Two women, 29-year old Chinese tourist Gao Huayun and 40-year old Filipino hotel staffer Marcy Dayawan, were kidnapped by gunmen from a diving resort in eastern Borneo, Malaysia on Wednesday night.
The raid was similar to the one that claimed the life of Hsu Li-min, a Taiwanese tourist, in the same district of Malaysia's Sabah state in November last year. His wife Evelyn Chang An-wei, was taken as hostage by the gunmen and released in December in an operation that remains shrouded in secrecy to this day.
Gene Yu, a former US special forces officer and a nephew of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, who assisted in the release of the hostage, shared his views on the current hostage drama with the South China Morning Post.
What do you think has happened to Ms Gao after she was kidnapped on Wednesday?
My guess is that they are following the same model as when Evelyn [Chang] was kidnapped. They probably outsourced mercenaries along with a couple of Abu Sayyaf operatives to conduct the kidnapping and now they are selling her from subgroup to subgroup back to their strongholds at Jolo and Basilan island area.
Abu Sayyaf is a cellular organisation. She is probably being transported or sold from "outer groups" toward the "inner" or higher-ranking groups until she reaches one that is willing to undertake the risk of sustaining her, and negotiating for a ransom.
In Evelyn Chang's case, she was held by men anywhere from age 20 to 40 and in a village, surrounded by their wives, and children. The Abu Sayyaf paid quite a bit to the villagers to keep them quiet that Evelyn was there. The villagers view the Abu Sayyaf like Robin Hood, they rob from the rich foreigners, give back to the poor.
But there are other subgroups, who are deep in the jungle, in camps.
It varies on who will end up claiming Ms Gao and be willing to hold onto her and invest on her for ransom or just human shield. I think right now, it could be dicey as the Abu Sayyaf are on their heels from that raid in Feburary. They may be more interested in human shield than ransom - but I can't say for certain.
How long do you think will it take until a ransom claim is claim is made?
I can only guess as each case is different. But, she will probably reach her captor group in 1-2 weeks.
It depends if she remembers a phone number to reach her family or anybody. If she doesn’t, the process will take longer because the family has to figure out a way to get into contact. This is difficult because the Abu Sayyaf won't speak to an intermediary unless they are a trusted local from the Sulu area and of course -- this intermediary is probably somebody the family can't trust.
Do you think the attack was a premeditated attack to gain a hostage?
Abu Sayyaf are always in the business of capturing foreign hostages for two reasons:
Firstly, they need cash-flow - they have no business or other income to support their terrorist activity. Secondly, they need “human shields", or protection against raids from the Philipppine security forces.
The Filipinos conveniently decreed that no foreigner may be wounded or killed as collateral damage during military operations - not a single one - so the Abu Sayyaf are happy to keep foreign hostages as well for long periods of time to prevent raids from Filipino military/police.
This is why there are foreign hostages who have been with the Abu Sayyaf for years, some have been there for 5 years.
Do they usually target a specific type of person when kidnapping for ransom?
Foreigners are biggest bang for the buck. I don't think they purposely targeted this lady, as they didn't with Evelyn Chang. Much smaller ransoms are paid out for locals. Again, just all great collateral to have in their camp to prevent military forces from attacking.
How much ransom is typically asked for a person?
I'm sure it varies as the Abu Sayyaf will ask however much they can get.
Can you tell us now how much was paid in Mrs Chang's case?
No - nor do I confirm that a ransom was paid.
What advice would you give to her family?
I would advise them to try and stay out of the media to help try to downplay the event as much as possible - the more attention the media gives, the higher value the Abu Sayyaf will think she is.
Taiwan's media was a circus, making 5-6 degree links from Evelyn Chang to the First Lady. Abu Sayyaf believed that she was Taiwan royalty at one point.
I'd advise them to try and keep control of the media spinning the story too far sideways. They are embarking on a very stressful and emotional time period right now. I don't wish to trade shoes.
What do you think Beijing has to do to achieve Ms Gao’s rescue?
I think that Beijing needs to make a special request to the Philippine President to assign the best security unit they have to lead the case. If the Philippine government puts a priority on this case, they will probably assign either a police or military special operations unit. That's probably the best chance they have.
What role can Malaysian security forces play?
Officially, none. It's in Philippine jurisdiction, and the Filipinos are highly sensitive to foreign security forces in their territory. That's not to say that Malaysia won't try to send their operatives in again to "solve" the problem like they did in the Evelyn Chang case. The Chinese and Malays will be relegated as liaisons to the Philippines security unit assigned as lead to the case.
Is paying ransom Ms Gao’s best chance for freedom?
I mentioned earlier that the Abu Sayyaf hold hostages for two reasons. Ransom is a fickle thing - if you pay it, it could just be taken as a down payment for further exploitation. It's difficult because it's not a normal business negotiation. Defaulting is highly likely. There's no credit. And it's a one-time deal. Ransom isn't always the best option.