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Arab News Asia bureau chief recalls 18-month captivity in Philippines after former kidnapper’s surrender

MANILA/JEDDAH: Ten years after he was abducted and held hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants, Arab News Asia bureau chief Baker Atyani again recalls his long days of captivity in the southern jungles of the Philippines after learning that one of his captors had surrendered to the Philippine military.

Atyani was on duty, reporting for the Al-Arabiya news channel, in June 2012 when the Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant group operating in Sulu province, kidnapped him for ransom.

He was held for 18 months, often in solitary confinement, before he managed to escape.

In the years that followed, some of those holding Atyani hostage were killed by the military in the southern Philippines and others arrested. This week, one of the most notorious members of the group, Ben Quirino, also known as Ben Tattoo, whom Atyani remembers as the strongest ASG fighter, surrendered to the Philippine military.

Abu Sayyaf strongman Ben Tattoo hands over his weapons to a military official on the island of Jolo on June 17, 2022. (Photo to be distributed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Formed in 1991, the ASG became a splinter group from the Moro National Liberation Front, a movement seeking autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines. He was initially influenced by al-Qaeda, but since the early 2000s has mainly been involved in extortion, assassination and kidnapping for ransom. Some of its factions, including the Sawadjaan group of which Tattoo was a deputy leader, lent their support to Daesh operations in Southeast Asia.

Tattoo, 41, has been linked to the murder of several foreigners, including two Canadian tourists who were abducted from the resort town of Samal in 2015 and taken captive to the group’s stronghold in Jolo. He filmed himself beheading the Canadiens in 2016 after a $6.4 million ransom was not paid.

When news of Tattoo’s surrender broke on Friday, Atyani recalled how the militant used to point his machete and M-14 rifle at him.

“He should face justice. He should be punished for what he did,” the veteran journalist said.

He added: “It’s bittersweet. My mind is flooded with memories of the long days spent in the jungles of Sulu as a hostage at the hands of Abu Sayyaf.

For over 500 days, Atyani was kept in a hut, with Tattoo often watching over him.

Baker Atyani was held hostage in a hut for approximately 500 days. (Photo provided)

“He was the muscle of the ASG Sawadjaan faction, considered one of the best fighters, a frontline fighter and the strongest among them,” Atyani said.

“Ben Tattoo was also known as Ben M-14 because he always carried an M-14, with a wooden stock carved especially for him.”

Atyani said the cruelty displayed by Tattoo over the years was part of the militant’s attempts to prove himself a reliable member of the faction dominated by the Sawadjaan clan, of which he was not a member.

“He was always trying to prove that he was a good fighter, that the Sawadjaan family could rely on him and that he could do the impossible,” Atyani said.

Ben Tattoo, one of Baker Atyani’s kidnappers, is linked to a series of murders. (Twitter)

But his brutal approach could not influence the leaders of the ASG and he could never come close.

In the video ASG took as they murdered the Canadian hostages, Tattoo was just a militant with no face covering.

“Tattoo always tried to prove that he was someone who could be trusted, and he tried to be very close to the first circle of the group, but he never had that opportunity and that’s why he was trying to prove himself.”

Atyani believes Tattoo’s attempts to gain a higher rank in the group ultimately resulted in his isolation after the faction’s leader, Hadjan Sawadjaan, was killed by troops in the Patikul area of ​​Jolo, the stronghold of the ASG, in 2020.

“Sawadjaan’s sons didn’t want Ben to become a leader,” Atyani said. “After Hadjan’s death, he was left without shelter or support from the jungle community which is mainly dominated by the Sawadjaan family and ASG leader Radullan Sahiron.”

QUICKDO

Abu Sayyaf is the most violent of the Islamic separatist groups operating in the southern Philippines and claims to promote an independent Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. After splitting from the Moro National Liberation Front in the early 1990s, the group launched a campaign of kidnappings for ransom, bombings, assassinations and extortion, and had links with Jemaah Islamiyah.

Tattoo surrendered to the army in Patikul after the surrender of his half-brother, Almujer Yadah, who was responsible for ASG’s logistics and food supply.

“We consider these two to be the most notorious ASG leaders to come forward considering the number of cases that have been filed against them – kidnapping for ransom, murder and many more,” said Major General Ignatius Patrimonio, commander of the 11th Infantry. Division designated to combat militancy in Sulu, Arab News said on Friday.

“They were tired of fleeing the military forces. Moreover, they no longer have the support of the local population, their group has been severely decimated and their brothers killed.

ASG’s strength has been waning since 2018, when the Philippine military stepped up its crackdown on Daesh affiliates. Data from the 11th Infantry Division shows the number of active militants has fallen from around 300 in 2019 to around 100.

Ben Tattoo’s brother, Almujer Yadah, an Abu Sayyaf logistics and food supply officer, surrenders his firearm to the Philippine military in Jolo on June 17, 2022. (Supplied)

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Batara Jr., commander of the 1103rd Infantry Brigade, which has jurisdiction over Patikul, told Arab News that the military had been tracking Tattoo and Yadah since last year.

“Apparently they were already under pressure due to the continuous military and police operations and a series of surrenders by their fellow Abu Sayyaf members,” he said.

The military handed them over to police on Friday and both face a series of criminal charges.

Atyani believes the weakened state of the Abu Sayyaf group and other militant groups led to the surrender of a number of its fighters.

While local support may not have waned much – some still believe in what they call “the cause of the people of Mindanao” – the murder or arrest of a string of militant leaders over the last three years has precipitated extremist groups. decline.

“No kidnappings have been reported for at least a year or a year and a half, which means they are facing serious financial problems – and without money they cannot survive,” Atyani said.

A total of 67 Abu Sayyaf members in Sulu have surrendered to security forces in Jolo so far this year.

Nine years after his escape, Atyani’s emotions are still running high.

“You imagine yourself in the same situation again. This is why I feel for those who are still in the hands of Abu Sayyaf or other militant groups.

He recalls his fear of the unknown, saying that was the reason he kept going, prompting him to make the decision to stay alive and not give in to those he calls the “ignorant” – hence his multiple attempts to break free.

“I was ready to lose my life, but in my way, not their way.”

Baker Atyani made the decision to stay alive and not give in to the “ignorant”. (Provided)

Atyani’s ordeal ended on December 3, 2012, when he finally managed to free himself to safety.

For nearly a decade, news of the death or capture of his captors brought a sense of relief.

“I could see that the people who were unfair to me are now getting what they deserve. Either they were killed or arrested or they are now behind bars. It’s certainly kind of a relief. But, again, this is a story that never ends, these scars from my abduction, I think, will never go away.

“So justice is done and has been done.”

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