EXCLUSIVE: The hunt for the Abu Sayyaf militants who kidnapped and beheaded two Canadians

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The hunt for Filipino militants who kidnapped and beheaded two Canadians

JOLO, Philippines — Ben Tattoo stood at the jailhouse door, looking resentful as he stuck his arms through the bars. Handed an orange t-shirt that branded him a detainee, he covered his face with it.

As a member of the Abu Sayyaf Group, Tattoo used to be the one who took prisoners and made them wear orange shirts.

In 2015, he kidnapped Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel from a marina in the southern Philippines. When no ransoms were paid, he coldly beheaded them, on video for the world to see.

But on June 17, Tattoo came out of hiding and surrendered, handing his prized M-16 rifle to the Philippine army.

Philippine National Police officer leads Ben Tattoo to jail, Jolo, Philippines, Oct. 4, 2022. Global News

Since then Tattoo has been held in a crowded two-level stockade in Jolo city. The cells surround an open-air courtyard with so many garments hanging from the windows that it could pass for a clothing market.


No longer the lean menace depicted in wanted posters, Tattoo had aged by the time of his arrest. He looked tamed in his khaki shorts and sandals. A mid-life paunch swelled beneath his t-shirt.

A police officer who has long investigated the killer opened a photo on his phone that showed Tattoo and his brother, heads bowed as they were served arrest warrants following their surrenders.

“They look weak,” he said.

Police take mug shots of Ben Tattoo after charging him with kidnapping, Oct. 4, 2022. Global News

The same goes for the Abu Sayyaf Group. Once capable of paralyzing foreign governments with kidnappings and ultimatum videos, it is now a shadow of its former self.

The Canadian government has said little about the Hall and Ridsdel killings since 2016, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the failure to secure their release his greatest regret.

But a Global News investigation has found that a manhunt launched in response to the murders has left Abu Sayyaf’s leadership, and the key figures involved in the kidnapping, in custody or dead.

The Philippine military and police operation has taken down those who abducted the Canadians, the guards who mistreated them, the ransom negotiators who taunted their families, the voice heard in the videos, the leader who ordered their killings — and Tattoo, who put them to their deaths.

Document showing Abu Sayyaf leaders and sub-leaders linked to 2015 kidnappings of two Canadians. Eight are now dead. Stewart Bell/Global News

Eight out of the nine Abu Sayyaf “leaders” and “sub-leaders” linked in a Philippine army report to the kidnapping are, according to police, dead. The only survivor is considered too old to pose a threat.

Two dozen members of Abu Sayyaf named in documents seen by Global News as having played roles in the kidnapping have been killed by government troops, arrested by police or surrendered.

“Most of the suspects were already neutralized and killed,” said a Philippine police official, who provided a list of 21 members involved in the kidnapping it said had been captured and killed.

A military official said only a handful of Abu Sayyaf members remained, and most were inactive. “They’re just hiding now,” said a police officer who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be named.

To investigate the remarkable events set in motion by the kidnapping of the Canadians, Global News travelled to Abu Sayyaf’s remote former stronghold, interviewed police and military officials, met an ex-fighter, and visited the jail where detainees are held.

Together with hundreds of pages of classified documents, they reveal the untold story of a vengeance mission that has turned the tables on Abu Sayyaf, effectively decapitating the decapitators.

How did it happen?

1. The Kidnapping

The Holiday Oceanview resort on Samal island, southern Philippines, Sept. 23, 2015. EPA/STR.

Manila is noisy and traffic-snarled, but the southern archipelago has white sand beaches, volcanic peaks and cities of minarets and a dome-roofed capitol that recall its past as the Sultanate of Sulu.


It is also a region of a longstanding, armed insurgency, financed by kidnapping.

Just off Davao, the biggest city in the south, sailors were aboard their yachts on Samal Island on the night of Sept. 21, 2015, when almost a dozen gunmen came aboard.

