Jakarta sets up task force to tackle hostage crisis

Counter-terrorism agency chief says it will gather and analyse information on Abu Sayyaf militants

Indonesia has set up a crack team of experts in counter-terrorism, intelligence and diplomacy to resolve the hostage crisis involving 10 of its citizens now being held by the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines.

The existence of the task force, said to have been established by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla recently, was revealed by newly promoted three-star general Tito Karnavian.

The general is the new head of the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme (BNPT), or national counter-terrorism agency, his former post as Jakarta police chief having been filled by Inspector General Moechgiyarto.

The task force comprises officials from the BNPT, the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the State Intelligence Agency and the Indonesian military and police, he said yesterday.

One of its key objectives is to analyse intelligence, including that gathered from domestic militants in prison, which may aid in the release of the hostages, General Tito had said previously.

"BNPT will help to unveil the Abu Sayyaf's network," he was quoted as saying by Metro TV news on Tuesday.

The BNPT is now gathering information from convicted Indonesian terrorists who have experience dealing with the Philippine militant group, he added. "The report will be submitted to the special team. After that we will discuss the measures, (but) we cannot reveal the details."

Abu Sayyaf militants abducted the 10 Indonesians at sea some time around March 29, and demanded more than US$1 million (S$1.4 million) for their release.

The armed forces believe the hostages are being held in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao in southern Philippines, where key elements of the Abu Sayyaf are based.

Efforts to recover the Indonesians have intensified since news broke at the weekend of heavy casualties suffered by the army during a fierce firefight with the Abu Sayyaf on Basilan island, 1,400km south of Manila.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said she remains in constant communication with her Philippine counterpart to resolve the hostage crisis.

Former Jemaah Islamiah terrorist Umar Patek, now serving a 20-year sentence in Porong Prison in East Java for his part in the 2002 Bali bombings, has offered to help.

Umar was once a cadre member of the Abu Sayyaf under its former spiritual leader Khadaffy Janjalani. He said he could tap his old ties with the group to negotiate the release of the Indonesians, but in exchange for a remission on his jail sentence.

While Gen Tito said Umar's offer was "one option", he is not certain if the militants holding the Indonesian hostages will know Umar, who was arrested in 2011. "He has not been (with the Abu Sayyaf) for so long, nearly five years," said Gen Tito. "So we are not sure if the network there now is the same as that when Umar Patek was with them."

Institute for International Peace Building director Taufik Andrie agreed but said "it was still worth a try".

Separately, the Abu Sayyaf has released a hijacked Malaysian tugboat it seized almost two weeks ago.

The MV Massive 6 and its crew of nine were taken hostage on April 1 while it was en route from Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia, to Samarinda in East Kalimantan. Three Indonesians and two Myanmar nationals were released earlier, but the Abu Sayyaf is still holding the four Malaysian crewmen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Jakarta sets up task force to tackle hostage crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe