On Nov. 3, 2015, the day before newly elected prime minister Justin Trudeau was set to name his cabinet, one of the most gruesome challenges of his leadership and his government made itself known.
A terrorist organization half a world away was threatening to kill two Canadians.
In a video shot on Jolo Island in the Philippines’ Sulu Province and posted to Twitter, a man named John Ridsdel addressed the camera.
- Watch Rosemary Barton's documentary on the Ridsdel and Hall case tonight on The National at 10 p.m. on CBC-TV and 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network
“I appeal to the Canadian prime minister, and the people of Canada: Please pay this ransom as soon as possible or our lives are in great danger.”
This secret drama went on for more than half a year.
Behind him were militants who identified themselves as members of the Filipino jihadist group Abu Sayyaf. Clad in black, their faces hidden, they flanked the four hostages, which included Ridsdel and fellow Canadian Robert Hall; Marites Flor, a Filipino woman and Hall’s girlfriend; and a Norwegian man named Kjartan Sekkingstad.
Automatic weapons were positioned within the camera frame and the kidnappers held machetes to each hostage’s neck as they spoke.
The ransom demand was exorbitant — about $28 million for each of the four being held.
Freeing Ridsdel and Hall would be one of the first tests of the new prime minister and his government.
While there was hope that the amount could be negotiated down, the government told Ridsdel and Hall’s families privately what Trudeau would go on to make clear publicly — that Canada does not pay ransom demands and does not negotiate with terrorists.
This quiet, secret drama went on for more than half a year. In the end, neither man made it home alive.
Abu Sayyaf killed Ridsdel in April; Hall met the same fate just two months later.
Throughout the ordeal, the Canadian government remained staunchly committed to its public position. The result was that two Canadians were brutally murdered by a group trying to align itself with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Now, CBC is hearing from the families and friends of the hostages, learning what they went through during those tense months of uncertainty — and how they sometimes felt lost between the government’s no-ransom policy and their desire to rescue their loved ones.
“There really seemed to be a sort of lack of concern bordering really close to apathy on the government’s part,” says Robert Hall’s sister Bonice Thomas.
“Having made that statement, that there will be no ransom — and I think prematurely making that statement — it just seemed to be, ‘We’ve said our piece and we’re done.’”
Bonice Thomas on her brother's death
Ridsdel, Hall, Flor and Sekkingstad were captured on Samal Island in the middle of the night on Sept. 21, 2015 — while Justin Trudeau was in the midst of the longest Canadian election campaign in modern history.
John Ridsdel had worked as a reporter for the Calgary Herald and the CBC and later as a consultant for various mining and energy companies around the world.
Friends and family describe him as curious and adventurous. While Ridsdel grew up in Saskatchewan, one of his great passions was sailing, which he did a lot of during his retirement in the Philippines.
Robert Hall also had a deep love of sailing, and while he wasn’t necessarily a risk taker, he had set out on his own for the Philippines in his boat.
Both men had their sailboats docked at the Holiday Ocean View Samal Resort, located in what is considered to be a relatively safe part of the chain of Philippine Islands.
But black-and-white CCTV video shows that around midnight on Sept. 21, as many as 11 heavily armed men marched Ridsdel, Hall and the others up the plank from the marina to waiting speedboats.
Thanks to friends on the ground in the Philippines, sources close to the Ridsdel family say they knew within hours that John had been taken. The Hall family was also alerted.
While Canadian officials provided regular updates in those first few weeks, the families had very little information about the kidnappers or what they wanted.
It wasn’t until a video appeared in mid-October that they knew for certain that Ridsdel and Hall were alive. That first video didn’t include a ransom demand, but rather a request for local military assaults on the group to stop.
It wasn’t until that second video in November that they started asking for money.
Ridsdel and Hall had been taken by a group notorious for its brutality and with a history of kidnapping foreigners and demanding outrageous sums for their release.
Established in the early ‘90s, Abu Sayyaf is described as a separatist organization whose stated aim is to create an independent Islamic state for the Filipino minority.
Fragmented and consisting of only a few hundred men, Abu Sayyaf rose to prominence by abducting tourists. As a result of a loose affiliation with al-Qaeda, the group began staging a series of mass bombings, including a 2004 ferry attack that killed 116 people, the deadliest assault in the Philippines’ history.
In 2014, Abu Sayyaf’s main leader pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Abu Sayyaf came under increased pressure from the U.S. military, which had deployed over 1,500 troops to the Philippines as part of the global war on terror. As a result, the group pivoted from high-profile attacks back towards securing a revenue stream through kidnappings for ransom.
