A day after the German national Jürgen Kantner was beheaded by the Philippines terror group Abu Sayyaf, WION’s senior international correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji spoke to Andreas Lorenz, a former colleague of hers at a prominent German magazine. Lorenz had been abducted by the Abu Sayyaf in 2000 and threatened with dismemberment if his ransom was not paid. He spent 27 frightening days in capitivity in the jungles of Jolo in the Philippines before finally being freed.
Q. Andreas, you were abducted by what you then called a splinter group of Abu Sayyaf in 2000. Take me through what happened?
A. There were quite a lot of journalists on Jolo island because kidnappings had been going on. I think there were 10-11 hostages taken by Abu Sayyaf and two of them were a German couple, they were teachers from Goettingen. So the public was naturally very interested in their fate. And the interesting thing was that the Abu Sayyaf allowed journalists to talk to not only the kidnappers but also the hostages. Some journalists were even able to visit to the camp where the hostages were taken and held. So I also sent twice to the Philippines. At that time I was based in Beijing, but had experience of the Philippines because I reported quite often on that country. The second time I was there and was about to leave the island, I was approached by a young man whom I knew of as the assistant of one of the negotiators. There were a lot of negotiators around – from the government, from Muslim communities etc. This was the assistant of a very well-known Muslim preacher and teacher. He approached me and asked me to carry a letter from one of the German hostages Mrs Wallert to the German authorities and I agreed. That’s how I walked straight into the trap set by Abu Sayyaf – they then took me hostage.
What could be have been their motive to abduct a journalist?
I think the only motive for abducting journalists or anyone was to get ransom money. To negotiate as much money as possible out of people who would like the hostages to be freed.
I don’t think waging a war or shelling or bombing them is the right way. If you look back over the last fifteen years, that didn’t help. Even American troops were helping the Philippine army to fight Abu Sayyaf and what do we have? Basically the same situation as before. The only thing that might work and it’s a long process is development aid
It was a total of 27 days I think so I was lucky that it didn’t take too long and that my fate was not so horrible as other that of other hostages. It is exaggerated to call it that but it was a camp, somewhere very remote on the island of Jolo in the jungle. We had no tents, nothing. We slept under the skies. For breakfast in the morning, they gave me some horrible things I could hardly digest. Then I had the opportunity to read and even exercise, even to talk to my hostage-takers. Then a short lunch mostly noodles. In the evening they gave me some bread and the day was over. I tried to exercise, tried to talk to the people, to show them and to demonstrate to them that I was not very impressed by them and their threats. That was the average day.
Were you every beaten or threatened with physical violence?
No. I was lucky. I don’t know why, but they never threatened or hit me or brought me into an unpleasant situation. In fact, some of them at least were even rather polite. The only threat was that they would cut off my arm if their ransom demand is not met.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf was affiliated to the Al Qaeda. In later years, it became closer to the IS. What may have caused this change in affiliation?
Actually, I don’t know. I found them to be rather an informal, loose gang of young guys with some older ones, fighters for the Mindanao independence among them. I must say that they were not very political. Of course they always argued politically - talking of a caliphate , a sultanate they wanted to create, that the Christian Philippine government was not treating them well. Their dream was their own state. But on the other hand, they were always talking about money. They were more like bandits, pirates than politically-motivated fighters.
Abu Sayyaf usually releases hostages if its ransom demands are met. In the latest case of the German hostage who was beheaded, obviously none was paid. Was the Philippine government wrong in chasing down the group, rather than negotiating the hostage’s release?
I think they (Manila) did both. But you are right. It was overall a more radical approach and the new President of the Philippines seems to have only one solution: to fight them, to bomb them. He even said “I will eat you alive”. So to shell them with artillery over the last few days was not very helpful in negotiating a deal.
But what should President Duterte do to neutralise Abu Sayyaf?