Four of them appeared at the cabin door of the yacht occupied by Hall and his Filipina fiancé, Marites Hall. Abraham Hamid hit Hall in the head with a rifle, while another member of the group collected their wallets, phones, watches and iPad.

The marina’s Norwegian manager, Kjartan Sekkingstad, came to help but was also struck. Together with Ridsdel, who had left a nearby yacht after hearing noises, they were dragged to a motorboat.

Alleged Abu Sayyaf members a witness said kidnapped a pair of Canadians and two others from Samal Island, Philippines, on Sept. 21, 2015. Global News

“We are under attack,” a witness told marina staff in a phone call, according to police files seen by Global News that document the case. Even though security guards were on duty, an Australian witness said they were “just standing doing nothing.”

Another marina guest called 911 “but to no avail,” according to a Philippine police report on the incident. She was told Samal Island was not within their jurisdiction.

The kidnappers forced the captives into the covered fish-storage area of the motorboat, known as a banca, and headed out into the Davao Gulf towards what the police files called the “hinterlands.”

Police arrived at the marina an hour later, and a “hot pursuit operation” began, according to the case file. A pair of coast guard vessels and two helicopters scoured the area.

Security camera footage showed 11 kidnappers were involved, and they seemed familiar with the marina, “showing a well-planned abduction operation.” Witnesses identified seven suspects from photos.

Three others accused by witness of abducting Canadians from Samal Island marina, including “Hot Lips” on right. Handout

Special Investigation Task Group OCEANVIEW was launched by police the next day “to locate the armed abductors and the victims” and “for the subsequent conduct of rescue operations.”

“It is recommended also that all other government agencies should be involved in the search and rescue of the victims since this kind of incident will cause alarm and negative effect on the tourism industry,” police wrote.

In the following days, sightings of boats carrying foreigners were reported throughout the region. They were said to be at sea, docked and “passing through the shorelines to avoid detection.”

Initially, it was unclear which armed group was responsible, but suspicion quickly fell on the Abu Sayyaf Group, or ASG, which had made millions kidnapping foreigners and Filipinos alike for ransoms.

“The modus operandi of the kidnappers in capturing their prey was typically that of Sulu-based ASG members,” the Philippine National Police’s Anti-Kidnapping Group wrote in a progress report.

The getaway boat was likely headed for Abu Sayyaf territory in the Sulu islands, the report said, and the militants would “soon be calling people associated with the victims to demand ransom.”

2. The Investigation

Street in Jolo where Abu Sayyaf dumped remains of Canadian kidnap victim. Stewart Bell/Global News

Four days after the kidnappings, one of the bancas used in the abduction was found abandoned on a beach more than 500 kilometres away in Parang, a town that was largely controlled by Abu Sayyaf on the west coast of Jolo island.


The boat was traced to a fisherman who had recently sold it. Witnesses reported seeing Muammar Askali refuelling it before the kidnapping. He was also identified as one of the kidnappers.

Adding to the sense the incident had been carefully orchestrated, a mechanic told police a customer had tried to recruit him in August to help kidnap three foreigners from Samal Island, but he had refused any part in the “evil plan.”

According to a police report, when the kidnappers came ashore at Parang, one of Abu Sayyaf’s top leaders Hajan Sawadjaan welcomed and congratulated them on the success of their mission.

The victims were put into a truck and taken inland. After 30 minutes, they continued into the mountains on foot, to a camp with some 300 fighters, where they were greeted by another top Abu Sayyaf leader, Radullan Sahiron.

Two RCMP liaison officers based at the Canadian embassy in Manila soon joined the investigation. On Oct. 3, they travelled to Samal Island to “conduct an ocular inspection on the crime scene,” a Philippine police report said.

Photos taken that day show two Mounties, Martin Bedard and Peter Lambertucci, examining a yacht and speaking to witnesses. During their visit, the RCMP officers also discussed with Philippine police the “acceptable option/strategy to be employed in this case that will conform with the existing policies of both countries.”

