Canadian hostages threatened with beheading in Philippines if ransom isn’t paid

[Reuters/Handout]

By Terri Coles

The significantly lower ransom demanded in the latest video of Canadian hostages held in the Philippines could indicate that their captors are willing to negotiate, says an expert on security and political issues in Southeast Asia.

“From what I saw and read on Friday it really looks like they’re looking to cut a deal,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, D.C., tells Yahoo Canada News.

The new video, released on social media on Friday, shows Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel with machetes held to their necks. It has since been removed from sites such as YouTube.

In the video, the Abu Sayyaf captors demand a ransom of 300 million pesos (about C$8.3 million) for each man, setting a deadline of April 25. That demand was down significantly from their earlier ransom of 1 billion pesos for each Canadian.

“What they originally asked for the two Canadians and the Norwegian was stratospheric,” Abuza says. His research indicates that usual ransoms for Abu Sayyaf are US$10,000 for Filipino hostages, $100,000 for Malaysian hostages and $1 million for Western hostages. 

The latest video was released a week after the April 8 deadline set by a previously released recording.

“They obviously had this big deadline, no one met it, and they came back and lowered the random dramatically and gave one more week,” says Abuza of the captors. “I think they’re kind of desperate to get some kind of remuneration or ransom for these individuals.”

The two Canadians, along with a Filipino woman and a Norwegian man also seen in the video, were abducted from a resort on Samal island on Sept. 21, 2015. It’s believed they are now being held in the jungle on Jolo island.

“My specific appeal is to the Canadian government, who, I know, have the capacity to get us out of here. I’m wondering what they’re waiting for,” Hall says to the camera, according to reports from several media outlets who viewed the video.

“This is already an ultimatum,” a masked captor says in the video. “We will certainly behead one of these four.”

The kidnappers are associated with the group Abu Sayyaf, which was identified as a terrorist group by Public Safety Canada in 2003 and is linked with ISIS. Their leader Sheik Mujahid Abu Abdullah al-Filipini has been appointed the head of ISIS in the Philippines. The group is believed responsible for past kidnappings, bombings and beheadings.

Militants associated with the group are holding additional hostages from the Netherlands, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Philippines government is currently engaging with other Abu Sayyaf-associated militants on the nearby island of Basilan, where 18 soldiers were recently killed in an ambush.

It’s important to remember, however, that Abu Sayyaf is not a single entity but a collection of groups lacking a unifying structure or central command, Abuza says.

“Some parts of it are more violent than others,” Abuza says of Abu Sayyaf. “It is just not a single centrally commanded entity.”

Some groups associated with Abu Sayyaf do catch and release, Abuza says: kidnapping, then releasing the captives when a ransom demand is met. He pointed to the 2014 release of two German tourists despite threats of beheading one. 

Based on their use of the ISIS flag in some videos, the group holding the two Canadians appears to have aligned itself with the well-known militant group, Abuza says. But that doesn’t mean its allegiance is ideological, he says.

Regardless of its motivations for using ISIS imagery, Abuza says that the increasing sophistication of its releases — using videos of the hostages instead of just still photos, for example — indicates that it is learning from its example.

In both statements and the House of Commons, the Trudeau government has declined to provide details of its efforts to free Hall and Ridsdel.

“The Government of Canada is aware of the video that has been released,” Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Rachna Mishra tells Yahoo Canada News in an email. “The Government of Canada will not comment or release any information which may compromise ongoing efforts or endanger the safety of Canadian citizens.”

But based on what he has seen from the release of the four videos so far, Abuza says there is reason to be concerned for their welfare.

“They look incredibly weak,” Abuza says. “Every time they appear, they are clearly under incredible physical and emotional duress and I do worry about their safety.”