The Sulu Sea is a dazzling and distinct maritime domain, a roughly rectangular patch of Pacific Ocean defined by two chains of small islands—the peaks of volcanic ridges—that parallel each other at a distance of about 300 miles, reaching northeast from the coastline of Borneo to the main body of the Philippine Islands. Tracing a line along the northwestern end is a long, thin island called Palawan. The southeastern boundary is more punctuated, a chain of nearly a thousand small islands called the Sulu Archipelago. The enclosure creates a kind of oceanic lake, sheltered on all sides from strong currents. Its waters are generally calm and stunningly clear. The conditions are ideal for the formation of reefs, which attract scuba divers from all over the world.
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But long before there were such things as recreational diving and vacations in paradise, the Sulu Sea was outlaw territory, a haven for pirates variously called Malay, or Sulu, or Moro—pirates so fierce that for centuries even Western warships gave the area a wide berth. The most infamous of these pirates hailed from the Sulu Archipelago, which is home to the Sama people, notable for their seagoing ways and for their embrace, centuries ago, of Islam. Officially part of the Philippines, the provinces in this region have long been at odds with the nation’s larger, primarily Christian collection of islands to the northeast, and for generations guerrilla forces have roamed the triple- canopied jungles of its island interiors. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the guerrilla movement was dominated by the Moro National Liberation Front, a group with a socialist flavor. In 1996 this group reached an accommodation with the Philippine government and became politically legitimate. But the instinct for rebellion runs deep in these islands, and insurrectionists remain; some style themselves not socialists or communists but jihadists.
Reporter Arlyn dela Cruz explains Abu Sayyaf's attitude toward beheading
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It was from one of the area’s rebel bastions, the island of Basilan, that twenty-one gunmen in military fatigues and long-sleeved black shirts boarded a flat wooden speedboat and embarked on a daring overnight run across the entire 300 miles of the Sulu Sea. The date was May 27, 2001. With three huge outboard motors, the thirty-foot craft was built for velocity, not comfort, bounding at high speed from crest to crest, its flat bottom occasionally slapping down hard in the troughs. The men were all members of a relatively new Islamist faction called the Abu Sayyaf, which roughly translates to “The Bearer of the Sword.” They carried machine guns and the traditional long, single-edged machetes known as bolo knives. The larger world was as yet ignorant of their cause—Mohammed Atta was still polishing his flight skills in Florida, three months away from 9/11—but these Filipino guerrillas were already veteran jihadists.
Historically, the Sulu dispute was local, but among the men on this hurtling boat was one with a larger vision. His name was Aldam Tilao, a stocky and gregarious figure with a round face, smooth brown skin, and a receding hairline that he disguised somewhat by shaving his head and topping it with a beret or wrapping it in a black do-rag like an American hip-hop artist. With his single hoop earring and Oakley sunglasses, he affected the look of a Hollywood pirate.
Tilao was not the group’s official leader—that was Khadaffy Janjalani, a younger brother of the group’s founder (who had been killed by local police in a firefight in 1998). But the younger brother had been eclipsed by the group’s most flamboyant recruit. Tilao was a criminal, and to him Islam was just the latest cover for a lifetime of increasingly violent thuggery. Years earlier he had been linked by local police to Moro guerrillas, and was thrown out of Zamboanga College, in Mindanao, where he had studied criminology. If one of his fellow insurrectionists is to be believed, he was even tossed out of an al-Qaeda training camp during the years he spent in the Middle East, in the 1990s. It was during those years in Saudi Arabia and Libya that he began to worship jihadist superstars like Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who both had briefly set up shop in Manila after Yousef’s failed first attempt, in 1993, to destroy the World Trade Center.
Tilao returned to his home islands a middle-aged man. Taking the name Abu Sabaya (“Bearer of Captives”), he began a campaign of kidnapping, rape, and murder, and emerged as the spokesman and most visible face of the Abu Sayyaf movement. Tilao became a frequent voice on the radio in Mindanao, and he apparently so enjoyed this public persona that he nicknamed himself “DJ,” embroidering the initials on his backpack. His brazen insouciance and sense of style tapped a universal vein of teenage rebellion, which gave the group, despite its shocking cruelty, a hip, antiestablishment feel. Tilao’s ambition was nothing less than to become the premier southern franchise of global jihad.
