Arab News journalist recalls hostage ordeal as Philippines arrests suspected kidnapping mastermind

Journalist Baker Atyani boards a plane in Jolo island on Dec. 6, 2013, after fleeing kidnappers who held him captive for 18 months. Inset: Atyani’s suspected captor Nasirin Baladji, center, after his arrest. (AFP, PNP-AKG)
Updated 27 September 2019

Arab News journalist recalls hostage ordeal as Philippines arrests suspected kidnapping mastermind

  • Baker Atyani was working on Al Arabiya documentary when he was kidnapped on June 12, 2012
  • “When I heard of his arrest, all the horrors of that time flashed through my mind,” Atyani said

JEDDAH: One of the alleged masterminds behind the 2012 kidnapping of veteran journalist Baker Atyani is in custody following his capture inthe Philippines.

Col. Jonnel Estomo, director of the Philippine National Police-Anti Kidnapping Group (AKG), named the suspect as Nasirin Baladji, alias Zaed, a high-ranking member of the militant Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Baladji, who was on the AKG Mindanao most-wanted list, was seized at his house in Zamboanga Sibugay province during a joint military and police operation on Wednesday night. An official announcement was made on Thursday.

Estomo said the suspect’s arrest followed a six-month surveillance operation.

Baker Atyani in a recent photo. 

Baladji’s arrest came as a relief to Atyani, who saw 18 months of his life snatched away after he was kidnapped by militants on June 12, 2012, while working on a documentary for Al Arabiya News Channel on Muslims in the southern Philippines.

Atyani, now Arab News Asia Bureau chief, was in Dubai on Thursday when Philippine police phoned to inform him of Baladji’s capture.

The veteran journalist told Arab News that he never met Baladji, but knew from police that he was “one of the key guys behind my abduction.”

Baladji was one of the high-ranking men in the Abu Sayyaf Group.

“When I went to the Philippines in June 2012, I was working on a documentary about Muslims in the southern Philippines, their problems, and the possible signing of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),” Atyani said.

“Abu Sayyaf Group opposed MILF. The documentary was to include the views of all groups. And so Abu Sayyaf and some members were supposed to be part of the documentary and talk about their views of the situation.

“Back then, the MILF was about to sign an understanding with the government for what became known as the Bangsomoro Peace Agreement.”

He said that a Filipino journalist in Manila at the time had arranged the meeting with an ASG commander.

I spent 18 months in captivity, in the heart of the Sulu jungle, living among ignorant people, to say the least.

“The whole arrangement for the interview was actually setting a trap for my kidnapping.”

Atyani said he has no knowledge what happened to the journalist who claimed that he had arranged the interview.

“I registered an official complaint against him, but  to my knowledge no action has so far been taken against him. I have told police to investigate because I believe he has a connection to the group that has kidnapped me

“He is in the Philippines, and everyone knows where he is.”

Atyani said: “With his arrest, I feel that justice would be meted out to the man who stole a year and a half of my life. The Philippine police confirmed that he was the one who delivered me to the kidnappers in the jungle.”  

A photo distributed by a US-based intelligence group in September, 2014, appeared to show Abu Sayyaf militants holding hostages at an undisclosed location

“When I heard of his arrest, all the horrors of that time flashed through my mind. It was a terrible time.”

Atyani told Arab News that he believes justice is being done with the arrest.

“The criminal has received what he deserves. My main captor, Kasman Sawadjaan, died three days before I regained my freedom. Then I saw Abu Rami, their spokesman, had been killed along with others.

“They got what they deserved. I want this man to be punished for what he did. This guy was a part of the group holding me. This is what the police told me this morning. The case against him is watertight. He was responsible not only for my kidnapping but for two others as well, including an Italian national.”

After being held for 18 months, Atyani managed to escape his jungle prison on Dec. 4, 2013, with the help of outsiders and Al Arabiya News Channel.

“I was lucky to get my freedom back,” he said.

Atyani said he still dreads visiting the southern Philippines. “I have visited the Philippines five times since then. There is always fear at the back of my mind, which is why I try never to leave Manila when I am in the Philippines.”

