Ghastly Countdown Begins for Western Hostages

PHOTO: Canadian Robert Hall, left, and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, right, are shown in a video released by the Philippine-based extremist group Abu Sayyaf, May 3, 2016.SITE Intelligence Group
Canadian Robert Hall, left, and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad, right, are shown in a video released by the Philippine-based extremist group Abu Sayyaf, May 3, 2016.

In one month a Western hostage will be killed by an extremist Islamic group in the Philippines unless a hefty ransom is paid – a horrific ultimatum that is testing the mettle of the leaders of three countries who have already seen the group murder another hostage.

The countdown was announced in a video over the weekend by two surviving hostages held by Abu Sayyaf, a U.S.-designated terrorist group with historic ties to al Qaeda and more recent links to ISIS. In the video, Canadian Robert Hall and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad sit in front of eight armed and masked fighters and say that if the group is not paid 600 million Filipino pesos, about $12.9 million U.S., one of them will be killed.

“My name is Robert Hall. I am told to tell you that on June 13 at 3 p.m., I will be murdered if the demands are not met,” Hall says in the video, looking down and reading slowly from a script. “I appeal to my government and the Philippine government, as I have appealed before, for help.”

Despite the indication that Hall will be the one killed, elsewhere in the video Sekkingstad says “we will be executed” if the deadline passes and text on the video only says “another foreign hostage” will be the victim of beheading. The group is also holding hostage a woman from the Philippines, Marites Flor, but she was not shown in the new video.

The recent video comes less than two weeks after the group released graphic footage of the beheading of another Canadian hostage, John Ridsdel. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist publications, a description that accompanied that video said he was killed “due to non-compliance by the Canadian government.”

The dire situation -- one to which top officials in the U.S. are unfortunately accustomed -- has prompted strong condemnation from leaders in Canada and Norway and fiery threats from the new president-elect of the Philippines.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Ridsdel’s death to the nation on April 25, saying, “These criminals, these terrorists, will be brought to justice.”

“I do, however, want to make one thing perfectly, crystal clear: Canada does not and will not pay ransom to terrorists, directly or indirectly,” Trudeau said then.

Norway strongly condemned Ridsdel’s death at the time, and today the Philippine’s controversial president-elect Rodrigo Duterte told reporters he will launch a major military offensive to destroy Abu Sayyaf, even at the expense of some human rights, according to The Associated Press.

J.M. Berger, a researcher on extremism and author of a recent book about ISIS, said that Abu Sayyaf is best described as a “criminal and kidnapping group with an Islamic flair.” The group has maintained ties with al Qaeda for decades, but some factions have recently pledged their allegiance to ISIS, al Qaeda’s most high-profile jihadist rival.

Berger said that some of the younger members may be genuine ISIS supporters, but the affiliation with that terror group, which made high-profile productions out of the murder of Western hostages in Syria in 2014, is also advantageous for “making sure people know they’re serious about killing hostages so they will cough up bigger ransoms.”

Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asia terrorism at the National War College, said he thought one faction’s pledge to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was mostly a “publicity stunt.”

“You never see the ISIS flags come out for anyone but Western hostages,” Abuza said. “They also hold them longer.”

Fifteen years ago this month Abu Sayyaf captured three American citizens along with 17 Philippine nationals from a tourist resort. One American was murdered by the group, and another was killed in a rescue operation by the Philippine military more than a year later.

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