Arab News Asia Bureau chief recalls 18-month captivity in Philippines after surrender of former captor

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Journalist Baker Atyani waves as he boards a plane at Jolo airport in the southern Philippines on Dec. 6, 2013, a day after his escape from Abu Sayyaf bandits. (AFP File photo)
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Baker Atyani is escorted by the police to the Jolo airport after his escape from Abu Sayyaf bandits. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 June 2022

Arab News Asia Bureau chief recalls 18-month captivity in Philippines after surrender of former captor

  • Baker Atyani was kidnapped by Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf in 2012 and held for 18 months
  • Atyani says Abu Sayyaf is in a weakened state after one of his captors recently surrendered to Philippine authorities

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

Atyani was on duty, reporting for Al-Arabiya News Channel, in June 2012, when Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant outfit operating in Sulu province, kidnapped him for ransom.

He was held captive for 18 months, often in solitary confinement, before managing to escape.

In the years since, some of those who held Atyani hostage have been killed by the military in the southern Philippines and others arrested. This week, one of the most notorious of the group’s members, 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 in Jolo island on June 17, 2022. (Armed Forces of the Philippines handout photo)

Formed in 1991, ASG emerged a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front, a movement seeking autonomy for Filipino Muslims in the southern Philippines. It was initially influenced by Al-Qaeda, but since the early 2000s has been involved mainly extortion, assassinations and kidnappings for ransom. Some of its factions, including the Sawadjaan group of which Tattoo was a sub-leader, provided 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 island resort of Samal in 2015 and taken captive to the group’s stronghold in Jolo. He had filmed himself beheading the 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 militant used to point his machete and M-14 rifle at him.

“He should face justice. He should be punished for what he has done,” the veteran reporter said.

He added: “It feels bittersweet. My mind is flooded with memories of the long days that have been spent in the jungles of Sulu being a hostage in the hands of Abu Sayyaf.”

For more than 500 days, Atyani was kept in a hut, with Tattoo checking on him often.

Baker Atyani was held hostage in a hut for about 500 days. (Supplied photo)

“He used to be the muscle of the ASG Sawadjaan faction, considered to be one of the best fighters, a front-line fighter and the strongest among them,” Atyani said.

“Ben Tattoo was also known as Ben M-14 because he was always carrying an M-14, with a wooden butt that was carved specifically for him.”

Atyani said that the cruelty Tattoo displayed over the years was part of the militant’s attempts to prove he was a dependable member of the faction that was 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 depend on him, and that he could do the impossible,” Atyani said.

Ben Tattoo, one of Baker Atyani’s captors, is linked with a string of killings. (Twitter)

But his brutal approach could not sway the leaders of ASG and he was never able to get close. 

In the video ASG took as they murdered the Canadian hostages, Tattoo was only militant not covering his face.

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

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

“Sawadjaan’s sons didn’t want Ben to emerge as a leader,” Atyani said. “After the death of Hadjan, he ended up having no shelter or support from the jungle community that is mostly dominated by the Sawadjaan family and ASG chief Radullan Sahiron.”


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 has had ties to Jemaah Islamiyah. 

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

“We consider these two as the most notorious ASG leaders to have surrendered considering the number of cases that have been filed against them — from kidnaping for ransom, murder, and many more,” Maj. Gen. Ignatius Patrimonio, commander of the 11th Infantry Division designated to fight militancy in Sulu, told Arab News on Friday.

“They got tired of running from pursuing military forces. Besides, they no longer have the support of the local populace, their group has been badly decimated, and their brothers killed.”

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

Ben Tattoo's brother Almujer Yadah, an abu Sayyaf logistics and food supply officer, surrenders his firearm to the Philippine Army 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 the military has been tracking Tattoo and Yadah since last year.

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

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

Atyani believes the weakened state of Abu Sayyaf Group and other militant outfits has led to the surrender of a number of its fighters.

