Tug Found Without Crew in Abu Sayyaf Waters

The tug as it was found (courtesy Polis Diraja Malaysia)

Published Jul 18, 2016 9:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday afternoon, fishermen spotted a tugboat with its engine running but no crew on board off of Sabah, Malaysia – waters made notorious by a string of kidnappings by terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf.

The tug was reportedly engaged in towing a load of sand from Semporna to Sandakan, a coastwise trip around a peninsula. They were due to arrive Monday morning. To date, most attempts to combat Abu Sayyaf hijackings have focused on commercial tug voyages bound for the Philippines, which must pass through waters near the terrorist group's island strongholds in Tawi-Tawi province. The tug's route would have taken it within 20 nm of the westernmost extent of that island chain. 

The commissioner of Sabah's police forces, Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun, told local media that no information about the men's whereabouts or the cause of their disappearance was available at present and that an investigation was ongoing. The police have not had any contact with the missing crewmembers, and they did not suggest that any request for ransom had yet been received. 

The tug has been taken to Lahad Datu for an investigation. Reports indicate that items were strewn about on deck.

While it is not clear that an act of piracy was responsible for the disappearance, Abu Sayyaf has boarded tugs and kidnapped crewmembers on multiple occasions already this year, generally releasing them after negotiations and ransom payments. Ransoms are officially denied but widely reported, and estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per crewmember. The governments of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia are working on joint maritime patrols to combat the menace, and the Philippine military has threatened Abu Sayyaf with a shoreside campaign of "shock and awe." 

Prof. Zachary Abuza of the National Defense University’s National War College believes that there are limits to what coordination between the three affected nations can do. “The weak link remains the limited capabilities of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement authorities,” he wrote in a recent essay. “What little the Philippines actually has is primarily focused on their maritime claims in the South China Sea.”