Jihadists in Paradise

A kidnapping at a Philippine resort triggered a yearlong hunt for pirate terrorists and their American hostages. A behind-the-scenes tale of intrigue, spycraft, and betrayal
II. The Colonel

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Colonel Juancho Sabban describes the unique features of Philippine intelligence operations
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Over the next year and a half, Aldam Tilao would in fact be hunted down and cornered, in a Philippine military operation that involved the CIA and the American military. Eliminating him was a small, early success in what the Bush administration calls the “global war on terror”; but in the shadow of efforts like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it went largely unnoticed. As a model for the long-term fight against militant Islam, however, the hunt for Tilao is better than either of those larger engagements. Because the enemy consists of small cells operating independently all over the globe, success depends on local intelligence and American assistance subtle enough to avoid charges of imperialism or meddling, charges that often provoke a backlash and feed the movement.

The United States would play a crucial but almost invisible role in finding and killing Tilao, enlisting the remarkable skills of the Philippine marine corps for the most important ground work, and supplying money, equipment, and just enough quiet technological help to close in for the last act. Such an approach does present problems; the Philippine operation exposed some of the legal, logistical, and moral challenges of this kind of work. For one thing, the Americans worked hand in hand with Philippine forces who almost certainly murdered people standing in the way of their intelligence operation.

At the time of the Dos Palmas raid, Colonel Juancho Sabban, the deputy commander of southern operations for the Philippine marine corps, was in Hawaii beginning an advanced officer training course offered by the U.S. Department of Defense. On the first day of classes, the attendees from military forces around the Pacific took turns introducing themselves. Sabban—a thickset brown-skinned man in his forties with short-cropped black hair, full lips, big teeth, and a bull neck—spoke at some length. He dwelled particularly on Palawan, where he had been based for part of his career, and which he considered to be heaven on earth. So when he received a first report of the kidnapping, he expressed disbelief: Palawan was much too far away from Abu Sayyaf’s territory; the movement lacked the means to strike at the far side of the Sulu Sea. When the details were confirmed, he was embarrassed, but he was also impressed by what the guerrillas had pulled off.

Meanwhile, Abu Sayyaf was tying the Philippine armed forces in knots. The army conducted raids all over Basilan but was always one step behind. The island’s 500 square miles are mostly jungle, and its people have a long tradition of supporting rebels. Abu Sayyaf found moving and evading relatively easy. Tilao paused now and then to give cocky, even cheerful, radio interviews. From the midst of one firefight, with gunfire popping in the background, he fielded questions from the Radio Mindanao Network.

Where are the hostages? he was asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not with the captives. I’m a hundred meters away from them … We have thirty hostages now. We abducted ten fishermen when we left Palawan … So we can’t be blamed now if we make good what we said earlier, that we will execute the hostages one by one. It’s up to you.”

There was a burst of gunfire.

“Perhaps Gloria [the Philippine president] thinks we can be frightened,” he said. “We’ll keep adding hostages, even if they reach a thousand.”

Tilao went on to say that trigger-happy government forces were killing off the hostages faster than he and his men were. “The military thought that the hostages were our comrades, so two of them were killed. But I can’t tell you their nationalities nor identities. What we will do now, perhaps today, we will [have] executions, but we cannot tell how many and at what time.”

The Philippine army did seem more intent on killing guerrillas than on rescuing hostages. The captives were dragged from hidden camp to hidden camp all over the island that summer, as the rebels engaged in frequent shoot-outs with their pursuers. Martin Burnham and Guillermo Sobero had both been wounded in one such clash; Burnham had taken a stinging spray of shrapnel to his back, and Sobero was hit in the foot, which made it increasingly difficult for him to keep up. To distract and throw off government forces, Abu Sayyaf operatives conducted numerous raids, including one at a coconut plantation called Golden Harvest; they took about fifteen people captive there and later used bolo knives to hack the heads off two men. The number of hostages waxed and waned as some were ransomed and released, new ones were taken, and others were killed.

One victim, in early June, was Sobero. He had irritated his captors from the beginning, partly because of his disregard for their outward show of Islamic piety. He would, for instance, remove his shirt in the oppressive heat, exposing his arms and torso in a way they considered “un-Islamic.” They also coveted his young girlfriend. One day several of the guerrillas marched him off into the jungle after telling him, “Someone wants to see you.” Sobero had tossed his shirt to Gracia Burnham and asked her to keep an eye on his backpack until he returned. He never did.

