Malaysian authorities confirmed Friday that a leader of Abu Sayyaf's kidnapping activities, Abraham Ibrahim, was among the three pirates killed in a firefight with police on December 8. "We found that Abraham was involved in a number of kidnapping cases after further investigation into the matter,” said Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun in a press conference in Kota Kinabalu.
Malaysian authorities say they are preparing for an uptick in Abu Sayyaf violence after the skirmish. The Eastern Sabah Security Command has stepped up its outreach to local fishermen, as they are among the most vulnerable to Abu Sayyaf's piracy and have been targeted in the past. Brigadier General Rahim Mohamad told local trawler owners on Friday that they need to fit their vessels with AIS systems and VHF radios so that the authorities can help them in the event of an attack. “Many are still unaware of the importance of the AIS and radio for their safety,” he said.
Abu Sayyaf has engaged in a string of maritime kidnapping attacks over the past year, seizing dozens of seafarers for ransom. Its piracy activities have been concentrated off the east coast of Malaysia's Sabah province, in a strait between the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Slow-moving coastal vessels like tugs and trawlers have made up the majority of its targets, but it has also launched attacks on merchant ships.
Maritime piracy has proven to be a lucrative means of raising funds for Abu Sayyaf. Analysts estimate that it has brought in at least $7 million in ransom payments this year, and on Friday, the group issued a demand for $2 million more in exchange for the release of five Malaysian seafarers. The men were crewmembers of the tugboat Serudung 3, which was attacked on July 19 near Lahad Datu, Sabah.
The Malaysian seafarers are being held on the island of Sulu, the Philippines, where the Philippine military is conducting an intensive campaign to find and eliminate bands of Abu Sayyaf militants. A Philippine Army spokesman told the Philippine Star that the group is thought to be holding 18 additional hostages – two Europeans, four Indonesians, six Vietnamese, one Korean national and five locals.