The report did not elaborate, but a Canadian official told Global News that Global Affairs Canada would not allow the RCMP to share evidence until the Philippine police agreed not to use it in cases involving the death penalty.

A potential break came when on Oct. 11, when Hall’s credit card was used. It was declined because the wrong pin number was entered, according to a police report. A second attempt was made on Oct. 13.

There was another possible development when Ridsdel texted a friend to ask for medication to be couriered to a contact in Jolo. Neither lead seems to have panned out.

RCMP officer (in sunglasses) at site of kidnapping on Samal Island, Philippines, 2015. Global News

The first video of the Canadians was released on Oct. 13. It showed Ridsdel with a knife to his throat, asking the Philippines to end counter-insurgency operations against Abu Sayyaf.

In a second video on Nov. 3, Abu Sayyaf threatened to kill the hostages unless one billion Philippine pesos, roughly $30-million in Canadian dollars, was paid for each foreign hostage.

The ISIS flag loomed in the background.

Over the following months, the militants kept on the march, camping in locations with access to water and a cell phone signal, an army report said.

They slept in hammocks, under roofs made of laminated sacks. Led by Tatto, guards took two-hour shifts watching over the hostages. Relatives and supporters brought in food and supplies.

“When a drone or military helicopter was hovering up ahead, they usually took cover underneath those thick vegetation in the area,” according to the files.

After a military helicopter fired rockets at them, the leaders told everyone to remove the batteries from their phones, the report said.

RCMP at marina on Samal Island following kidnapping of Canadians. Global News

On March 10, the kidnappers released a new video. It gave a month to meet their demands, prompting the Liberal government to reassure the House of Commons it was “on top of that file.”


A “final ultimatum” video followed on April 16. Government forces launched an attack on April 24, prompting Abu Sayyaf to decamp into the forest with their hostages, their hands bound with rope.

The next day, an Abu Sayyaf member known as Abu Omar told Ridsdel’s family he wanted 300 million Philippine pesos by 3 p.m.

“Now we will execute your father,” he said.

At 7:35 p.m. that evening, two men in their 20s sped down Marina St. in Jolo city on a Honda motorcycle without plates and “threw an object wrapped in a plastic bag believed to be a severed head,” a police report said.

A military helicopter flew the remains to Zamboanga, and a DNA test confirmed it was Ridsdel. His torso was found two days later at a different location.

Ben Tattoo, right, in video released by Abu Sayyaf. SITE

When an execution video appeared on May 3, Philippine police showed it to a Chinese kidnapping victim. In 2014, Abu Sayyaf had abducted her from a karaoke bar in Basilan before releasing her. She recognized three of the kidnappers shown in the footage, including Tattoo.

The kidnappers stayed “highly mobile” after that, “as the government troops keep on pursuing them,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines wrote in a report.

But the kidnappers slipped up. Police matched the ransom negotiator’s phone number to a Facebook profile that identified him as Adzrimar Ammat, a member of the Central Student Committee at Sulu State College in Jolo. He was also suspected of narrating the Abu Sayyaf videos.

Trudeau doubled down on his opposition to ransoms following Ridsdel’s killing, insisting that Canada did not pay terrorists, and Abu Sayyaf issued another ultimatum video on May 15.

“We say to the governments of Canada and the Philippines not to play games, for we are determined to slaughter all the captives if you do not comply with our demands,” the speaker said.

A deadline was set for 3 p.m. on June 13, 2016. At about 2:30 p.m. that day, Hall’s fiancé Flor saw Tattoo praying and tying a scarf around his head.

“So you’re happy now!” she said she told him after he had cut off Hall’s head with a bolo knife.

“But he just laughed at me,” she said.

3. The Witness

Marites Flor following her release by Abu Sayyaf in Jolo, June 24, 2016. (STR/AFP via Getty Images).