Although Public Safety Canada has listed Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist entity since 2003, experts argue the group operates more like a criminal organization, motivated by profit rather than ideology.
In 2014, Abu Sayyaf’s main leader, Isnilon Hapilon, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and Hall and Ridsdel appear to have been caught up in the frantic surge of kidnappings that followed.
A joint Philippine military and police analysis claims Abu Sayyaf earned nearly $7 million US in ransom payments in the first six months of 2016 alone — including a suspected $5.7-million Cdn payment to save the lives of two German hostages freed just days after Ridsdel and Hall were abducted.
The Canadian government made it explicitly clear that it did not pay ransoms to terrorists.
Neither family questioned the policy. In fact, both broadly supported it. Even so, they didn’t hesitate in trying to raise the money themselves.
Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier and federal Liberal leader and a longtime friend of Ridsdel’s, was asked to get involved to help the family navigate the situation.
Rae had done extensive work as an MP helping the families of Robert Fowler and Louis Guay after those men were kidnapped in Mali in 2008 by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
“It would be an exaggeration to say [the Ridsdel and Hall families] were on their own, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that I think there were times when they felt that they were kind of, you know, dancing in the dark,” says Rae.
“They just didn’t quite know… how to get to the next stage.”
Indeed, while the RCMP and officials from Global Affairs supported the families, Ridsdel and Hall’s loved ones say they never felt fully informed about how the situation would proceed.
'I started to become quite concerned with the... lack of strategy.'
In fact, they had a growing sense that the Canadian government had no coherent strategy, or even expertise, in handling a designated terrorist organization.
“I started to become quite concerned with the sort of lack of direction, or lack of strategy, or knowledge about who we were dealing with,” says Bonice Thomas. “So I think our questions were amping up as to what exactly was going on here.”
The Halls and Ridsdels weren’t the only ones wondering what the Trudeau government was doing to improve the situation.
After naming his cabinet in early November, Canada’s new prime minister travelled to Manila later that month for his first international summit, a meeting of APEC leaders. It was a mere coincidence that it was being held in the country where Canadians had been captured.
Trudeau’s election had drawn international headlines, and in Manila he was welcomed almost like a rock star. He was mobbed at the airport and almost everywhere else he went.
A senior government source confirms Trudeau raised the kidnappings directly with then-Philippines president Benign Aquino and that this was the beginning of regular updates between the new government and Philippine authorities.
Lee Humphrey, a Canadian security consultant, happened to be in the Philippines at the time to get a regular security assessment for one of his clients.
While meeting with local police and military authorities, Humphrey was asked about the small Canadian flag tattoo on his forearm. Soon, the officers were asking Humphrey whether he could get in touch with his government to give Canadian officials an update on the situation.
A former Canadian soldier, Humphrey had no contacts within government, so he sent along messages through tip lines and publicly available email addresses.
Humphrey felt he should alert the government that Filipino authorities wanted to talk.
'This was a very radical, very dangerous Islamic garrison group.'
He wasn’t hopeful the message would get through.
In fact, he was deeply worried about the lack of communication between the two countries.
“This was not your everyday kidnap for ransom for a commercial purpose, where you’re going through a process, pay some money and everybody walks away,” says Humphrey.
“This was a very radical, very dangerous Islamic garrison group that were trying to prove they were up to the standards of ISIL.”
Canada’s no-ransom position was not in fact new. The same policy had been in place under the Conservatives, and it had complicated two previous high-profile hostage situations.
In 2008, Amanda Lindhout was kidnapped by a radicalized criminal group in Somalia and held for 460 days. She was released after her family managed to raise $600,000 in ransom.
Lindhout has since talked about how her mother had to navigate this decision on her own until she managed to hire a private security risk management company.
Also in 2008, United Nations workers Robert Fowler and Louis Guay were taken hostage in Mali. After four months, the men were released. It has since emerged that a third party paid more than $1 million to secure their return.
In his book, A Season in Hell, Fowler recounts his family’s struggles to get information from the government. He also criticizes the RCMP and its lack of understanding of the geopolitical issues at play.
The Ridsdel and Hall families decided to take their own action.
After several months of desperation, the Ridsdel and Hall families decided to take their own action.
One of Ridsdel’s daughters went to Manila that November to get more information on the ground. Hall’s brother also went over, to act as the family’s representative.