Although the support of the locals may not have wavered much — some still believe in what they call “the cause of the people of Mindanao” — the killing or arrest of a string of militant leaders in the past three years has hastened the extremist groups’ decline. 

“There have been no reports of any kidnapping incidents for at least a year or a year-and-a-half, which means they are facing serious financial issues — and without money they can’t 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 raw.

“You imagine yourself again in the same situation. That’s why I feel for those who are actually still in the hands of either Abu Sayyaf or other militant groups.” 

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

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

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

Atyani’s ordeal came to an end on Dec. 3, 2012, when he finally managed to break free to safety.

For almost a decade, news of his captors’ deaths or capture have brought a sense of relief.

“I could see that people who have been unjust to me are actually now facing what they deserve. Either they’ve been killed or arrested, or are now behind bars. This is certainly kind of a relief. But, again, it is a story that never ends. These scars of my kidnapping, I think, will never go.

“So justice is being done and has been done.”


Assange lawyers sue CIA for spying on them

Updated 6 sec ago

Assange lawyers sue CIA for spying on them

WASHINGTON: Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sued the US Central Intelligence Agency and its former director Mike Pompeo on Monday, alleging it recorded their conversations and copied data from their phones and computers.
The attorneys, along with two journalists joining the suit, are Americans and allege that the CIA violated their US constitutional protections for confidential discussions with Assange, who is Australian.
They said the CIA worked with a security firm contracted by the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where Assange was living at the time, to spy on the WikiLeaks founder, his lawyers, journalists and others he met with.
Assange is facing extradition from Britain to the US, where he is charged with violating the US Espionage Act by publishing US military and diplomatic files in 2010 related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Robert Boyle, a New York attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the alleged spying on Assange’s attorneys means the WikiLeaks founder’s right to a fair trial has “now been tainted, if not destroyed.”
“The recording of meetings with friends, with lawyers and the copying of his attorneys’ and friends’ digital information taints the criminal prosecution because now the government knows the contents of those communications,” Boyle told reporters.
“There should be sanctions, even up to dismissal of those charges, or withdrawal of an extradition request in response to these blatantly unconstitutional activities,” he said.
The suit was filed by attorneys Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, and journalists Charles Glass and John Goetz.
They all visited Assange while he was living inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London under political asylum, since withdrawn.
The suit named the CIA, former CIA director and former US secretary of state Pompeo, and the security firm Undercover Global and its chief executive David Morales Guillen.
It said Undercover Global, which had a security contract with the embassy, swept information on their electronic devices, including communications with Assange, and provided it to the CIA.
In addition it placed microphones around the embassy and sent recordings, as well as footage from security cameras, to the CIA, the suit alleges.
This, the attorneys said, violated privacy protections for US citizens.
Assange is awaiting a ruling on his appeal of the British extradition order to the United States.
The charges he faces could bring a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
The suit said that Spain-based Undercover Global was recruited to work with the CIA in 2017 by officials from the Las Vegas Sands casino group.
Las Vegas Sands was at the time controlled by the late tycoon Sheldon Adelson, a powerful conservative backer of the Republican Party who, the suit said, “had cooperated with the CIA on similar matters in the past.”
The suit said that while Undercover Global controlled security at the embassy, each visitor had to leave their electronic devices with a guard before seeing Assange.
“The information contained on the plaintiff’s devices was copied and, ultimately, given to the CIA,” they said.
“Defendant Pompeo was aware of and approved the copying of information contained on plaintiffs’ mobile electronic devices and the surreptitious audio monitoring of their meetings with Assange,” the suit alleged.
It said the defendants became aware of the spying only when the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported in September 2019 that Morales and Undercover Global were under criminal investigation in Spain.
El Pais revealed information on the London operations that had previously been sealed in the case.