On June 23, Tattoo woke Flor at 10:30 p.m. and sent her out of the camp with 10 guards. After an hour they came to a white jeep that delivered her to the home of the vice-governor of Sulu, Abdusakur Tan. She was free.

She underwent a medical at the Trauma Hospital in Jolo, and then was taken to the headquarters of Joint Task Force Sulu for lunch and a debriefing session, according to an army report.

The report cast doubt on news reports that a ransom was paid, arguing Abu Sayyaf may have considered her a “burden” as it dodged government troops, and that intervention by local politicians may have been responsible.

Her release gave a much-needed boost to the investigation. After nine months in captivity, she had come to know the kidnappers, and had made careful note of their quirks and methods.


The kidnappers wore Philippine National Police Marine Group uniforms and “ritually” observed a prayer schedule, she said.

Their victims were disguised as Abu Sayyaf members, with camouflage, beards and long hair, so they would go unnoticed, “specifically when the group is passing by the civilian communities,” she told her debriefers.

She said they moved at night to evade the government forces, and followed a “pathfinder” named Hairulla Asbang, or they hired locals to guide them.

Photos of suspected Abu Sayyaf members, with hand-written notes on their alleged roles in the Hall and Ridsdel kidnapping. Global News

Aside from providing insights into Abu Sayyaf, Flor looked through what police called a “rogue’s gallery” of photos of possible suspects. Some she knew only by nicknames, like Hot Lips, who was allegedly among those who abducted the victims from the marina.

A guard she knew as Injam “punched Robert Hall after receiving a call from his brother,” she said. Another, who went by Kaipal, had “handcuffed and slapped John Ridsdel before he was beheaded by Ben, and also punched Robert,” she said.

But she was able to identify no less than 63 of her captors and explain their roles and habits. At the top of the list was Radullah Sahiron, who had headed Abu Sayyaf since 2005 and is wanted by the FBI for kidnapping an American in Sulu in 1993. He was “always on horseback,” and his wife was “always behind him whenever the group is on the move,” she said.

The next in line, Hajan Sawadjaan, had a white goatee, she noted, while Yasser Igasan was also a leader and the in-house preacher. She identified the ransom negotiators as Adzrimar Ammat and Muammar Askali, whom she said suffered from “defective eyes (involuntary blinking of eyes),” and had contacted the victims’ families, sent the videos and provided the orange t-shirts worn by Hall and Ridsdel on camera.

Abraham Hamid had “poked and struck a gun to Robert’s head causing him to suffer head injuries,” she said. Nanz Sawadjaan would throw objects at her and “teased me that I am ugly,” while Tuan Maliyul Sahidul “slapped me when Robert Hall was moving slow when he ordered us to pack up immediately for another group movement.”

Mujir Yadah was “the one who gives instructions to behead the victims,” she said, and Jaber Susukan was also “one of those who beheaded John.”

But it was Tattoo, she said, who “actually did the beheading.”

Ben Tattoo. Facebook

Tattoo, it turns out, is just a nickname, apparently a reference to the body art on his right shoulder. Officially, he is Ben Ahaddi Quirino, 37, a father of six, the eldest 20, the youngest an infant.

He was born into militancy. According to Philippine police, he is the son of a late member of the Moro National Liberation Front, which once sought independence for Filipino Muslims in the south. His brothers, Mujir and Injam, were also Abu Sayyaf members, police said.

He grew up in a neighbourhood east of Jolo City called Tanum, and only made it to Grade 2, his booking sheet said. After working as a driver, he joined Abu Sayyaf in 2005 and his first clash with government forces was in 2007.

Police alleged Tattoo was involved in the kidnappings of Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese, Jordanian, European and Canadian citizens, as well as Filipinos such as Jolo’s vice-mayor.

“He was one of the sub-leaders of Abu Sayyaf,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Bagsao, who was the operations officer at the Mindanao field office of the Philippine National Police Anti-Kidnapping Group when the Canadians were abducted.

