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
VII. The Endgame

Colonel Sabban was furious about the raid. He believed there would have been a better chance of keeping the three hostages alive and of capturing all of the guerrillas if Aragones and his reconnaissance team had been allowed to go in. Sabban was determined that the next move would be by his own men. He expected that Tilao’s plan would be to flee the peninsula for his home islands, and for that he would need a boat. This presented an opportunity: If the guerrillas could be confronted on the water, the marines had clear jurisdiction. Sabban also knew that the peninsula was unfamiliar ground for the kidnappers, so they would likely seek to leave it from the place where they had entered. And since they had few friends and allies on the peninsula, they would likely summon the same courier and same vessel that had been serving them so well. Sabban ordered his men to quietly pick up Hamja. If they were going to lure Tilao out onto the water, they would need the courier’s help.

Hamja had painted his boat with an image of a crouching Spider-Man and christened it the Kingfisher, emblazoning the name on the side in the sweeping script of graffiti artists everywhere. For months he had been piloting the Kingfisher without knowing that he was being watched, or that both the boat and the supplies it carried had come from the Philippine marines and the CIA. But he would soon learn.

Hamja was snatched by Aragones and his men off a street in Zamboanga City, and immediately and wisely agreed to cooperate—the marines had a deservedly fierce reputation. Now it was just a matter of waiting for Tilao to summon the boat. The call came sooner than Colonel Sabban had anticipated, on the afternoon of June 20. The guerrilla leader wanted to be picked up between three and four in the morning, at a spot that was a four-to-five-hour boat ride north. That meant the marines had to be ready to leave before midnight. Colonel Sabban was on a flight to Manila, so Aragones had to wait for more than an hour until he landed. The captain knew that the other branches of the military would be angry if the marines did this themselves, so he was reluctant to go ahead without the colonel’s direct authorization. When Sabban called right after landing, he told Aragones he would fly back to Zamboanga immediately.

“But you go ahead,” the colonel instructed. “And just keep on calling me if you need any advice.”

Aragones was daunted by the responsibility, but he had so much to do, he didn’t have time to dwell on it. He had to coordinate the mission on the water with the Americans, so they could get their surveillance plane and backup boats ready. The Kingfisher was still tied up under the safe house in the fishing village, and sending Hamja back to retrieve it was out of the question. The marines didn’t trust him enough to let him go to the house, and sending anyone else to retrieve the boat might sound an alarm. So Aragones and his men waited until dark, slipped into the water, and swam in under the house, cut the ropes tethering the boat to the stilts, and gently and silently eased it out and away. When they were far enough from the shore they climbed aboard, started the engines, and steered it to the navy pier, where the SEALs affixed infrared beacons called “fireflies” to the bow and stern.

Hamja would be piloting his boat, but to keep an eye on him, Aragones recruited a trusted Basilan man named Gardo, who had worked as an agent for him in the past. Hamja phoned Tilao to tell him that all was ready, and that his “cousin” would be coming along because he was more accustomed to navigating between the peninsula and the island. Aragones told Hamja that this was to be just a reconnaissance mission, that he and Gardo were going to be watched from above as they ferried the guerrillas back to the island. But Gardo knew that once they had steered the Kingfisher about a mile offshore, the marines would confront them. The approach would be made far enough from land that none of the guerrillas could swim back. Gardo was instructed that if gunfire erupted, he was to dive off the Kingfisher and break a Chemlight he was wearing as a necklace so that he could be easily seen in the water. Hamja, who had earned neither the trust nor the affection of the marines, was not so fortunate. He was not told that his boat would be attacked; and once it was, he would be on his own in the water.

The Kingfisher was outfitted with several large plastic jugs of what appeared to be gasoline. They were filled about four-fifths of the way with water, and the rest was gas—the fuel is lighter than water and doesn’t mix, so anyone uncapping a jug would smell pure gas. The ruse ensured that if somehow Tilao were able to evade the ambush, he would quickly run out of fuel.

Late on the evening of June 20, just thirteen days after the botched rescue, four boats slipped away from berths at the navy pier in Zamboanga City and steered north along the coastline. Two were U.S. Navy vessels, each carrying a SEAL team. Another was the very same flat, open, gray wooden speedboat used by Abu Sayyaf in the Dos Palmas kidnapping, now carrying Captain Aragones and fifteen men armed with assault rifles, and bearing two M‑60 guns mounted at the bow. Moving well in front of these three was the long, sleek boat that Hamja, its young owner, had for months been using to supply Tilao.

On the monitor inside the CIA’s container back at the base in Zamboanga City, the four vessels showed as gray shadows on a field of black, tracked from above by two CIA pilots in a high-flying RG-8 Schweitzer aircraft. The agents on the ground monitored the vessels’ slow progress for hours.