Writing about his kidnapping ordeal in this newspaper in 2017, Atyani recalled how he was taken hostage.

“It was about 5.30 a.m. when my cameraman, Ramil, knocked on the door of my room. ‘We have to go now,’ he said. ‘Romeo has arrived and is waiting outside the hostel.’ I was already up and preparing for the meeting with one of the ASG leaders on Sulu island. Romeo was the guide and driver set to take me and my team into the jungle to meet this leader.

“The plan was to return within three hours to Jolo, the island’s main city. I had promised Jolo’s mayor I would attend the Philippine Independence Day ceremony. This was on June 12, 2012.

“My Filipino coordinator said that he was tied up with work in Manila, but had arranged all the interviews and made all the arrangements for my visit to Zamboanga City and Sulu island, including the interview with the ASG leader. He kept saying: ‘My brother, you will be in good hands.’

An aerial photo of Jolo, in Mindanao’s Sulu province, where journalist Baker Atyani was found in 2013. (AFP)

“The night before I was kidnapped, he sent me a text saying the same thing. Something inside me warned me of a lurking threat, but I ignored the feeling. My coordinator arranged our accommodation at Sulu Students Hostel and insisted that I refuse to stay with the governor of the island or with the mayor of Jolo. ‘They should not know about our plans to meet with the ASG leader,’ he said.

“As Romeo drove toward the jungle, I had a feeling I would not return soon. The car crashed three times during the journey; the third time, Romeo left the car on the road and told us to continue on foot. This added to my feeling that something was not right; you cannot just leave the car on the road and continue with your journey unless it is serious.

“The journalist in me ignored every sign of threat. ‘You should do this scoop, meet the ASG leader in the jungle, and get a first-hand account of the conflict in Mindanao,’ I thought to myself. I had interviewed all the other parties involved in the conflict of Mindanao by then.

“We were deep inside the Patikol area, the ASG stronghold. Armed men from every side of the jungle appeared with guns and munitions. Abu Rami, an ASG leader who was later ambushed and killed by the Philippine army, gave money to Romeo, who left us with our kidnappers.

“I spent 18 months in captivity, in the heart of the Sulu jungle, living among ignorant people, to say the least.

“When Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, appealed to my kidnappers to release me, they had hardly heard of Jerusalem. One of them asked me about it, to which I said: ‘Have you heard about Al-Aqsa Mosque?’ He said: ‘Yes, is that in Spain?’”

Citing jobs, Trump claims victory over virus, economic collapse

Updated 06 June 2020

Citing jobs, Trump claims victory over virus, economic collapse

  • US tops COVID-19 mortality rally with 108,000 people confirmed dead
  • Trump says more than 1 million Americans would have died had he not acted