Asked how Abu Sayyaf members were radicalized, Bagsao answered with an anecdote: During a visit to Jolo in 2017, he asked a boy if he wanted to be in the army one day. The boy said yes, he did, so Bagsao asked him which branch and the boy responded, “Our army in the mountains.” He wanted to join Abu Sayyaf.


Tattoo was harsh and ambitious, which some speculated might explain why he left his face uncovered when he executed the Canadians and held up their heads for the camera. The videos were a message to the Philippine and Canadian governments, but they were also a signal to Abu Sayyaf that he was a rising force, ready for leadership.

Or maybe he just forgot.

Either way, it put him on most-wanted lists throughout the region as the Philippine army and police pursued him and his group, with the backing of the newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte.

Justin Trudeau (left) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (right) during ASEAN-Canada 40th anniversary summit in Manila, Nov. 14, 2017. Romeo Ranoco/EPA

A hardliner from the south, Duterte had boasted that when he was mayor of Davao City, he personally shot and killed three kidnappers with his M-16. “A leader must be a terror to the few who are evil,” reads a mural depicting Duterte inside a Philippine National Police compound.

Abu Sayyaf was at the height of its strength when Duterte took office on June 30, 2016, and officials said he wanted an end to the group and the ransom payments that empowered it.

“Before, some foreign governments would negotiate with the kidnappers,” said Prof. Liana Barro of Far Eastern University and the chair of the Anti-Kidnapping Group’s advisory panel. “When Duterte stepped in, to his credit he had the political will to do it. He said, ‘No, not even foreign governments can negotiate for the release of their people here.’”

The Norwegian hostage, Sekkingstad, was released in September 2016, and the hunt for the kidnappers identified by Flor continued, but Abu Sayyaf kept a step ahead, exploiting what an army report called their “mastery” of the terrain.

“The ASG utilizes sidestepping techniques to simply elude from the operating government forces,” an army report said.

Their survival was also attributed to support that went deep into local government units (LGU), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP), it said.

“Adding up that some politicians, LGU officials, AFP and PNP supports them as well because of familial ties by affinity and sanguinity, the enemy will continuously exist thus enabling them to conduct atrocities such as harassments, liquidations, and kidnapping activities in the area of operations,” the secret report said.

4. The General

Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner, Commanding General of the Philippine Army, at Fort Bonifacio, Manila, Oct. 2, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Inside the sprawling military headquarters at Manila’s Fort Bonifacio, scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the leaning tower of Pisa were inexplicably displayed at a park, giving the base a Las Vegas vibe.

Wearing a camouflage jacket with three vertical stars, Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., the commander of the Philippine Army, sipped a Starbucks at a boardroom table after a morning bike ride.

Trim with cropped hair, Brawner is the grandson of a U.S. Army soldier who fought in the Philippines. As the former commander of the 4th infantry division in northern Mindanao, the general was at the frontlines of the fight against Abu Sayyaf.

“Right now the Abu Sayyaf Group has been reduced into a very small, insignificant group,” he said. “I say insignificant because they are not any more capable of conducting terrorist activities like they did before, on the scale that they did, probably two or three years ago.”

Jolo, southern Philippines. Stewart Bell/Global News

The pursuit has been costly, he said, estimating more than 100 soldiers died in the campaign. “In fact, we have had a lot of loses on the part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, in terms of the lives of our soldiers, because of the intense combat operations that were conducted during that time,” he said.


In response to the kidnappings, the government mobilized the Special Forces, Scout Rangers and light-reaction units, he said, along with the Marines, Navy SEALS, Air Force Special Warfare Units, local and national police and the coast guard.

“It was really difficult terrain,” he said. Islands, mountains and local support networks proved challenging. Troops would corner the kidnappers, but they would somehow slip away.