They went not only to secure their relatives’ belongings — including their boats — but to try to compel local authorities to help. The RCMP and Canadian consular officials gave them both security support.
The families initiated contact with Abu Sayyaf through a translator they had found in the Philippines. The RCMP advised naming one point person per family to maintain regular contact.
In December, the families finally had their first direct contact with the militants.
As a result, the pace of negotiations stepped up with more contact between the families and Philippine police as well as with the kidnappers directly.
But no compromise could be reached.
A senior government source says there was regular engagement at the diplomatic level, and adds that other than paying the ransom, no option was beyond consideration.
In March 2016, Abu Sayyaf released a new video. In it, the hostages looked gaunt, unshaven, ill and bleak. Ridsdel had been diagnosed with tuberculosis some time before being captured. Over the last few months, the family had only managed to get medication to him once, and there was concern about how much longer he could hold out.
The men’s pleas were more desperate now.
Shirtless and bearded, Hall admitted in the video that he didn’t know how much the ransom was, but said “the Canadian government has to get off its ass and do what is necessary to get us out of here soon.”
Ridsdel said he knew he would be killed if nothing was done.
The families began to mobilize. They ended up selling belongings and liquidating stocks and much of their savings.
Abu Sayyaf announced the new deadline for ransom was April 8, one month away.
But now they were only asking for $6 million per hostage.
The families began to mobilize more urgently. They considered re-mortgaging properties. They ended up selling belongings and liquidating stocks and much of their savings. They also called upon friends who might be able to contribute money to the ransom pot.
Neither family was able to get anywhere near the sum Abu Sayyaf requested, so they decided to pool the money so the amount was larger.
The deadline came and went. Miraculously, no one was killed.
In another video posted April 15, the captors gave a new deadline: 3 p.m. on April 25. The terrorists declared it the final ultimatum.
As they had done before, the families got on the phone and spoke to the terrorists directly to try and buy more time.
The RCMP coached the families on how to make a direct emotional appeal to the terrorists, instructing them to say they had done everything possible to raise the money and couldn’t do any more.
One of Ridsdel’s daughters spoke directly to Abu Sayyaf’s spokesperson several times. She calls it a “horrible experience.”
The families wondered whether they would be prosecuted for paying a ransom.
The RCMP says it worked hard to help the families through a traumatic situation.
“It is not unusual for family members to focus their emotions towards authorities in an effort to understand what is happening to them," says RCMP spokesperson Harold Pfleiderer. "This is particularly so in cases with adverse outcomes, and the RCMP recognizes and accepts this.”
At one point, the families asked the RCMP how they would go about getting the money to the Philippines. The Mounties said they couldn’t advise on that front.
In fact, sources say any time the issue of money came up during a phone call with Abu Sayyaf, RCMP officials would have to leave the room, given that providing money to a terrorist organization is illegal under Canadian law.
This led the families to wonder whether they themselves would be prosecuted for paying a ransom.
Family representatives once again traveled to Manila, to send the message to local authorities that they were serious and that they had raised all the money they could.
Meanwhile, Rae appealed to the Canadian government to see what could be done to bridge the gap between what the families had and what the terrorists wanted.
He was told no — the government’s position remained firm.
Lee Humphrey on hostage interventions
While the Trudeau government seemed to suggest nothing more could be done, security consultant Lee Humphrey says the Philippine military actually had a rescue operation ready to go.
Humphrey’s work had brought him back to the Philippines in February, which is when he learned that authorities had located the hostages. Using GPS tracking devices, satellite imagery and phone intercepts, authorities pinpointed the militants in a remote jungle camp on Jolo Island, more than 500 kilometres southwest from where Ridsdel, Hall and the others had been originally captured.
Humphrey says the Philippine military had drawn up a plan and identified a unit of 40 men who began detailed, mission-oriented training.
“By that point, [rescue] was the only option, as negotiations were simply not going to happen,” Humphrey says.
The Canadian government was not convinced a rescue operation would be successful.
The Philippine military was waiting for a green light from the Canadian government. But given the terrain of dense and unknown jungle and the fact that the territory was controlled by Abu Sayyaf and its supporters, the Canadian government was not convinced a rescue operation would be successful.
For a risky operation such as this, the preference is to have family members reach a consensus. But the Ridsdels and the Halls could not agree on whether to go ahead with the mission.
And so it didn’t happen.
At no point did the members of Abu Sayyaf indicate who they would kill first, and so the families waited with a shared sense of terror.
