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
IV. The Reporter

Video Clip:
Reporter Arlyn dela Cruz remembers her first meeting with Tilao
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Colonel Sabban, as it happened, had exactly the same thing in mind. He’d been looking for a way to exploit Tilao’s vanity and obsession with publicity, and he had a friend who would be perfect for the job, a remarkable and daring young journalist named Arlyn dela Cruz.

Arlyn dela Cruz was a well-known TV personality, short and slender with long dark hair, big eyes, and full lips, very articulate and very ambitious. Her success as a journalist had been so sensational that it had brought personal and professional problems. In 1993, as a rookie reporter, she had been assigned, much to her surprise, to try to interview members of the Abu Sayyaf, after they kidnapped Fr. Bernardo Blanco, a Spanish missionary. Not only did dela Cruz get an exclusive interview with the group’s leaders; at least one of them, Khadaffy Janjalani, took a shine to her. Over the next few years she repeatedly visited jungle hideouts, bringing back scoop after scoop—videotapes and notes of exclusive interviews with Abu Sayyaf’s notorious leaders. Tilao was among those leaders, and he had greeted her in the jungle camp like an old acquaintance, a fellow celebrity. This struck her as so odd that she had asked Janjalani about him. He explained that Tilao had essentially appointed himself the group’s spokesman: “He likes to talk.”

Intelligence agents disappointed by her unwillingness to share information spread false rumors about dela Cruz—that she was having an affair with Janjalani, that her husband was somehow related to the rebel leader. On one occasion, while working as an independent journalist, she sold the videotape of an interview to a TV station for broadcast, and her rivals denounced her as a mercenary. The backbiting took such a toll on her personally and professionally that she resolved to stop covering Abu Sayyaf altogether. So when Tilao began calling, offering an interview after the Dos Palmas kidnappings, she turned him down.

She continued to refuse interview opportunities until Bob Meisel, the head of the New Tribes Mission office in Manila, personally implored her to get involved. He explained that official efforts had not borne fruit, and that after all these months the Burnhams’ family and friends were eager for any contact at all. Moved by Meisel’s pleas, dela Cruz began looking for a way to arrange a visit with Tilao and the captive missionaries. In November she flew down to Zamboanga City.

Colonel Sabban’s men had been watching dela Cruz for weeks. When she arrived in Zamboanga, they tailed her. Much to their surprise, within days she led them to Alvin Siglos. The colonel called her. “We know what you’re up to,” he said. Dela Cruz was not surprised; she was used to playing games with the various government intelligence units. Sometimes they used her, and sometimes she used them. Often their goals coincided. Sabban did not inform her at this point that his own team had been talking to Siglos. “Go ahead and keep on doing what you’re doing,” he told her. He said that if she and the informant went up into the Basilan jungle, he would make sure they would not be delayed at any of the military checkpoints along the way.

The venture would provide exactly the test of Siglos the marines wanted. If he could take the reporter to meet with Tilao and bring her back safely, it would demonstrate that he had the access he claimed to have. Debriefing him later would give them a better fix on where the guerrillas were, how numerous, and how well armed. It might even allow the marines to set up an ambush immediately afterward. Further, a videotaped interview might provide “proof of life,” showing that the Burnhams were indeed alive and giving some indication of their condition.

The trip into the jungle took two days. The reporter and the informer sailed through the military checkpoints, as the colonel had promised, and set off on foot into the jungle. They walked for about two hours, guided by a villager. Dela Cruz wore a blue sweatshirt and khaki pants, and carried a small digital video camera. She and Siglos were eventually met by about a dozen guerrilla fighters in a little clearing. Leading them was Tilao, looking thinner than usual after his months on the run, but still wearing his trademark sunglasses and black head wrap, dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt and army fatigue pants, with a rifle over one shoulder and a pistol strapped to his hip.

Tilao and Siglos embraced, laughing and crying, delighted to see each other again. “Auntie and Uncle will meet you tomorrow,” Tilao told dela Cruz, referring to the American captives. Then he and Siglos walked off together to talk. Sitting that evening with Tilao’s men, dela Cruz could hear the two friends talking animatedly well into the night, sometimes laughing boisterously, sometimes talking quietly for long periods. They spoke to each other in a local dialect that she didn’t understand. When dela Cruz awakened the next morning, the two were still talking, and she lay on the ground listening to them telling stories and laughing.

Video Clip:
Reporter Arlyn dela Cruz discusses her meeting with the Burnhams
(Press the play button to begin.)

Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.

Later that day, Tilao produced the Burnhams. Both of them looked emaciated. Martin’s beard had come in thick and red, redder than the thin, sandy hair on the sides of his head. His cheeks and eye sockets were hollow, and his neck appeared long and very thin. His worn clothing hung on him. Gracia was similarly wan, her face lined and her eyes puffy. She smiled warmly and then quietly wept when she was introduced to dela Cruz and Siglos. Gracia was amazed that a reporter had found them in the jungle—but why a reporter and not a rescue force?

They spoke for more than an hour, the meeting recorded on videotape. Martin seemed matter-of-fact about their predicament, even resigned to it. He was poised, in firm control of his emotions. He talked about his determination to return home to his children. Gracia’s pain was closer to the surface, as was her anger. She spoke of her fear of being executed, her expectation of death. Most of Gracia’s anger was directed at the Philippine government.

They parted later that day. Dela Cruz hugged Gracia and Martin, promising to carry their message to their children, to their friends, and to the world. Tilao and Siglos choked up on parting. Dela Cruz and Siglos were then led away, and after a surprisingly short walk down the mountain, they arrived at a military outpost. Soon after dela Cruz’s return to Manila, her interview aired all over the Philippines and around the world.

Sabban and Aragones were heartened: Siglos had delivered exactly what he had promised. After debriefing him and dela Cruz, and watching the videos, the two marines determined approximately where Tilao and his men must be living on the island. But the Philippine army refused to allow the marines to conduct a rapid raid in pursuit. Sabban’s efficiency had embarrassed the army, and it wasn’t about to let the marines close out the mission. Instead, the army decided to pluck Tilao all by itself. Philippine army troops descended in force on Tilao’s hideout, and found no one.

Tilao and the captives had vanished.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. 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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