Father and son linked to murders of Muslims in New Mexico

Updated 15 August 2022

Father and son linked to murders of Muslims in New Mexico

  • Police have said they are working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, as well as Mohammad Ahmadi, 62

NEW MEXICO: Police in New Mexico have found evidence that appears to tie a father and son to the killings of Muslim men in New Mexico, federal prosecutors said on Monday.
Both Muhammad Syed, 51, and his son Shaheen Syed were in the same area of Albuquerque shortly after an Aug. 5 murder took place, based on cellphone data, federal prosecutors said in court documents.
Agents believe Shaheen Syed observed Aug. 5 murder victim Naeem Hussain attending a funeral service that day for two other Muslim men who were murdered, based on FBI analysis of cell tower data.
Shaheen Syed then followed Hussain to the location where he was gunned down, prosecutors said in documents for a Monday detention hearing.
“Telephone calls between Muhammad Atif Syed and the defendant would be consistent with quick surveillance calls, both before and after the shooting,” federal prosecutors said, citing an FBI analysis of cell tower data.
The reference to the defendant is Shaheen Syed, who was arrested last week on federal firearms charges for providing a false address.
An attorney representing Shaheen Syed described the latest allegations as “exceedingly thin and speculative.”
In a court filing, lawyer John Anderson said federal prosecutors provided no evidence as to the size of the “general area” the father and son’s phones were both in shortly after the Aug. 5 murder.
Muhammad Syed was formally charged with killing Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26 and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1.
Police have said they are working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, as well as Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, who was shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021.

Location of first ship to leave Ukraine carrying grain unknown

Updated 15 August 2022

Location of first ship to leave Ukraine carrying grain unknown

  • Razoni was initially heading for Lebanon with 26,000 metric tons of corn for chicken feed
  • The corn’s buyer in Lebanon later refused to accept the cargo, since it was delivered much later than agreed

BEIRUT: The first grain ship to leave Ukraine under a wartime deal has had its cargo resold several times and there is now no information about its location and cargo destination, the Ukrainian embassy in Beirut said Monday.
The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, which left Odesa on Aug. 1, and moved through the Black Sea carrying Ukrainian corn, later passed inspection in Turkey. It was initially heading for Lebanon with 26,000 metric tons of corn for chicken feed. The corn’s buyer in Lebanon later refused to accept the cargo, since it was delivered much later than agreed.
The Razoni hasn’t had its tracker on for the last three days and it appeared off the east coast of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus at last transmission.
It was not clear if the Razoni had its tracker off because it was heading to a port in Syria, a strong ally of Russia that Ukraine had accused of importing grain stolen from Ukraine.
Syria is also under Western sanctions because of the 11-year conflict there that has killed hundreds of thousands. Syrian port officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Our task has been to reopen seaports for grain cargo and it has been done,” Ukraine’s embassy in Beirut said in a statement in English, adding that to date, 16 vessels have left Ukraine carrying more than 450,000 tons of agricultural products since a breakthrough agreement was brokered by Turkey and the United Nations with Russia and Ukraine.
The embassy said the Razoni was the first vessel that left Ukraine under the agreement and later successfully passed inspection in Istanbul before moving toward its destination.
“We don’t have any information about (the) position of the vessel and cargo destination,” it said. “We have also information that cargo has been resold a few times after that.”
The embassy said: “We are not responsible for (the) vessel and cargo, especially when it left Ukraine, moreover after vessel’s departure from foreign port.”
The Black Sea region is dubbed the world’s breadbasket, with Ukraine and Russia key global suppliers of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil that millions of impoverished people in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia rely on for survival.
An estimated 20 million tons of grain — most of it said to be destined for livestock — has been stuck in Ukraine since the start of the 6-month-old war.

One year since takeover, Taliban urge world to ‘improve relations’ with Afghanistan

Taliban fighters and supporters ride in a convoy to celebrate their victory day in Kandahar on August 15, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2022

One year since takeover, Taliban urge world to ‘improve relations’ with Afghanistan

  • Countries have refused to recognize the new government
  • Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in freefall since Taliban seized power

KABUL: Afghanistan’s acting Prime Minister Mohammed Hassan Akhund called on the international community to improve relations with the country on Monday as the Taliban marked the first anniversary of their return to power.

