Authorities in the Philippines have recovered a body believed to be John Ridsdel, the Canadian man beheaded by a kidnapping group, amid an aggressive military operation to free dozens of other captives, including at least one Canadian.
The body was found in a dry mountain creek near Gata, a small village district in frontier Sulu province, at around 10 a.m. Wednesday, according to a government report obtained by The Globe and Mail.
"The cadaver was dumped in the creek by the perpetrator, believed to be the group of ASG," the report said. The initials refer to Abu Sayyaf Group, the fearsome criminal syndicate that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, and whose various factions are believed to currently hold 30 different hostages for ransom.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ruled out payment to the group, which has sought $8.1-million for each of the three remaining people captured with Mr. Ridsdel from a marina in the southern Philippines last September. Among them is another Canadian, Robert Hall, and his Filipina girlfriend, Maritess Flor.
"Paying ransom for Canadians would endanger the lives of every single one of the millions of Canadians who live, work and travel around the globe every single year," Mr. Trudeau said.
In the Philippines, however, history suggests the failure to pay a ransom will jeopardize the lives of those now the subject of an international manhunt, with Canadian authorities mulling sending their own personnel on a rescue mission.
"If there is no ransom payment, they will behead the victims. That is their usual practice," said Brigadier-General Alan Arrojado, who until early April led Joint Task Group Sulu, the military unit charged with the area where Abu Sayyaf maintains its strongholds.
Attempts to free captives by force often did not succeed. Out of 19 kidnapping victims during Brig.-Gen. Arrojado's tenure, only three were saved by soldiers. The number of hostages rescued by military intervention equalled the number executed.
In the Philippines, local media reported that Mr. Ridsdel was killed after his family and friends raised a payment that amounted to only a fraction of what Abu Sayyaf demanded.
Military and police in the region have said "there was a negotiation, but it failed because of the large amount that the kidnappers are demanding," said retired police general Rodolfo Mendoza, who spent 30 years in Philippine intelligence.
"The primary reason why he was beheaded is that there was a failure of the ransom negotiation payment."
The killing of a Malaysian man last November offers a window into how Abu Sayyaf operates – and how it has used bloodshed to conclude ransom disputes in the past. Bernard Then was seized from a seafood restaurant last May along with one of the restaurant's managers, and taken to the southern Philippines.
The following day at noon, Mr. Then called his wife's cellphone. He kept calling every two or three days, telling her about his situation and conveying his captors' ransom demands, said Christopher Then, his brother.
"After that, they started to threaten to behead him. That was when we were advised to cut off all communications, so that the authorities could deal with them," said Christopher Then in an interview Wednesday. The family was left in the dark about what was happening.
In early November, the restaurant manager was freed. Mr. Then, however, remained. Three days later, after 188 days in captivity, his head was discovered in a public square in Jolo, a small city that is the capital of Sulu province. The circumstances resembled how militants made public Mr. Ridsdel's death.
"We were told that the authorities did a negotiation. We do not have the details of what transpired," Christopher Then said.
But according to a Philippine military official with knowledge of the situation, one faction inside Abu Sayyaf took the ransom money, angering another faction, who felt it had not been properly paid for Mr. Then. "Hence, the beheading," the official said.
On Wednesday, the Philippine military said it knows what is at stake as it mounts a large armed effort in hopes of freeing the remaining captives before they are killed.
Thousands of army, marine, air force and navy troops are involved, said regional military spokesman, Major Filemon Tan.
"They are focused, they know the job and we are fighting," he said. "We will get these bandits soon."
On Wednesday, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III said he was "appalled" by Mr. Ridsdel's murder. The other three seized with him are under the control of Abu Sayyaf leader Radillon Sajiron, the President said in a statement.
"This presents both a problem and an opportunity. It is a problem because of the sizable force surrounding Sajiron and the captives, but it is also an opportunity because smashing these forces is within our grasp," he said.
It's unclear whether foreign forces have joined in that fight.
The U.S. military has expertise in the area, after years of maintaining an anti-terror task force in the southern Philippines that was deactivated last year.
"At the request of the government of the Philippines, U.S. Special Operations Forces does advise and assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines," a U.S. military spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "However, for security reasons, I am not at liberty to discuss details of ongoing advise-and-assist missions."
Brig.-Gen. Arrojado said military operations against Abu Sayyaf have struggled, since it holds hostages dispersed across the islands in the Sulu archipelago, in communities where it enjoys strong local favour.
"The people there support Abu Sayyaf, because they benefit from the ransoms," he said in an interview. "So every time there is an operation, people usually pass information about the military presence in certain areas to help [the militants] escape."
Brig.-Gen. Arrojado was removed from his post overseeing Sulu operations in early April. On Tuesday, he also resigned as a commander of several infantry battalions, citing conflicting approaches in dealing with Abu Sayyaf.
The long-term solution, he said, requires more than soldiers and attack helicopters. What Sulu needs is "a community-based approach. People need to understand that kidnapping brings no progress to the province. It just brings chaos and killings."