Sabban was still at the Manila airport when the boats set off. High overhead, the CIA plane executed wide, silent sweeps, moving over the jungle and then back out over the water, keeping its cameras trained on the boats. In the speedboat, Aragones slept. His long hair and wispy beard made him the scruffiest military officer in the Philippines. He could not imagine Tilao slipping this trap, and he didn’t expect him to go down without a fight. The guerrilla had often boasted of his eagerness to be martyred for his cause. With luck, he would get his wish.

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The CIA officers watching the monitors in their office in the container could see everything. The deserted beach registered bright white against the dark gray of the sea, and just in from the water’s edge were the splayed gray silhouettes of palm trees as seen from high above. As the other boats waited just over the horizon, the Kingfisher touched sand. The two men appeared on the CIA monitor as black shadows. Hamja stepped out on the beach, slowly approached the tree line, and then stood and waited.

The aircraft cameras slowly panned up and down the beach, and back into the jungle. After long minutes of waiting, one black figure emerged from the foliage. He and Hamja stood together. It looked like they were talking, as the second man could be seen gesturing with his hands. Then, from a point farther up the beach, a group of figures emerged—it was hard to tell how many. They were moving close together, and on the screen they blended into a black blob. A bird flew above them. As they moved down the beach, they spread out into separate shadows, so distinct that the CIA monitor in Zamboanga City showed their legs moving as they walked toward the boat.

While Hamja was on the beach with the others, Gardo had activated the fireflies as instructed, by pushing a button on the bottom of each. The signals, silent and invisible to the naked eye, appeared as bright, blinking beacons to the aircraft’s infrared camera. Once the Kingfisher had moved offshore, the beacons would allow the pursuers to spot it with night-vision binoculars.

The boat shoved off. When it had steered about a kilometer offshore, it turned south. The marines followed the vessel’s progress for a time, waiting for it to come farther out to sea, but it seemed to have set its course, and was staying about a kilometer from shore. This was a problem. What if the guerrillas decided to make a run for it? The Kingfisher was fast and maneuverable, and Tilao might be able to get close enough to the shoreline for him and his men to swim to land. So the marines changed plans: they would ram it. Their boat was much larger than the Kingfisher, so ramming would most likely break and sink the smaller craft. The men aboard would be dumped into the water.

On the CIA’s screen, the white speck of the Kingfisher could be seen plowing steadily on, leaving its long black wake. When the Schweitzer passed directly overhead, the officers could see the forms of nine men on board, most of them toward the stern.

Then the marine speedboat, moving much faster, jumped onto the screen from the bottom, cut rapidly across the smaller vessel’s wake, and then turned hard right, aiming straight for the Kingfisher’s port side.

Aboard the speedboat, Aragones and his men leaned forward expectantly. Their three motors were quieter than the Kingfisher’s, so Aragones’s strike force would be seen before being heard.

“Five hundred yards,” announced one of the men in the bow, peering ahead through his night-vision goggles.

“Two hundred yards.”

“Get ready!” Aragones shouted, and the men braced themselves and raised their weapons; someone switched on the speedboat’s searchlights.

Seconds before the collision, puffs of white appeared on the CIA screen, just off the Kingfisher’s starboard side. Tilao and the other men aboard, including Hamja and Gardo, had seen what was coming and hurled themselves overboard; the puffs were heat from the guns of two guerrilla fighters who opened fire on the speedboat as soon as they hit the water. Onscreen, the speedboat came to a sudden stop, halted by the force of the collision. It then appeared to plow straight through the smaller boat; actually, it was pushing under it and tearing it in two.

Just before impact, the faces of the men in the waves were clearly visible in the speedboat’s searchlights, and their weapons flashed when they fired. As the speedboat swung around after the collision, the marines unleashed a torrent of fire from their starboard side. Aragones felt the burn of the guns beside him and inhaled the smell of gunpowder. He knew the shooting from the men bobbing in the waves would be inaccurate—they were treading water as they fired—so he chose his own shots with care. Mixed with the smoke came the distinct coppery smell of blood.

Then the firing stopped. For a few moments there were just the sounds of men shouting and the lapping of the water. The marines unleashed another furious cascade from the starboard side. Then Aragones heard again the pop-pop-pop of an automatic weapon from the waves. One of the guerrillas was shooting up at the vessel from the port side. Aragones raced to join his men on that side and, as the other men cut loose with their weapons, he squeezed off the last ten rounds in his magazine. The body of the man in the water was cut in half, and vanished under the waves.

Cries came from terrified men in the water. Gardo had activated his Chemlight. Hamja had swum under the marine speedboat and was clinging to it. Hauled aboard with the others—four of Tilao’s men survived—Hamja told Aragones that he had ducked underwater and swum to the port side after the shooting started. Tilao, he said, had done the same. Hamja had grabbed onto the boat, but Tilao had swum out farther, shouted, and opened fire. The man whose body was cut in half had been Tilao.

Captain Aragones phoned Clizbee and announced, “We just killed the motherfucker.”

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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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