His target that spring morning was Amanpulo, the most expensive diving resort on the southern coast of Palawan, where he and the others hoped to harvest a crop of wealthy foreign hostages. They would extort large ransom payments from the victims’ families and employers, and shatter the friendly calm vital to the Philippine tourism industry. Palawan was considered completely safe. The trouble in recent years had been confined for the most part to the southern islands. This thrust across the Sulu Sea was a bold move by Abu Sayyaf, and something of a stretch. Indeed, when Tilao and his men arrived in the unfamiliar waters off Palawan, in the predawn darkness, they got lost. The plan called for them to strike before sunrise and set off on the long return trip while it was still dark. But with dawn rapidly approaching, they grabbed several local night fishermen off their boats and pressed them into service as guides. Abandoning their primary goal, the raiders settled for a resort called Dos Palmas. It was built on a tiny island just off the coast, where visitors could stay in the bay area in little white cottages on stilts above the water.
Among the nearly twenty guests asleep in the bay cottages that morning were three Americans: Guillermo Sobero, a naturalized citizen from Peru who ran a waterproofing business in Corona, California; and a Baptist missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, who worked for the New Tribes Mission, a global evangelical group. Martin Burnham was a pilot, and his wife worked as his ground support. They were celebrating their eighteenth wedding anniversary, having left their three children with friends in Manila. Sobero’s wife (whom he was divorcing) and his four children were back in the States. He had told them he was celebrating his fortieth birthday with relatives at a resort in Arizona. Instead, he was halfway around the world, sharing a cottage with his young Filipino girlfriend, Fe.
The guerrillas raided the resort before dawn, first capturing the two guards and then moving from cottage to cottage, banging on doors and kicking them in if they were not answered quickly enough. Martin Burnham put on a pair of khaki cargo shorts and opened the door to his room. Gunmen seized him and took him away. Gracia managed to pull on shorts and a T-shirt and grab flip-flops for herself and her husband before being dragged out behind him, as other gunmen raided the minibar for food. All told the kidnappers took away twenty people, including the guards and a cook. The vacationers turned out to be mostly Chinese Filipinos, and when the raiders learned that two of their three American hostages were missionaries, they were deeply disappointed. The missions were generally poor, savvy, and fatalistic, notoriously unwilling to pay ransom. With their captives huddled on the boat under a tarp against the blazing midday sun, the kidnappers headed southeast toward Basilan.
They would need five days and four nights to complete the return voyage. They miscalculated their fuel needs, and when they ran low on gas they hijacked a fishing vessel and set their flat wooden boat adrift; the Philippine marines eventually recovered it. As Gracia Burnham recounts in her memoir, In the Presence of My Enemies, the hostages sang Disney tunes and Beatles songs to maintain morale, in between their captors’ harangues about Islam. Despite their frightening situation, they marveled at the beauty of the sea around them. Dolphins raced alongside the boat, dodging under its outriggers and occasionally leaping high out of the clear blue water. A tarp-enclosed platform was erected off one side of the boat for the women to use as a bathroom. Martin Burnham, handy with tools, made himself useful to his captors, even showing them how to strap together D batteries to recharge their satellite phone, which seemed particularly important to Tilao. He had the captives use it to call family and friends and implore them to pay ransom, and he used it himself to call a radio station in Mindanao and proudly announce his crime.
“The government only listens when we take people,” he said. “Well, I’ll admit we took those hostages. If [the government] wants to negotiate, it’s up to them.” He also warned, “Now that we have three Americans, you should not take us for granted.” He then put Martin Burnham on the line:
“Hi, my name is Mr. Martin Burnham. I am a United States citizen. I am a missionary … I along with my wife Gracia are in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf, Khadaffy Janjalani’s group. We are safe; we are unharmed. Our needs are being met … We are appealing for a safe negotiation. They are treating us well.”
Tilao had wanted Burnham to also identify his kidnappers as “the Osama bin Laden Group,” but Burnham was unfamiliar with that name and stuck with the more familiar local appellation.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had been in office for only a few months, quickly dashed any hopes that she would adopt a conciliatory approach toward Abu Sayyaf. “I will finish what you started,” she pledged. “Force against force. Arms against arms. This is what the challenge you hurled against me calls for. I will oblige you.”
On the fifth night, the kidnappers and their captives slipped off the boat into the warm, chest-high water off Basilan and walked ashore through the lazy lapping of the tide. Behind them, the spotlights of fishing vessels dotted the horizon. Islanders lived along the shoreline, but like these guerrillas, they knew how to move inland along narrow trails that pushed uphill into the black jungle. By straying just ten feet, a person could vanish into the dense vegetation.