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

1 / 2
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)
2 / 2
Baker Atyani is escorted by the police to the Jolo airport after his escape from Abu Sayyaf bandits. (Supplied)
Short Url
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.”


Migrant trafficking network in Europe smashed

Updated 07 July 2022

Migrant trafficking network in Europe smashed

LONDON: A 26-year-old Iranian-Kurdish people trafficker and 38 members of his gang were behind bars on Wednesday after police in five European countries smashed a major cross-border network that smuggled migrants into the UK.

The gang leader was arrested in Britain along with five other people smugglers. Germany arrested 18 gang members, French police nine and Dutch police six.
Police also seized more than 1,200 life-jackets, about 150 rubber boats and 50 engines, and tens of thousands of euros in cash, firearms and drugs.

The EU law enforcement agency Europol said the trafficking network could have smuggled as many as 10,000 illegal migrants to Britain over the past year and a half and netted as much as €15 million. Police officials said the gang was one of the most active criminal networks smuggling people from France and Belgium to Britain in small boats.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

“This is the most significant operation ever mounted against smuggling operations across the English Channel, especially with this phenomenon of small boats,” Europol deputy executive director Jean-Philippe Lecouffe said.
More than 28,500 people arrived in England illegally last year, mostly from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan, after making the dangerous cross-Channel journey in often flimsy and dangerous vessels.

“Given the number of boats we seized yesterday ... we can expect a fall in the number of crossings in the immediate future,” Matt Rivers of the UK National Crime Agency said.
The British government hopes to start sending some of the illegal migrants to Rwanda but that plan — widely criticised in the UK and internationally — is being held up by legal challenges.


Afghanistan more than doubles coal prices as exports to neighbouring Pakistan boom

Updated 06 July 2022

Afghanistan more than doubles coal prices as exports to neighbouring Pakistan boom

  • Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan
  • Sanctions and cut in development aid since Taliban rule last August have severely hampered economy

KABUL:  Afghanistan’s Taliban administration has more than doubled prices for coal, the finance ministry said on Wednesday, as the group seeks to raise revenue from coal exports and shrink its budget deficit after being cut off from international aid.
Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan. Sanctions on the banking sector and a cut in development aid since the Taliban took control last August have severely hampered its economy.
The Taliban administration last week lifted prices for coal to $200 per ton from $90 per ton, according to finance ministry spokesman Ahmad Wali Haqmal. Around 12,000 to 14,000 tons are exported, mostly to Pakistan, each day. Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities have said they want to move the country away from dependence on foreign aid.
With customs duties increased to 30 percent from 20 percent in May, Afghan authorities will receive $60 per ton, which Haqmal said was expected to make a significant dent in the country’s forecast 44 billion Afghani ($502.11 million) budget deficit this year.
The price hike came just after Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced plans last week to import coal from Afghanistan using local currency to save foreign reserves.
“(The timing) was coincidence. Any country would be irresponsible to suddenly lift the price without giving it consideration and study,” Haqmal said.
A Pakistani source said they had received indications weeks ago that the price was being reconsidered.
Pakistan mainly imported coal from South Africa. South African coal prices have been rising in recent weeks due to higher demand from Europe.
Haqmal declined to comment on the decision but had previously said that transactions were between private traders and all customs duties would be collected in Afghanis.
Haqmal added that a team of technical staff had spent weeks studying regional markets, the domestic situation and rising global coal prices in the wake of the war in Ukraine, and settled on the price.
It was calculated with the goal of ensuring Afghan traders could receive as much revenue as possible, while not sparking Pakistani traders to switch to other options, he said.
Authorities were also trying to smooth things over at border crossings — where hundreds of trucks pass each day — so that customs facilities would open 16 hours per day instead of around 12 currently, and to create space for more trucks.

Putin's aide warns US against pressing for war crimes court

Updated 06 July 2022

Putin's aide warns US against pressing for war crimes court

  • Dmitry Medvedev denounced the US for what he described as its efforts to “spread chaos and destruction across the world for the sake of 'true democracy'"
  • “That's why the rotten dogs of war are barking in such a disgusting way"