That is the big question. But I don’t think waging a war or shelling or bombing them is the right way. If you look back over the last fifteen years, that didn’t help. Even American troops were helping the Philippine army to fight Abu Sayyaf and what do we have? Basically the same situation as before. The only thing that might work and it’s a long process is development aid. You have to try develop these rather poor areas. You have to pour money into it, into schools, hospitals, roads, harbours. That is the only way. Because if you look at this guys, they are all very, very young men. They are jobless. They have no chance to study. They have probably been to school only for a couple of years. They have no opportunity to prosper in their lives. So they see Abu Sayyaf as the only means, the only method to at least get some money. If you cut off this choice, if you can at least give them a chance to lead normal lives in a normal situation, I am fully convinced that is the only way to neutralize Abu Sayyaf.
But Andreas, many young people from relatively well-to-do families have joined Al Qaeda, IS. So it doesn’t seem to be about poverty alone. Ideology plays a role too…
Both go hand in hand in think. It was quite long ago but the way I experienced it: yes, they were from relatively well-off families, but that expression well-off is not what we understand of it. They were rather poor. The other problem in the area under question is that there are very close family ties there. There are clans. So if there’s a very radical Abu Sayyaf fighter in a family, say your uncle or father, then young people are obliged to follow them, do what they want. And it is these lines that the Philippine government should somehow find a method, a solution to cut off.
How has it been possible that a small band of just about 500 fighters has managed to hold sway, indulge in piracy and abduct and kill for the past 26 years, given that it faces powerful armies – in the Philippines, Malaysia, all over the region?
Yes, it is like that. Even the Americans with their satellites and highly sophisticated methods of fighting a war were not able to win this war. And I don’t think Duterte is right in saying “I will eat you alive, I’ll bomb you, fight you.” The past has shown that this is impossible. In addition, this terrain is difficult, it is difficult to fight a war there or even find these rebels because they are very, very familiarized with the area. And because they have a lot of money from ransom, Because they have a lot of ransom money they have boats with very powerful engines. They can move around very easily in these seas. So what can you do? Do you want to send 1000s of more troops or warships? You can’t do that, you will never win. I say you can only win this war if you give them some hope, some chances for a better future. So that these young people will start to ask themselves, why am I doing this? Running around, living a life in the jungle, all in the hope of getting some money from ransom to kill people. You have to bring them to schools, universities. Open them up to good professions. That is the only way to win.
Does South East Asia hold special interest for IS? After all, there are many rich Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Brunei here…
Yes, I think so. They have interest to find a foothold there, to hide there. And Abu Sayyaf was always helping IS and Al Quaida fighters to hide. At least the architect of the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center, Ramzi Yusef, was a guest of Abu Sayyaf. The Bali bomber too had close connection to these guys.
Were you frightened during your captivity?
The fear was there. I well remember that especially the nights were quite frightening. Because when darkness fell on this small camp, my kidnappers were visited by a lot of people whom I could not identify because I couldn’t speak the language. But I always had the impression that they were discussing my fate. And that the mood could swing from one second to the other. So if there had been more radicals among these people arguing that it may be better to kill me, they would have done it. Later, it was confirmed to me that there had, indeed, been this discussion. Later and even after my magazine had paid my ransom and they released me, I was afraid that another group could still stop the whole process or, that I would be sold to another group now. That was quite frightening.
What are the basic precautions you would advise investigative journalists and their employers to take when they try to meet undergroup groups?
It may sound quite peculiar for a journalist but in the case of Abu Sayyaf, I would say – don’t go. Don’t maintain any contacts because these people are very dangerous and you can’t trust anyone there. That is true also for the kind of people who were taken hostage in the last couple of years. They were not journalists but tourists, priests and others. My advice is: don’t go to the southern Philippines. Not to sail, not to dive, not to swim, not to preach. This is a very dangerous area now.
But what about their employers ? Media concerns in fierce competition with each other?
I think it should be the decision only of the journalists themselves. This is not peculiar to Abu Sayyaf and southern Philippines but true of every conflict area in the world. Editors should never pressure journalists to go to an area he is reluctant to visit or meet a person he doesn’t want to meet. He should have the benefit of the decision and be able to say: 'Don’t do this story, it’s too dangerous for me.'