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
VIII. The Aftermath

Video Clip:
Colonel Juancho Sabban reflects on the significance of Tilao's death
(Press the play button to begin.)

Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.

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.”

Also see:

"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.

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In