Abu Sayyaf

11th hour

Behind the scenes of Justin Trudeau’s diplomatic efforts to save two Canadian hostages

Behind the scenes of Justin Trudeau’s diplomatic efforts to save two Canadian hostages

The day before the deadline a terrorist group had set to behead a Canadian hostage in the Philippines, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the Filipino president and emphasized that his government has a firm policy against paying ransoms.

Details of the 11th hour exchange on April 7 between Trudeau and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III are contained in documents obtained by VICE News through access to information and illustrate how Canadian officials worked behind the scenes to respond to the looming threat.

The kidnapping of the two Canadians, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, marked one of the first crises of the Trudeau government. The two men, along with a Norwegian man and a Filipino woman, had been kidnapped and held hostage by Islamic State-affiliated Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of the southern Philippines. Ridsdel was executed on April 25, while Hall was killed on June 13.

According to emails regarding the call between the two leaders, Trudeau “expressed appreciation for efforts to date, that threat was credible, and that we have a firm no-ransom policy.”

While that policy may have been “firm,” Trudeau had yet to publicly acknowledge that Canada was refusing to pay the hostage-takers. It was only after Ridsdel was killed on April 25 that Trudeau publicly emphasized that policy.

Talking points provided to Trudeau before the call recommended he emphasize that the Philippines is Canada’s closest partner in Southeast Asia, thank the president’s support for Canada’s bid to join the East Asia Summit, his commitment to ending the insurgency in the southern Philippines and to countering terrorism.

Abu Sayyaf had threatened in a March 10 video to execute Ridsdel on April 8 if their previous demands of $100 million Philippine Pesos (about CAD $2.7 million) for the hostages weren’t met.

“Canada believes the threat to all the hostages is real: The April 8 deadline is credible with the Filipino hostage and one of the Canadians most at risk.”

The emails also reveal that while Canada was publicly warning that the ransom deadline was firm, officials wondered behind the scenes whether that was in fact the case.

On March 31, an official wrote to the department’s lead agency that she wasn’t sure if the April 8 deadline was firm, after Abu Sayyaf had launched another attack on an Indonesian tugboat, kidnapping 10 crewmembers. The terrorist group demanded $1.4 million in ransom and vowed to execute the crew if it was not paid by April 8 — the same deadline as Ridsdel.

“The Indonesian hijak has every potential to complicate our incident,” she wrote. “Of interest is the deadline set by [Abu Sayyaf], coincident with the one set in the latest video.”

“This suggests that the deadline may be something other than a firm date, but that [Abu Sayyaf]’s ‘seriousness of purpose’ might be reinforced by action taken against one of the more vulnerable or one of the two deemed most likely to produce results in the near term from one of the wealthier source country.”

But the suggestion that the deadline might not be firm conflicts with Canada’s public messaging on the hostage situation.

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An Access to Information document sent to VICE News

The same official wrote in a previous email on March 17: “There are good reasons going forward to have on record  … that the Canadian Government believes the threat to the lives of the hostages is not only ‘real’ but ‘imminent.’”

A report, also dated March 17, reads that “key messaging” should be conveyed to the Philippines that: “Canada believes the threat to all the hostages is real: The April 8 deadline is credible with the Filipino hostage and one of the Canadians most at risk.”

Government officials disagreed on what their diplomatic approach should be, according to the emails.

After the March 10 video emerged online, which set the April deadline, the Philippine Ambassador suggested to Canadian officials that Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion should speak with Philippine Foreign Secretary of the day Jose Rene Dimataga Almendras, who had just been appointed, saying “it would be a wise step for Canada to take if we are to secure Philippines buy-in.”

On March 11, Canadian officials marked this phone call “high” importance and said it should happen at the earliest opportunity “including over the weekend if possible.”

But the urgent call fell to the wayside as another government department decided “not to pursue.” It was only after a terse email on March 17 from the Canadian official who first suggested the call that it was finally arranged.

The official’s follow-up email reminded the rest of the staff that the call could have been made “literally during the first hour the new Foreign Secretary was in his new job.” But noted: “The call was stood down that afternoon.”

Finally, after the official underscored “seriousness of purpose with regard to the issue discussed today — and given its implications,” the call was arranged.

When the call took place March 21 in the late evening, it was “very cordial” and lasted just over 10 minutes. Dion stuck to similar talking points as Trudeau.

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An Access to Information document sent to VICE News

On April 14, only days before Ridsdel was killed, the same official forwarded a news report that the United States had sent 300 troops and combat aircraft to the Philippines in response to China’s increased development in the South China Sea.

“This one may well impact the critical incident [the kidnappings], i.e. provide a handy excuse, if demands are not met, even if US (temporary) deployments including reportedly of special ops elements, are related ostensibly to countering Chinese heft, not ISIS-affiliated or wannabe groups,” one email reads.

VICE News asked Global Affairs to clarify this statement, but did not immediately hear back.

The April 8 deadline came and went. A fourth video claiming to be a final warning was released April 15, this time demanding $300 million in Philippine Pesos (CAD $2.7 million) for Ridsdel by 3 p.m. Philippine time on April 25.

On April 25, the militants carried out their threat, beheading Ridsdel and posting the footage online.

The day Ridsdel was murdered was “a difficult day,” a Canadian official wrote in an email.

Canadian officials appear to have first learned of the murder on April 25 around 6:30 a.m. when the Philippine ambassador called to say one of the four hostages had been killed — but there was no confirmation on the hostage’s identity at the time.

The Task Force on International Critical Incidents, said it had received that information, but “we also have other reporting that may be different.”

When Ridsdel’s death was confirmed soon after, an official wrote that it was an “opportunity to convey any new messages to the Philippine side, given the other Canadian [Robert Hall] is still at extreme risk.” An official replied that Dion should call the Philippine Foreign Secretary in the next 12 to 24 hours.

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