MOSCOW: A top Kremlin official warned the U.S. Wednesday that it could face the “wrath of God” if it pursues efforts to help establish an international tribunal to investigate Russia's action in Ukraine.
The Russian lower house speaker urged Washington to remember that Alaska used to belong to Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin, denounced the U.S. for what he described as its efforts to “spread chaos and destruction across the world for the sake of 'true democracy.'"
“The entire U.S. history since the times of subjugation of the native Indian population represents a series of bloody wars,” Medvedev charged in a long diatribe on his Telegram channel, pointing out the U.S. nuclear bombing of Japan during World War II and the war in Vietnam.
“Was anyone held responsible for those crimes? What tribunal condemned the sea of blood spilled by the U.S. there?”
Responding to the U.S.-backed calls for an international tribunal to prosecute the perceived war crimes by Russia in Ukraine, Medvedev rejected it as an attempt by the U.S. “to judge others while staying immune from any trial.”
“It won't work with Russia, they know it well,” Medvedev concluded. “That's why the rotten dogs of war are barking in such a disgusting way."
"The U.S. and its useless stooges should remember the words of the Bible: Do not judge and you will not be judged ... so that the great day of His wrath doesn't come to their home one day,” Medvedev said, referring to the Apocalypse.
He noted that the “idea to punish a country with the largest nuclear potential is absurd and potentially creates the threat to mankind's existence.”
The warning follows a series of tough statements from Putin and his officials that pointed at the Russian nuclear arsenals to warn the West against interfering with Moscow's action in Ukraine.
Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president in 2008-2012 when Putin shifted into the prime minister’s post due to term limits, was widely seen by the West as more liberal compared with his mentor. In recent months, however, he has remarks that have sounded much tougher than those issued by the most hawkish Kremlin officials.
In another blustery warning to the U.S., Vyacheslav Volodin, a longtime Putin aide who serves as the speaker of the lower house of parliament, warned Wednesday that Washington should remember that Alaska was part of Russia when it freezes Russian assets. Russia colonized Alaska and established several settlements there until the U.S. purchased it from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million.
“When they attempt to appropriate our assets abroad, they should be aware that we also have something to claim back,” Volodin said during a meeting with lawmakers.

Germany eases path to permanent residency for migrants

Updated 06 July 2022

Germany eases path to permanent residency for migrants

  • The new regulation applies to about 136,000 people who have lived in Germany for at least five years
  • Those who qualify can first apply for a one-year residency status and subsequently apply for permanent residency

BERLIN: Tens of thousands of migrants, who have been living in Germany for years without long-lasting permission to remain in the country, will be eligible for permanent residency after the government approved a new migration bill Wednesday.
The new regulation, endorsed by the Cabinet, applies to about 136,000 people who have lived in Germany for at least five years by Jan. 1, 2022.
Those who qualify can first apply for a one-year residency status and subsequently apply for permanent residency in Germany.
They must earn enough money to make an independent living in the country, speak German and prove that they are “well integrated” into society.
Those under the age of 27 can already apply for a path to permanent residency in Germany after having lived in the country for three years.
“We want people who are well integrated to have good opportunities in our country," Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told reporters. “In this way, we also put an end to bureaucracy and uncertainty for people who have already become part of our society.”
The new migration regulation will also make it easier for asylum-seekers to learn German — so far only those with a realistic chance of receiving asylum in the country were eligible for language classes — with all asylum applicants getting the chance to enroll in classes.
For skilled laborers, such as information technology specialists and others that hold professions that are desperately needed in Germany, the new regulation will allow that they can move to Germany together with their families right away, which wasn’t possible before. Family members don't need to have any language skills before moving to the country.
“We need to attract skilled workers more quickly. We urgently need them in many sectors,” Faeser said. “We want skilled workers to come to Germany very quickly and gain a foothold here.”
The bill will also make it easier to deport criminals, includes extending detention pending deportation for certain offenders from three months to a maximum of six months. The extension is intended to give authorities more time to prepare for deportation, such as clarifying identity, obtaining missing papers and organizing a seat on an airplane, German news agency dpa reported.
“In the future, it will be easier to revoke the right of residence of criminals,” Faeser said. "For offenders, we will make it easier to order detention pending deportation, thus preventing offenders who are obliged to leave the country from going into hiding before being deported.”


In Pyrenees, Spain police hunt French double murder suspect

Updated 06 July 2022

In Pyrenees, Spain police hunt French double murder suspect

  • The pair were shot dead on Monday afternoon in a village near the town of Tarbes
  • Since then police had been carrying out "a full search" of the area around Jaca

MADRID: Spanish police were hunting the central Pyrenees on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing two teachers in a French village across the border, a spokeswoman said.
The pair were shot dead on Monday afternoon in a village near the town of Tarbes, where they both worked, with the suspected gunman fleeing on a motorcycle, a source close to the French inquiry told AFP.
His motorcycle was found abandoned on the Spanish side of the border in the northeastern Aragon region, prompting Spanish police to pick up the search on Tuesday, a source close to the inquiry told AFP.
Since then police had been carrying out “a full search” of the area around Jaca, a town that lies about 200 kilometers (124 miles) southwest of Tarbes, a police spokeswoman told AFP.
The search continued through the night and “is ongoing,” she said, without giving further details.
Neither French nor Spanish police gave any details about the suspect’s identity.
The teachers were shot dead in Pouyastruc village on Monday, prosecutors said.
The first victim, a 32-year-old woman, was found lying in the street by neighbors, while other, a man of 55, was found dead in his home, just meters away, the prosecutor said.
The suspect, who is in his 30s, was the woman’s former partner, a source close to the inquiry said.
They had two children together and were in the process of separating, suggesting the murders may have been a crime of passion.
The woman, identified as Aurelie Pardon, taught French at the school in Tarbes while the man, Gabriel Fourmigue, was a sports teacher at the same establishment who was known for representing France in bobsleigh at international level in the early 1990s.