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
V. The Special Agent

Outside the small world of military intelligence, Colonel Sabban’s success was perceived as failure: a mere journalist had walked into the Basilan jungle and scored an interview with a man the Philippine armed forces somehow couldn’t find. But within intelligence circles it was a different matter. Sabban’s small unit had accomplished more than all the rest of the Philippine military: It had not only found Tilao; it had also secured, in Alvin Siglos, a direct line to the guerrilla leader.

Other military and police intel units began vying for the services of this new action agent, and Sabban had to use all his clout to fend them off. In secret reports about the operation in Manila, the marine intelligence group was identified only as “MC-2.” When American embassy officials began inquiring about MC-2, they were told at first that no such group existed. This was apparently an honest mistake, because no one at the highest levels of the Philippine government had ever heard of it. But contact was finally made, and Colonel Sabban was suddenly awash in offers of help, from both the CIA and U.S. military intelligence.

Video Clip:
Captain Gieram Aragones explains the nuanced relationship between Philippine intelligence and the CIA
(Press the play button to begin.)

Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.

In short order he was dealing with the complexities of America’s military-intelligence bureaucracy, and being amazed by how strictly the Americans followed their rules. He discovered, for instance, that there were things that one agency could deliver that another could not. For military equipment and ammunition, it was best to ask the military-intelligence folks, who were also permitted by the U.S. government to share “lethal information”—intel­li­gence that might lead to a target’s death. For technology and money, he learned, it was best to approach the CIA. Unlike military intel, the CIA had deep pockets. The agency was barred, however, from directly sharing lethal information.

Sabban’s primary American contact was a bald, trig dynamo named Kent Clizbee, a CIA officer who showed up in Zamboanga City raring to go. The term gung-ho was inadequate to describe this big, pale, muscular American. He was nothing like the conventional image of the retiring, blend-into-the-background spy. Looming over his new Filipino collaborators, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, he looked like an American tourist who had taken a wrong turn. But Clizbee was an expert in Southeast Asian languages and cultures. When Sabban invited him along on a strenuous uphill hike for some exercise one afternoon, Clizbee, a U.S. Special Forces vet, earned any marine’s deepest measure of respect by easily keeping pace. He was the perfect ally. He wanted no credit. He didn’t want to plan or run the operation. He was a good listener.

“What do you need?” he asked Sabban. One of the first things the CIA provided was money to buy a new satellite phone—for Tilao. The guerrilla had asked Siglos to get one for him; his own had either broken down or been lost, and he’d been using his cell phone to make calls out of the jungle. There were several cell-phone towers on Basilan, but service was poor. The colonel wanted Tilao to have a satellite phone, because it facilitated the kidnapper’s vital link with Siglos, and with the help of the CIA, it potentially meant being able to pinpoint his location. Siglos bought the phone at a store in Zamboanga; the marines recorded its serial number, and then Siglos passed it along to the couriers who would take it into the jungle with the groceries Tilao had requested—also purchased with money from the CIA. Tilao later called Siglos on the satellite phone and confirmed that he had received the goods, and he even put his captives on the phone—“Uncle and Auntie want to talk to you,” he said. Siglos recorded the call, as instructed, and collected $500 for his work.

Other units and agencies, Philippine and American, with an interest in pursuing Tilao were suspicious of Siglos. The FBI, which regarded all Philippine efforts as untrustworthy, wanted to pick him up as a suspected Abu Sayyaf member. But the truth was that Siglos was fully committed to taking Tilao down. The knowledge that he was betraying his friend pained him from time to time, but once he started down that road he never seriously considered turning back. The way he saw it, Tilao would be arrested and sent to jail, the hostages would be set free, and he would collect the reward money. He would avenge the murder of his uncle and get rich, which seemed a fair outcome to him.

With the Tilao-Siglos connection authenticated, the marines set about making it exclusive. They had been intercepting the terrorist’s letters and phone calls for months, and knew that he had other connections in Zamboanga who served the same purpose as Siglos, sending groceries and supplies. These other contacts began meeting with unfortunate accidents. They were eliminated one by one, until, by early 2002, Tilao had only one avenue for his requests.