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump effectively claimed victory over the economic crisis and COVID-19 on Friday as well as major progress against racial inequality, heartily embracing a better-than-expected jobs report in hopes of convincing a discouraged nation he deserves another four years in office.
In lengthy White House remarks amid sweeping social unrest, a still-rising virus death toll and Depression-level unemployment, the Republican president focused on what he said was improvement in all areas.
He was quick to seize the positive jobs report at a time when his political standing is at one of the weakest points of his presidency less than five months before the general election. Just 2 in 10 voters believe the country is headed in the right direction, a Monmouth University poll found earlier in the week.
The president also addressed the protests, which have calmed in recent days, that followed the death of George Floyd, the black man who died last week when a white police officer knelt for minutes on his neck.
Claiming improvements everywhere, Trump said, “Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. ... This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”
Trump condemned “what happened last week,” said no other president has done as much for black Americans, and declared that an economic rebound was “the greatest thing that can happen for race relations.”
Putting words in the dead man’s mouth drew quick criticism, including from likely presidential foe Joe Biden, who said it was “despicable.” The Trump campaign said any reports saying Trump was contending Floyd would be praising the economic news were “wrong, purposefully misrepresented, and maliciously crafted.”
A few blocks away, city workers painted a huge “Black Lives Matter” sign on 16th Street leading to the White House.
Politically, few things matter more to Trump’s future than the state of the US economy, which was all but shut down by state governments this spring to prevent greater spread of the deadly coronavirus. Defying health experts, the president has aggressively encouraged states to re-open and has assailed state leaders by name who resist.
At the same time, he’s taken an uneven approach to explosive racial tensions in the wake of Floyd’s death. As he has in recent days, Trump on Friday offered a sympathetic message to Floyd in one breath and lashed out at protests in his name the next.
Local governments “have to dominate the streets,” Trump said. “You can’t let what’s happening happen.”
The president spoke in the Rose Garden after the Labor Department said that US employers added 2.5 million workers to their payrolls last month. Economists had been expecting them instead to slash 8 million jobs in continuing fallout from the pandemic.
The jobless rate, at 13.3%, is still on par with what the nation witnessed during the Great Depression. And for the second straight month, the Labor Department acknowledged making errors in counting the unemployed during the virus outbreak, saying the real figure is worse than the numbers indicate.
Still, after weeks of dire predictions by economists that unemployment in May could hit 20% or more, the news was seen as evidence that the collapse may have bottomed out in April.
Friday’s report made for some tricky reaction gymnastics for Trump’s Democratic election opponent, Biden, who sought to contrast the improving figures with the fact that millions of Americans are still out of work. The high jobless rate, he said, is due to the Trump administration mishandling the response to the pandemic.
“Let’s be clear about something: The depth of this jobs crisis is not attributable to an act of God but to a failure of a president,” Biden declared in a Delaware speech shortly after Trump spoke.
The presumptive Democratic nominee said Trump was patting himself on the back as America faces some of its sternest challenges ever.
“It’s time for him to step out of his own bunker, take a look around at the consequences,” Biden said.
It’s unclear how many jobs that were lost as a result of the pandemic are permanently gone or whether the reopenings in states will create a second surge of COVID-19 deaths. In addition, the report from mid-May doesn’t reflect the effect that protests across the nation have had on business.
Many economists digging into the jobs report saw a struggle ahead after the burst of hiring last month.
Friday’s report reflected the benefits of nearly $3 trillion in government aid instead of an organic return to normal. Only one of every nine jobs lost because of the pandemic has been recovered, and the specter of corporate bankruptcies hangs over the recovery.
Much of the growth came from 2.7 million workers who were temporarily laid-off going back to their jobs. This likely reflected $510 billion in forgivable loans from the Payroll Protection Program to nearly 4.5 million employers — an administration initiative that helped push the unemployment rate down to 13.3% from 14.7% in April. African American unemployment rose slightly to 16.8 percent.
Late Friday, Trump signed legislation to add new flexibility to the PPP, giving business owners more flexibility to use taxpayer subsidies and extending the life of the program.
As the money from the PPP runs out, there could be another round of layoffs, warned Sung Won Sohn, an economist at Loyola Marymount University.
“There will be continuing residual fear and uncertainty,” Sohn said.
Trump on Friday defended his handling of the pandemic, contending that more than 1 million Americans would have died had he not acted. More than 108,000 people are confirmed to have lost their lives due to the coronavirus, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University.
Now, though, Trump said states and cities should be lifting remaining restrictions. “I don’t know why they continue to lock down,” he said of some jurisdictions that have maintained closings.
Former South Carolina Gov. and Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican who briefly mounted a primary challenge to Trump last year, dismissed any employment gain due to federal deficit spending.
“What we have right now is federal policy aimed solely at boosting numbers that obviously would help in a reelection effort,” Sanford said in an interview. “We’re literally buying jobs.”
But there was little sign of concern among Trump and his Republican allies in Washington.
“This shows that what we’ve been doing is right,” Trump said of the jobs numbers. He added: “Today is probably the greatest comeback in American history.”
He pitched himself as key to a “rocket ship” rebound that would fail only if he doesn’t win reelection.
“I’m telling you next year, unless something happens or the wrong people get in here, this will turn around,” Trump said.