The military almost succeeded in rescuing the Canadians, he added. “We came close,” he said. He did not elaborate, but according to a police report, several of the kidnappers were wounded and killed during “encounters” with government troops.

In 2017, the general was training in the United States when the army went into Marawi, a city on Mindanao island, to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was also the head of the East Asia branch of ISIS.

Gun battles erupted. A siege began. Brawner returned to the Philippines from the U.S. a week into the battle, intending to volunteer to lead the operation, but before he could do so, it was assigned to him.

Abu Sayyaf fighters poured into Marawi. They were joined by the Maute Group, a pro-ISIS faction led by brothers of the same name, and foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Yemen, Brawner said.

“That is where the start of their decline came,” Brawner explained. “It came from that five-month-long siege, where the government was successful in decimating the entire group, including Hapilon and, of course, the leader of the Maute ISIS group, the Maute brothers.”

“It was the beginning of the end.”

The pandemic was another blow to Abu Sayyaf. Travel restrictions meant there were no foreigners to kidnap, leaving the militants without the revenue they depended on to buy weapons, ammunition, boats and supporters.

New anti-terrorism legislation signed by Duterte in 2020 gave the government a stronger hand — although it defined terrorism in a way that Amnesty International complained was too sweeping, while Human Rights Watch said it would “permit government overreach against groups and individuals labeled terrorists.”

But President Duterte, who waged a bloody war on drugs that allegedly included countless executions, wasn’t known for paying attention to human rights reports, and last year he ordered the military to destroy Abu Sayyaf before his term expired at the end of June.

“So the first six months of 2022 was really very intense for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, because we had the pressure from the commander-in-chief himself, telling us that we have to finish all of these groups,” the general said.

The absence of bombings over the past year, together with numerous, key surrenders, point to the effectiveness of the operation and the decline of Abu Sayyaf’s strength since it kidnapped the two Canadians, he said.

The successes include the arrest of Tattoo, whom he called “one of the more significant leaders of the Abu Sayyaf Group.” But many others have fallen, according to Philippine police.

Hairulla Asbang, alleged guard and “pathfinder” of the kidnap group, after he was shot by government forces. He later died in hospital. Handout

A list provided by Philippine police of Abu Sayyaf members linked to the Hall and Ridsdel kidnapping who have been killed names Hairulla Asbang, the alleged “pathfinder” who used his knowledge of the terrain to guide the group. Shot by government troops and arrested in December 2016, he died later in hospital, according to a local news report.

Also listed as dead is Muammar Askali, the initial ransom negotiator. In April 2017, he allegedly led a group of kidnappers by speedboat to Bohol island to abduct tourists but was gunned down by government troops.

Hapilon was running between buildings in Marawi in October 2017 when he was fatally shot in the chest. A sniper killed his second-in-command Omar Maute.

Artillery reportedly struck Yasser Igasan in the leg on Jolo island in 2018, killing the preacher who had guarded the Canadians.


The army released a photo on March 19, 2019, showing Angah Adji, who had also guarded the hostages, bloodied with his legs splayed after he was killed by the Army Special Forces in Talipao, southeast of Jolo city.

Hajan Sawadjaan was wounded in a July 2020 skirmish with government forces in the jungles of Jolo island and died a few days later. Tattoo’s brother Injam Yadah was killed in battle last year.

On Oct. 9, Idang Susukan, a guard leader, was shot dead by a tower guard in the Manila jail, where he was awaiting trial. Police said he and two others tried to escape by stabbing an officer delivering breakfast.

Mujir Yadah, accused of ordering the beheadings of the Canadians. Handout

The Philippine police named four others involved in the kidnapping it said were dead, including Abrahim Hamid, the gunman who abducted Hall from his yacht.

The only top leader left is Radullan Sahiron, and Philippine police described him as “old and very weak with few followers.”