“It’s kind of hard to breathe,” is how Bonice Thomas described the feeling at the time. “Because we didn’t know who might be murdered.”
Early on the morning of April 25, they got their answer, via direct confirmation from the RCMP.
John Ridsdel had been beheaded. (Villagers had discovered his head on the streets of Jolo. His body was found in a nearby village days later.)
Abu Sayyaf released the graphic video recording of his horrific death on YouTube.
The news landed while the Trudeau government was in the middle of a cabinet retreat in Kananaskis, Alta.
Appearing before a black curtain and Canadian flags, the prime minister grimly confirmed the news to the nation.
“Canada condemns without reservation the brutality of the hostage-takers in this unnecessary death,” said Trudeau.
Given that the other hostages were still in danger, he provided no other details.
John Ridsdel's daughters, extended family and friends began the painful process of moving from rescue to recovery. They pulled their money from the ransom pool, coordinated with the embassy in Manila to bring John’s remains back to Canada and focused on grieving.
They also asked the RCMP to stop giving them regular updates on the situation. It had become too much to bear.
Bonice Thomas says it took several days to determine whether her brother Robert was still alive.
'The hopelessness really sort of started to take hold then.'
Filled with dread, the Hall family made several desperate suggestions to the RCMP for how to resolve the situation.
Had the Mounties reached out to religious leaders in the area to try and influence the captors? Thomas asked.
The RCMP replied that it was a good idea.
That response knocked the wind out of Thomas.
“I just thought, How can you only be thinking of this eight and a half months in? This should have been one of the first strategies or suggestions that we go after, you know?” she says.
“It was really very disheartening, and the hopelessness really sort of started to take hold then. It was just — we got nothing.”
While the Hall family held its collective breath, the prime minister was laying down lines, taking a principled stance in a very public manner.
Back in 2013, G8 leaders made a collective promise to stop paying ransom to terrorist groups, given that countries such as Italy, Japan and France were still making payouts.
In spite of the promise, the practice hadn’t stopped.
Trudeau on G7 hostage policy
So at the G7 meeting in Japan in May 2016, Trudeau, with the help of then-British prime minister David Cameron, got a line included in the final communiqué about cutting off funding to terrorists and condemning countries who pay ransom to hostage-takers.
The press release for that came just days after Robert Hall appeared in a final video from Abu Sayyaf. In it, he thanked his family — though not his country — “for the effort they put in... to get me out of here.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
Hall was killed, in the same manner as Ridsdel, on June 13. Again, Abu Sayyaf released a video as proof.
The Hall family was devastated. Some of them watched the ghastly video posted on YouTube.
“It’s terrifying that his grandchildren may see that,” says Bonice Thomas.
After eight months of negotiations and desperate attempts to bring this horrifying situation to a resolution, two Canadian men were dead.
Their families were angry, frustrated and left pondering what more they could have done.
They also wondered what more their government could have done.
Somehow, the other hostages had escaped Ridsdel and Hall’s fate.
Marites Flor was released in June — simply abandoned on the street. It was never clear why, or whether a ransom was paid for her freedom.
Kjartan Sekkingstad was freed in September after the local government paid a ransom of $600,000 at the behest of the new Phillipines president, Rodrigo Duterte.
In response, Justin Trudeau put out a statement: “I want to reiterate that terrorist hostage-takings only fuel more violence and instability. Canada will not give in to their fear-mongering tactics and despicable attitude toward the suffering of others.”
The condemnation was consistent with Canada's position. But the families wanted to hear more.
They have since been brought to Ottawa to help the government understand the lessons to be learned. That assessment is ongoing.
A senior government source says that given the increase in kidnappings, the goal of this country's policy is to make sure Canadians do not become targets. But officials also believe that a government seen to be involved in supporting the families can be manipulated by terrorists.
Meanwhile, the RCMP confirm it has started an extra-territorial criminal investigation in the Philippines in a bid to bring the criminals to justice.
The murders of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall were of course the worst outcomes for their families. But they maintain that something even worse could happen — that despite their deaths, nothing in Canada’s hostage strategy changes.
Bob Rae on helping the families of hostages
“It’s just the disbelief and frustration at this being just another story, you know — something that came across somebody’s desk and is gone now, and it’s just not the case,” says Thomas.
She hopes that if nothing else, her brother’s tragic death can provide some lessons for future hostage situations.
“I think we really need to look at this, because it’s likely, in this world, that this will happen again.”