their demands known. They have not, at least publicly, which perhaps hints at more direct criminal motives.
Crime at sea is incredibly common. While criminal groups do kidnap sailors for ransom, they also occasionally enslave captives into doing menial work on their vessels, or selling them off to others as forced laborers. Though human trafficking is largely associated with the ugly underworld of the sex trade, that is far from its only form.
However, it’s possible that the gunmen could have ties — direct or indirect — to terrorist organizations. Southeast Asia has its fair share of extremist groups, and many criminal gangs and syndicates overlap with terror networks through shared black market money exchanges.
In recent years, battle-hardened jihadist militants from the region have begun to return home from Syria, often traveling over maritime routes and networks to make the journey.
“Attacks will become increasingly severe unless these groups are dismantled with military force, specifically the Malaysian Navy,” Rohan asserted. “There are no other options. Only a strong military response will stabilize the situation. These groups … are capable of striking anywhere in Southeast Asia and represent a serious threat to the region.”
In January, Islamist gunmen and a suicide bomber attacked a Starbucks coffee shop in Jakarta, killing four and wounding several others. The attack led to a gunfight with Indonesian police and the arrest of 12 suspects. Police reported that the culprits had ties to the Islamic State.
In 2015, Indonesian authorities mapped out what they believed was an Islamic State smuggling network between Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesian counter terror officials have expressed concern about both Indonesian and Malaysian Islamic State fighters who they believe have returned from Syria to train new recruits and carry out attacks.
On Nov. 17, 2015, the Philippine Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf beheaded Malaysian engineer Bernard Then when a ransom demand wasn’t met. There was outrage in Malaysia at the seeming failure of officials in the country and those in the Philippines to stop the killing.
Abu Sayyaf has both Indonesian and Malaysian members and has historically been linked to Al Qaeda, but the group recently began voicing support for the the Islamic State. Abu Sayyaf is one of several militant groups active in the Philippines.
The Philippine military — with help from U.S. Army Green Berets — has waged a largely successful counterinsurgency and counter-terror campaign, but violent clashes still occur.
In January 2015, Philippine Special Action Force police commandos entered the town of Mamasapano on the southern island of Mindanao. The commandos were hunting Zulkifli Abdhir and Basit Usman — two of the most wanted terrorists in the country — with the goal of capturing or killing them.
The commandos killed Zulkifli in an ensuing firefight, but the militant presence was much heavier than anticipated. Forty-four policemen died in the battle.
There’s good reason to believe that the web of crime and terror networks in the region will continue to prey on people — and vex authorities.
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