Another dozen have been surrendered or been arrested, notably alleged ransom negotiator Adzrimar Ammat, Tattoo and his brother Mujir Yaddah, police said. The latest to be arrested, on Sept. 7, was Basaron Aruk, accused of guarding the Canadian hostages.

“A lot of them were apprehended so if there are still people left with the group, they are not doing what they used to do anymore,” said Prof. Barro, who believed Abu Sayyaf was likely finished. “I think after the sad Canadian incident there was a massive show of force to somehow hunt everyone down.”

5. The Prisoner

Philippine National Police Anti-Kidnapping Group take mugshots of Ben Tattoo, Oct. 4, 2022. Global News

Zamboanga is a city of fish plants beneath a smouldering volcano on the southwest tip of Mindanao island. It is also the gateway to Abu Sayyaf territory. The ferry to Jolo City left port at 8:45 p.m., its bow and decks loaded with passengers and cargo. In the canteen, a rat ran through passengers’ feet.

On board were two members of the police Anti-Kidnapping Group, on their way to serve another arrest warrant on Ben Tattoo. Although Tattoo was behind bars, he is suspected of so many kidnappings that, as their investigations are completed, police have returned to his jail again and again with new warrants.

The latest would be his 24th, for the 2017 kidnapping of Jessica Duterte, a coconut farmer from north of Zamboanga. The officers had also been assigned to escort Global News. Police insisted, arguing that while Abu Sayyaf had not kidnapped anyone in more than two years, it was better not to tempt them.

The ship arrived in Jolo at sunrise. In the downtown, a shopkeeper selling straw hats and school uniforms seemed surprised to see a foreigner. “You are from Canada?” he said. “Welcome to Jolo, Sulu!”

He said he did not know that, six years ago, the severed head of a Canadian killed by Abu Sayyaf had been dumped on the sidewalk where he stood, but he said security was better now.

Delia Hoe and husband Rod outside the Jolo cathedral, bombed by Abu Sayyaf in 2019. Stewart Bell/Global News

The cathedral across the street had been rebuilt since it was bombed during Sunday mass on Jan. 27, 2019. Standing outside, Delia Hoe said the first explosion ripped off two of her toes.


A second blast was more deadly. Twenty were killed that day, and more than 100 injured, including her husband Rod. But she was reluctant to condemn Abu Sayyaf.

“We can’t blame anyone,” the 61-year-old said. “I have learned to forgive them.” She said she had followed news about the surrenders and welcomed them. “I think we are safe,” she said.

A police commander was cautious when asked if he thought Abu Sayyaf was finished. “Almost, but not totally,” he said. “There are still active members of Abu Sayyaf.”

The current leader is believed to be Mundi Sawadjaan, who is accused of guarding the Canadian kidnap victims. Police and military officials said the remaining hold-outs were on the run and closely tracked, sometimes using drones.

“We are continuously monitoring their movements,” one official said. The strategy is to pressure them so they keep looking over their shoulders and realize they are out of options — except surrender.

Former Abu Sayyaf fighter who said he guarded the Canadian kidnap victims, in Jolo, Philippines, Oct. 4, 2022. Stewart Bell/Global News

Aldemer Sali arrived at a meeting place in Jolo city on a motorbike, his wife seated behind him. The 24-year-old showed Global News photos taken when he was “Guraba,” an Abu Sayyaf fighter with long hair.

He was 13 when he joined Abu Sayyaf in 2011, he said, encouraged by a friend who made it sound like fun and games. He got no training. A rifle was just handed to him, and he was sent into battle.

Sali said he knew Tattoo and had guarded the Canadian hostages for a few days. They were on the move at the time, camping at different locations each night. He insisted the victims were well-fed and ate the same meals as the fighters.

He said he was just doing the task he was given, but later he heard about the beheadings and felt bad they had been “treated like animals.”

Sali became a father in 2018, which led him to question his choices. What future was there for a baby born into Abu Sayyaf? His brother contacted a cousin in the police to arrange his surrender.

