SULU - The hinterland of Jolo island is a terrorist stronghold which even the marines cannot penetrate, according to a source from the Philippines National Police (PNP) anti-kidnapping group.
"Civilians will text the Abu Sayyaf if they spot the marines. Some troops end up being killed in an ambush.
"Sabah is a soft target. It is near Tawi-Tawi islands and there are many vulnerable resorts in Semporna," said the PNP anti-kidnapping group source.
According to Father Romeo P. Villanueva, who heads a human rights NGO called Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation, Semporna is a target for the Sulu kidnappers because of its proximity to Jolo island.
"They can easily cross the border," said Father Romeo, who is a Catholic priest based in Jolo town. "They know that Malaysia is not secure."
Jolo island was also lawless, said Father Romeo. "If the security forces neutralise them in Sulu, they would not be able to do cross-border kidnapping," he said.
Kidnapping, the priest noted, had become a cottage industry in poverty-stricken Sulu, which is the poorest province in The Philippines.
An Armed Forces of The Philippines intelligence officer described kidnapping as a big business.
"After the Sipadan hostages were released, it rained dollars in Sulu. That was how big the ransom was," said the CEO of Assist Jolo, Octavio A. Dinampo, who lives in Jolo island.
Some Sulu politicians, Dinampo alleged, also sponsored kidnapping operations.
"Each time they lose in an election, they regain campaign expenses by organising kidnappings," he said. "Some politicians organise kidnappings in Jolo island to make their winning rival look bad."
Whenever there was a kidnapping in Semporna, Sulu province would get a bad name as the media would report that the hostage was held in Jolo island, noted Sulu provincial police director Orbita.
"Sometimes, it is true but not all the time," he said. "Sometimes the hostage is kept somewhere else and when the ransom negotiation is complete, they will release the victim in Jolo island."
Orbita said there were islands outside Sulu province that were ideal for holding hostages.