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Cruising sailors’ second encounter with pirates ends tragically

German sailor Jurgen Kantner, whom Somali pirates captured nine years ago and later released, was beheaded in February by a militant Islamic group in the Philippines that had kidnapped him in November and demanded a $600,000 ransom. The group, Abu Sayyaf, released a video of the 70-year-old sailor’s beheading.

Sabine Merz and Jurgen Kantner had spent many years living aboard and traveling the world. After surviving a Somali pirate attack in 2008, they were still eager to return to cruising.

Jesus Dureza, an adviser to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, said in a statement that the government had exhausted all efforts to save him. “We grieve as we strongly condemn the barbaric beheading of yet another kidnap victim,” the statement read.

Germany’s foreign ministry also released a statement. “We are deeply shaken at this inhuman and horrifying act. We condemn the murder of this German in the strongest possible terms. There is no justification for such an act.” The German government also called for joint efforts to combat Abu Sayyaf. Perfecto Yasay Jr., who was the Philippines’ secretary of foreign affairs at the time of the incident, said the country would continue its policy of refusing to pay ransom to terrorist organizations.

Abu Sayyaf, or Bearers of the Sword, is estimated to have fewer than 500 members. Its attacks in the Philippines have included bombings, killings and the targeting of foreign nationals, according to The New York Times.

The video of Kantner’s beheading, circulated by the jihadi watchdog company SITE Intelligence Group, lasts 1 minute, 43 seconds. Kantner is shown kneeling, with a shock of shaggy white hair and a bushy beard. He pleads that the kidnappers will behead him if they do not receive a ransom. A masked man holds a curved knife to Kantner’s neck, the terrorists say “Allahu akbar” (meaning Allah is greater), and Kantner is killed. 

Abu Sayyaf had taken Kantner and his partner, Sabine Merz, 59, in early November while they sailed their 53-foot sailboat, Rockall, off the southern Philippines. News reports said Abu Sayyaf accused Merz of firing on them, and they returned fire. She was found dead aboard Rockall, naked and bruised, next to a shotgun. ?Authorities said they thought she had been sexually assaulted.

Kantner was taken alive. In a previous ransom video, he wore an orange shirt and blue pants, and he pleaded with the German and Philippine governments to raise a $10 million ransom. “We hold your citizen captive, and it is permitted in Islam to take his blood and life,” an Abu Sayyaf spokesperson said on the video. 

Philippine authorities recovered Jurgen Kantner’s boat after he was abducted. The German cruiser is shown below in an image grabbed from a ransom video.

The attack on Kantner and Merz was not the first time Abu Sayyaf has attacked or beheaded a sailor. In September 2015, 11 men armed with handguns and M16 assault rifles took four hostages at the Holiday Oceanview Marina in the southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf demanded a $6.3 million ransom for each hostage and set a payment deadline. When it passed, the kidnappers beheaded one hostage and set a new deadline for the others. That deadline also passed, and the other three hostages were released. It is unclear whether any ransom was paid.

After Kantner’s beheading in February, the Philippines Department of Tourism issued a statement saying the nation’s military was pursuing the “ragtag criminal group.” MARAD, the U.S. Maritime Administration, issued an advisory that U.S.-flagged vessels should “remain vigilant” while cruising in the area. The U.S. State Department warned Americans to avoid all non-essential travel to the region, citing “an increased threat of maritime kidnappings against small boats in the vicinity of the Sulu Archipelago, and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there.”

Abu Sayyaf is not the only known millitant group in the region. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front have signed peace deals with the government, while one Abu Sayyaf faction has pledged allegiance to ISIS, reportedly changing its name to ISIS Philippines.

When Kantner and Merz were taken hostage in November, it was their second experience with terrorism. In 2008, Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden abducted them as they sailed from Egypt to Thailand. They were held for 52 days, until intermediaries delivered a reported $1 million ransom. 

Kantner ran out of his diabetes medicine during that period of captivity, and he and Merz endured mock executions to increase the level of fear in videos sent back home, Kantner said later. In May 2009, eight months after their release from Somali captivity, Kantner and Merz returned to the pirate base to reclaim and repair Rockall. Kantner had lived board the boat for more than 30 years. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.


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