On May 13, 2019, the chief of intelligence came to collect him in Patikul, and Sali turned over his M-16. He spent five months living in the police compound in Jolo city. He wasn’t detained, it was for his own protection.

He and his wife live a “normal” life now, he said. She is studying agriculture at Mindanao State University. He hopes to drive a pedicab. His priority, though, is family. His two kids need an education and better opportunities than he had.

Military and police officials believe that giving former fighters like Sali a second chance will encourage others to surrender. A government program coordinates the reintegration of ex-militants who do not face charges.

But Tattoo was a different story.

Ben Tattoo, left, speaks to warden at jail in Jolo, southern Philippines. Stewart Bell/Global News

Two palms stood like sentries in front of the Sulu Provincial Jail, a building that hardly looked sturdy enough to hold a drunk sleeping off a night on the town, let alone the suspected designated beheader of the Abu Sayyaf Group.

Summoned by the warden, Tattoo stood with his arms resting through the bars, complaining about the cameras Global News was using to film him. He declined an interview request made through his lawyer.

Believing the cameras would be switched off, Tattoo finally emerged through the prison gate and Police Chief Master Sgt. Bonifacio Musil read the charges.

“I understand,” Tattoo responded.

After taking fresh mug shots, the sergeant put his arm around Tattoo’s shoulder and led him back to the jail to await trial for the murder of the Canadians, among his long laundry list of other charges.


“Mission accomplished,” Sgt. Musil said when he returned.

Basketball net at Sulu Provincial Jail, Jolo, Philippines. Stewart Bell/Global News

Tattoo surrendered after the military almost got him on the island of Basilan, according to Brigadier General Ignatius Patrimonio, head of the armed forces in Jolo. With his latest wife pregnant, Tattoo decided he couldn’t keep running and began working out the terms of his surrender.

The general said he warned Tattoo that while he would not be killed, he would face charges for his crimes. Tattoo agreed, but asked the army to take care of his family. His 28-year-old wife was later allowed to deliver her baby at the Jolo hospital. She will also receive benefits afforded to surrenderees.

Tattoo has been talking and recently led the army to a cache of improvised explosive components belonging to Mundi Sawadjaan, Gen. Patrimonio said. A police official said Tattoo admitted his role in Abu Sayyaf but denied involvement in bombings.

“He has been cooperating believing that he will be acquitted on all his cases,” police said.

For security reasons, the trial for the abduction and murder of Hall and Ridsdel is taking place in Manila, and Tattoo may be transferred there.

Philippine police declined to comment on the role played by Canada in hunting down the kidnappers.

The RCMP would only say it was aware of the arrests of two individuals “suspected of having played significant roles in the ongoing murder investigations of Robert Hall and John Ridsdel in 2016.”

“The RCMP is aware of, and monitoring, a judicial process initiated in the Philippines,” said media relations officer Cpl. Kim Chamberland. “As this is an ongoing investigation, the RCMP has no further comments on this matter.”

After leaving the Sulu jail, Sgt. Musil got into a pickup that drove out of the city late in the afternoon, through the shanties of Indanan to Parang. The ocean was a pond. The floats of pearl farms bobbed offshore. The town smelled like dried fish. Bancas were grounded in the estuary mud.

The idyllic west coast of Jolo island used to be Abu Sayyaf’s haven: Kidnap victims, including Ridsdel and Hall, were brought ashore here after they were abducted.

Now there is a beachfront resort and a park with a covered picnic area. Officials hope that if tourists come, locals will have career options other than going into the mountains to fight and kidnap. Terrorism to tourism.

At Tanduh Beach, five girls wearing hijabs waded into the warm water, then took out kayaks and paddle boards as the sun dissolved into the Sulu Sea and a karaoke singer butchered Bohemian Rhapsody from a villa. “Mama, just killed a man…”

Lorela Sandoval assisted with the reporting of this story in the Philippines