After the Taliban captured Kabul last August and US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning takeover marked the end of two decades of war that killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their soil.

The Taliban had declared Aug. 15 a national holiday just a day earlier, following a year that saw improved security but also increasing uncertainties about the country’s future.

With the new government still struggling to gain recognition from the international community a year later, the acting premier has urged for better relations.

“The world must improve its relations with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. We are not a threat to any country,” Akhund said in a statement.

“Other countries should also have positive political and economic engagement with Afghanistan.”

Under its new rulers, Afghanistan has been struggling to achieve growth and stability, as foreign governments’ refusal to recognize the Taliban has kept the country isolated.

The aid-dependent economy has been in freefall since the Taliban took over, with billions of dollars in foreign aid suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

On Monday, Taliban soldiers celebrated the anniversary with marches on the streets of Kabul as they carried their flags of the Islamic Emirate and played anthems.

“This is the day of the victory of right over wrong and the day of salvation and freedom of the Afghan nation,” Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

The country is safer compared to when the Taliban were fighting against US-led troops and their Afghan allies, even as a local offshoot of the Islamic State has carried out several attacks in the past year.

But the UN has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the country, where nearly 20 million people out of the 38 million population are facing acute hunger.

Forty-year-old Mohammed Ali, a shopkeeper at Kabul’s commercial area of Pul-e-Surkh, went about his daily business on Monday morning, despite the national holiday.

Amid increasing hardships, feeding his family is what matters most for Ali.

“We have to work every day to earn some income and feed our children. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, no one cares much about ordinary people,” Ali told Arab News.

“There are so many anniversaries. This is just another one. When we have enough food on our destarkhan, that’s the best celebration for us,” he said, referring to the meal-setting placement on the ground or floor that is commonplace across Afghanistan.  

The day prompted questions about the future for 21-year-old Shamsia Amini, whose dream of becoming a soccer player was shattered last year when the Taliban barred women from all sports.

“So many women’s aspirations were put on hold for an uncertain time. We don’t even know whether we will have a future under the Taliban,” she told Arab News.

Women’s rights have been curtailed in the past year, as women were ordered to wear face coverings in public, banned from making long-distance journeys alone and prevented from working in most sectors outside of health and education. Education has also been limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges was one of the key demands made by the international community.

“We should all, men and women, remember Aug. 15 as a dark day for Afghan women,” she added.

Qasim Haqmal, a Taliban soldier based in Kabul, told Arab News that the victory and freedom the group gained a year ago was what Afghans wanted.

“We are trying our best to serve the people the best way possible,” Haqmal said. “I ask people to have some patience.”


Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

Updated 15 August 2022

Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

  • The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region

AMSTERDAM: The Dutch court handling the murder trial of four suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 said on Monday it would hand down its verdict on Nov. 17.
Prosecutors say the one Ukrainian and three Russian defendants, who are all at large, helped supply a missile system that Russian-backed separatists used to fire a rocket at the plane on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board were killed.
The prosecution is seeking life terms for all suspects.
Lawyers for Oleg Pulatov, the only defendant who has chosen to participate in the proceedings through counsel, have argued that the trial was unfair and prosecutors did not properly examine alternative theories about the cause of the crash or the involvement of Pulatov.
The other suspects, named as Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, are being tried in absentia. Under Dutch law Pulatov, while he is also at large, is not considered to be tried in absentia because he is represented through lawyers he has instructed.
The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region by what international investigators say was a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. The eastern region has also become a key focus of Russia’s nearly six-month-old war in Ukraine.
Most of the victims on board MH17 were Dutch nationals. The Dutch government holds Russia responsible for the crash. Authorities in Moscow deny any involvement.
The MH17 case has seriously strained the Netherlands’ diplomatic relations with Moscow, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on Feb. 24.