And Siglos was a bountiful provider. The CIA arranged things to look as if he was getting money secretly from local political figures sympathetic to the guerrillas, and virtually everything Tilao asked for was promptly delivered. His steady stream of requests included many from Martin and Gracia Burnham, who saw the sudden bounty as an answer to her prayers. At times in the previous months, Martin had hoarded cookie and candy wrappers so that he could simply smell them to ease his hunger pangs. Gracia had prayed for such items as sanitary napkins, a Scrabble game, Nestea, Bisquick, peanut butter, and even hamburgers, and the CIA began seeing to it that these very specific prayers were answered. When Tilao asked for a backpack, the CIA had one prepared with a tracking device sewn into the fabric. Its signals were of no use at first, however, because the agency had to wait for the war in Afghanistan to end before it could get aircraft—manned and unmanned—to track them.

For most of early 2002, thanks to the CIA, the marines had at least a periodic fix on the meandering guerrilla band. When Tilao boasted in radio interviews—saying, for instance, “It’s really an embarrassment [to the authorities], because the superpower can’t do anything to us”—he was doing so on a CIA-supplied satellite phone, which gave away his position as he spoke.

The only hitch was that the spy agency was not allowed to relay the precise coordinates—in part to cloak the capabilities of the CIA’s equipment, in part because the agency had not been given a “lethal finding”—permission to pass along potentially lethal information. When its agents on the ground pressed, their request triggered an argument in Washington. The Pentagon wanted the precise coordinates turned over to Philippine forces, but the CIA refused, instructing its agents to give Sabban and his men only a five-mile radius.

The marines had other troubles. Every time Colonel Sabban requested permission to send a small force of his men under Captain Aragones into the jungle to find the Burnhams and deal with Tilao, the lumbering Philippine army insisted on doing the work itself, sometimes sending whole battalions after the nimble guerrillas. Although it had only general coordinates, the army did come close several times. Abu Sayyaf lost men in these skirmishes. Tilao and his group were feeling enough heat that in early April they slipped off Basilan in a small boat. By now, all of the hostages had been ransomed or abandoned but three: the Burnhams and a Filipino nurse. They made their way across the short passage to the Zamboanga Peninsula, stopped briefly at a small island, and then moved to a fishing village just north of Zamboanga City.

In the days afterward, the guerrillas seemed to have vanished, but then, just as suddenly, they reappeared. Tilao began calling Siglos from his cell phone—service was reliable in Zamboanga City so he did not need to use the satellite phone. U.S. and Philippine intelligence could not get the same precise fix on his position that they had gotten from the satellite phone, but by now they had something even better: aircraft.

VI. The Rescue

In moments of despair, Gracia Burnham told her husband she would rather be dead than continue running with their kidnappers. Martin reminded her of their children: “What do you think the kids would say if you could pick up the phone and call them?” Gracia was haunted by their vow to grow old together—it was happening; they were both so haggard, they seemed to have aged forty years. Martin’s weight loss was aggravated by such intense diarrhea that when he was chained to a tree each night, he tied rags between his legs to catch the flow. His ribs were showing through his T-shirts.

After a short stay in the fishing village, the band moved off into the jungle north of the city. Here the guerrillas, no longer on familiar or friendly ground, had to be concerned about being seen, even by villagers. They could not let the Burnhams be seen, so the couple were no longer allowed to bathe in rivers. Tilao seemed increasingly beleaguered, and it was apparent that he was tired of living on the run. In May, during an interview with Radio Mindanao Network, he warned, “If we see our situation becoming difficult, maybe we will just bid goodbye to these two.” It was clear which “two” he was talking about.

