Colonel Juancho Sabban reflects on the significance of Tilao's death
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Tilao’s body was never found, which fed rumors that he had somehow escaped yet again. But interrogation of the four captured Abu Sayyaf men—one of whom died during questioning—confirmed Hamja’s story. Tilao was the final victim of his bloody kidnapping spree.
He had failed to ignite jihad. In the four and a half years since his death, Abu Sayyaf has faltered. Although it survives as a stubborn regional insurrection, it has mounted no spectacular attacks or kidnappings. This past December, police discovered what was believed to be the body of Khadaffy Janjalani. Abu Sayyaf continues to battle marines and to set off bombs on contested islands like Jolo, but shows no sign of resurrecting itself into the charismatic movement it became in the time of “Abu Sabaya.” His removal by Philippine forces did not inspire the larger Islamist struggle he had hoped for; the invisibility of the United States’ role reduced the effort to a local police action. In a world where any visible U.S. military intervention prompts a dangerous backlash, Aldam Tilao slipped quietly and permanently under the waves.
“His death significantly downgraded the leadership and strength of the group,” said Sabban in an interview last year. “He was spokesperson and operations officer. Janjalani is just a figurehead. It was Sabaya who made all the real decisions. Even after the kidnappings in 2001, the others all drifted away. It was Sabaya who kept the most valuable hostages. That right there shows you who the most important figure was.”
"The Missing Reward"
Alvin Siglos has yet to receive any reward from the U.S. government. Why not? The reasons are unclear.
Sabban is now a brigadier general, based in two small rooms off a corrugated shed at the Philippine marine base on Jolo. Captain Aragones is now a major, and clean-shaven, but since he still does undercover work, he wears his hair longer than most marines. Arlyn dela Cruz was kidnapped herself not long after her successful interview with Tilao and the Burnhams, and underwent her own ordeal in the jungle before being released through the intercession of her “friend” Khadaffy Janjalani. She writes a column for The Philippines Daily Inquirer, and reports for Net-25 TV, a UHF TV network in the Philippines.
Gracia Burnham visited President Bush at the White House a month after her return to the United States. Her leg had healed, and she moved confidently in a long, flowery skirt and a lacy white blouse. She spoke about her husband’s unfailing kindness toward their kidnappers, even as they handcuffed him to a tree every night. And she added: “Even though Martin was kind to them, we never forgot who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. The men who abducted us and held us—who murdered some and mistreated others, who kept us running and starving in the jungle—are criminals, and they deserve to be punished.”
Alvin Siglos collected the $100,000 in Philippine reward money and reportedly blew it quickly, gambling on cockfights and throwing big parties. Sabban and Aragones urged him to keep a low profile, pointing out that the terrorist group might target him for revenge, but he seemed unafraid. He has never collected a penny of the $5 million American reward (see “The Missing Reward,” opposite). When speaking of his role in the mission during an interview last year, he broke down crying several times as he recalled his stark betrayal of his childhood friend, and he even defended Tilao. He said the jihadist was planning to release the Burnhams unharmed. The marines had never told him, Siglos complained, that they intended to kill his friend. “Still, he killed my uncle,” he said through his tears. “He was the blood of my mother.”
He still thinks he is owed the American reward, and it would seem he is right.