Tilao turned the American’s execution into a joke. In another of his frequent radio interviews, he announced, “As a gift to the country on its Independence Day, we have released unconditionally Guillermo Sobero.” Then he paused, and added: “But we have released him without his head. It’s up to you to find Sobero’s head … but the dogs may beat you to it.”

Trudging behind their captors, the missionary couple endured. They focused on staying alive, attending to basic bodily needs—eating, sleeping, staying clean. No strangers to religious conviction, the Burnhams gently engaged their captors in theological discussion and found these jihadists to be shallow, even adolescent, in their faith. Unfamiliar with the Koran, the outlaws had only a sketchy notion of Islam, which they saw as a set of behavioral rules, to be violated when it suited them. Kidnapping, murder, and theft were justified by their special status as “holy warriors.” One by one they sexually appropriated several of the women captives, claiming them as “wives.”

Despite Sobero’s murder and the Burnhams’ continuing ordeal, the American government and the American public were largely indifferent. In this pre–9/11 era, the matter was regarded as a typical Third World outrage, the kind of nightmare often faced by missionaries in dangerous places. The official U.S. response was limited to occasional comments from the embassy in Manila, condemning the crime and demanding the hostages’ release. Despite a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, the FBI would eventually be involved in a futile attempt to ransom the couple, losing $300,000 in the process. The money is believed to have been stolen by elements within the Philippine police.

After 9/11, everything changed. No longer was Abu Sayyaf just an obscure group of kidnappers; it was now a regional arm of the international Islamist menace. The fate of Sobero and the Burnhams was suddenly on the lips of powerful people in Washington. During a White House meeting with Philippine President Arroyo, President Bush said the United States was prepared to help “in any way she suggests.” Given the ham-handed efforts of the Philippine army to that point, she was clearly in the market for new tactics. Tilao continued to taunt Philippine authorities in frequent radio interviews from his satellite phone.

In the fall of 2001, Colonel Sabban returned from his sabbatical and was put in charge of the Philippine marine intelligence operation targeting Abu Sayyaf. Sabban is a charismatic man, popular, tough, and highly regarded within the marine corps, an elite group so cohesive that at times its members have seemed more faithful to one another than to the government. As a young officer in 1989, Sabban himself had been arrested and imprisoned for following his leaders in a failed coup against then-President Corazon Aquino. Many of the officers caught up in that plot were absolved and reinstated years later, their involvement seen as motivated less by politics than by unit loyalty. The colonel’s career hadn’t suffered. If anything, his rebel past added to his luster as a man to be reckoned with. He knew the southern islands well, and he had what he called “assets in place.”

The marines ran an old-fashioned intelligence operation. They did not have a budget to rival the army’s, and they had none of the technological wizardry of the Americans, who were deploying to the Philippines that summer for joint military exercises, but they had smart, trustworthy corpsmen who spoke the local languages without accent and were plugged into the islands’ families and clans.

Early on, the colonel made Tilao the primary target, and noted two obvious weaknesses. The first was his love of attention, his need to boast of his exploits on the airwaves; there had to be a way to take advantage of that. The second was his local roots. He had been born in Malamawi, a little island just off Basilan, where he still had friends and extended family. It was a small, small world, and Tilao had become a very big fish. He had been an outgoing attention seeker all his life, so he had left a larger circle of connections than most others in his shadowy organization, a circle stretching from Malamawi to Basilan and beyond. Sabban’s undercover agents began mapping Tilao’s connections, identifying family members, old friends, teachers, schoolmates. Then they fanned out, acting as undercover “spotters” to make informal contact. They would strike up conversations with targets, pretending to vaguely remember Tilao from school, or perhaps just to have read about him in the newspaper or heard his voice on the radio. They began to learn things; Tilao had been less guarded than he should have been. People had received letters, some with requests for supplies. The spotters were able to discover who had delivered them. The couriers were then followed, and fresh letters were intercepted and copied. Sabban’s men were careful not to disturb the web; they were content to patiently gather information.

One thing the colonel learned was that a prominent tennis pro on Basilan sometimes played with a man who claimed to have been Tilao’s closest childhood friend. The friend’s name was Alvin Siglos, and there was something very important about him beyond his lifelong connection with Tilao, something that the guerrilla himself did not know.

Being a terrorist often means killing strangers to make a political point, and in terrorist eyes, such deaths have no meaning beyond the political one. But in the Abu Sayyaf’s brutal attack on the Golden Harvest plantation, four of the plantation workers the terrorists had marched off into the jungle were cousins of Alvin Siglos. And one of the two men killed was his uncle.

Sabban had his ticket to Tilao.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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