From a base in Zamboanga City, the marines had re­established their Siglos supply line. The action agent delivered supplies to a courier named Hamja, who took them to the guerrillas. From a house on stilts in the fishing village, he would steer his boat up the coastline and leave the goods at a drop point on the beach; Tilao’s men would pick them up and carry them into the jungle. At about that time, in early spring, the CIA agents finally got their aircraft: a Predator, an unarmed, unmanned surveillance drone that flew so high in the sky that it could not be seen or heard from the ground. It was equipped with high-resolution video cameras, one of them infrared.

As long as the guerrillas stayed close to the city, food was plentiful, even fast food. When Gracia told Tilao she had prayed for a hamburger and pizza, he told Siglos, “I would like my goats to eat hamburger and pizza.” Pizza was purchased, along with burgers from Jolli-bee’s, a local fast-food chain. The food was still hot when it was delivered, its glow registering brightly on the Predator’s infrared. Reprovisioned, the guerrillas pushed farther north into the hills of Zamboanga del Norte.

Video Clip:
Captain Gieram Aragones recalls his vow not to shave or cut his hair until Tilao's capture
(Press the play button to begin.)

Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.

Clizbee and a fellow agent tracked the fugitives, working in their “office,” a blue shipping container installed under the reviewing stand at the marine base in Zamboanga City. They studied monitors displaying data from a variety of tracking and surveillance systems. To make up for the CIA’s refusal to provide exact coordinates, Colonel Sabban sent Aragones and an eleven-man team into the jungle to keep visual tabs on their targets. Aragones, whose hair now hung to his shoulders and whose wispy mustache and beard blew in the wind, found them easily, guided by the tracking devices. The marine captain and his men blended silently into the jungle, and waited and watched. Tilao had nineteen men with him, and the three hostages. Aragones felt that if he and his men could choose the moment, they could easily rescue the hostages and either kill or arrest the kidnappers.

But once again competition arose over who would attempt the rescue. The American command, with forces again in the Philippines for the annual joint exercises, wanted to conduct the raid, using one of its SEAL teams. The Filipinos balked at this, and squabbled among themselves. Colonel Sabban argued that since his unit had found Tilao, and since his men were already in position, and since they counted only twenty armed men guarding the Burnhams, the marines not only deserved to conduct the mission but were best positioned and suited for it. He did not prevail. Army commanders were determined to prove themselves.

The raid took place on the afternoon of June 7, 2002, in the rain. The guerrillas had stopped to camp atop a small mountain, the ground descending steeply before them to a stream. As the Philippine army troops encircled the camp and prepared to assault, the Burnhams were quietly stringing up the small shelter they used on rainy days and hanging their hammock. They had just closed their eyes for a nap when the army struck and gunfire erupted. Martin Burnham was killed in one of the first volleys, shot through the chest. The Filipino nurse was also killed, as were some of Tilao’s men. Eight of the attacking soldiers were injured. Lying beside her mortally wounded husband, herself shot in the leg, Gracia played dead, resisting the urge to cry out in pain and terror. When the shooting stopped, she raised a hand slowly, trying to draw attention without drawing fire. The raiding party at first tried to reassure her that her husband was still alive, but more than a year on the run in the jungle had turned Gracia into a hard-eyed realist.

“Martin is dead,” she told them curtly.

The attempt to rescue the three hostages ended up killing two of them. It was a failure in yet another way: Tilao himself had escaped. The army found his backpack—the one with the hidden beacon—but the rebel leader and a small group of men had once again slipped the noose.

Gracia Burnham arrived back in civilization to a storm of media attention. Doctors in Zamboanga City attended to her wounded leg, and by phone she both celebrated and grieved with her family. Just before leaving the Philippines for the United States, three days after her rescue, she was wheeled out to microphones at the airport in Manila, her leg propped up in front of her. She was still gaunt, but she looked clean, rested, and enormously relieved. She seemed suddenly ten years younger. The raid had been characterized by many in the press as a debacle, but Gracia lived up to her name. She thanked the Philippine people for their prayers, and she thanked the government for her rescue. She talked about how much her husband had loved the country. She expressed no sympathy for the riddled, fleeing band of kidnappers, or for their “holy war.”

Presented by

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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