To Catch a Terrorist

Mark Bowden, author of "Jihadists in Paradise," on hunting down the story of Abu Sabaya.
From the issue:

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. By Mark Bowden

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Watch CIA surveillance footage and video interviews with the story's key players.

On May 27, 2001, a small militant Islamist group known as the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped 20 vacationers and staffers from a resort on an island in the Southern Philippines. Their hope was to pressure the Philippine government into granting Muslim Filipinos an independent state. Among the hostages were three Americans; two of them, a Baptist missionary couple named Martin and Gracia Burnham, ended up spending more than a year in captivity in the jungle. In his March cover story, “Jihadists in Paradise” Mark Bowden chronicles the hostages’ ordeal and the ultimately successful efforts of the Philippine military—aided by American intelligence—to eliminate the group’s leading figure.

Although the Philippine government had long considered the Abu Sayyaf Group a threat, the United States government was fairly indifferent to their presence—even after the three American citizens were taken hostage. The press, too, reacted somewhat apathetically, leaving the public for the most part uninformed. The day of the kidnappings, the Associated Press reported tersely, “American tourists among hostages taken from Philippine resort.” Many major U.S. newspapers failed to cover the story at all, or, if they did, their editors gave it short shrift. The Washington Post, for example, buried the story on page 12A. For several months after the kidnappings, the only New York Times mention of the Burnhams was in short clips pulled from the AP or Reuters.

But just a few months later, Bowden notes, after Islamic terrorists struck dramatically inside the United States on 9/11,  “everything changed. No longer was Abu Sayyaf just an obscure group of kidnappers; it was now a regional arm of the international Islamist menace.” Journalists began to explore links between the Abu Sayyaf and Osama bin Laden, and the small islands in the Southern Philippines known as Abu Sayyaf territory began to come into focus for many Americans. Today, one can easily pull up think-tank profiles of the group, and the Abu Sayyaf Group is cited on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

In “Jihadists in Paradise,” Bowden calls attention to the evolving American response to militant Islamist terrorism and explores the psychology and strategies of a group seeking to become a part of the global jihad. Bowden asks his readers to question our assumptions about the endurance of religiously motivated terrorism and points to the U.S. and Philippine militaries’ handling of this episode as a model for combating militant Islamic terrorism in the future:

Eliminating [Aldam Tilao, the group’s leading figure and spokesperson] was a small, early success in what the Bush administration calls the “global war on terror,” but in the shadow of efforts like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it went largely unnoticed. As a model for the long-term fight against militant Islam, however, the hunt for Tilao is better than either of those larger engagements. Because the enemy consists of small cells operating independently all over the globe, success depends on local intelligence and American assistance subtle enough to avoid charges of imperialism or meddling, charges that often provoke a backlash and feed the movement.

This story, which engagingly details everything from the hostages’ practice of licking candy wrappers clean when hunger pangs were particularly intense to the high-tech surveillance gizmos the U.S. and Philippine militaries employed, sheds useful light on how the U.S. can cooperate with local forces and enters into a larger conversation about the future of the U.S. armed forces.

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. We spoke by telephone on January 19.

—Justine Isola


The events you write about happened for the most part a number of years ago. What made you decide to do the story now?

I became interested in this story when it happened as I’m curious about many things that I hear a little bit about. And I got more interested recently when the opportunity arose to peer behind the scenes and find out exactly how it happened.

How did you make contact with your sources?

I traveled to the Philippines in April of last year with my cousin, David Keane, a filmmaker who frequently accompanies me on my international travel. Prior to leaving, we had made contact with some of the principals involved in this story, so we arrived with a clear agenda. And more than in any story I’ve ever written, everything went according to plan.

We were able to contact all the people we wanted to talk with. And we learned in the process about some other sources, like Alvin Siglos, who I didn’t know of until I started the reporting in the Philippines. We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with everyone we wanted to talk to, and we interviewed them in-depth over a period of about two weeks of travel and reporting. It was one of the more efficient reporting outings I’ve ever been on.

Are your sources usually cooperative?

I’ve found over the years that nearly everyone is dying to tell his or her story.

What about people who are reluctant? How do you get them to open up?

There are various reasons why people won’t, and I think your job as a reporter is to try to figure out what’s keeping someone from doing so in those cases where someone is reluctant. You have to try to address their fears or their concerns honestly but in such a way that makes them feel comfortable enough to talk. It’s really more a process of clearing away the debris so that the dam can break and the water can flow than it is coaxing information from people. So many times in my life people have asked me “how did you get this person to talk to you”? And the answer is, “I showed up; I showed up, and I asked.”

Can you expand on that?

My approach to interviewing subjects has always been very conversational. I find it puts people at ease if they don’t feel like every word is being weighed as they speak, but rather there’s an informal give and take going on. The key when you’re interviewing someone is to be conversational, but never to lose sight of your goals. You have to be a meta-conversationalist. You go in with a plan, and you’re willing to throw the plan out the window the minute the conversation starts going in an interesting new direction. But you also have to steer it. But if you steer it too much, you ruin the chance that you’re going to learn something that you would have never even thought to ask about. So you can’t go in with a list of questions and sit there and ask number one and wait for the response, then question number two. But you also can’t give yourself over completely to the pleasure of a friendly conversation.

And your sources for this piece were particularly cooperative?

I find frequently that when there’s American military involvement overseas and the American role is classified, the folks who worked with the Americans overseas are not the least bit reticent about discussing them openly. If you want to understand how the United States military and intelligence operations really work, it pays to go to the places where they work and talk to the foreign elements involved.

It’s really no different than what every reporter learns: If you want to get a good story you need to find the people who were directly involved and talk to them. In the case of the hunt for Abu Sabaya, most of those who were directly involved were Filipino.

Your piece is structured around characters whose perspectives you weave seamlessly into the story. How did  you weigh different sources’ perspectives?

My decisions are mostly dictated by the needs of storytelling. I’m always inclined where possible to tell a story through the eyes of a direct participant. So while I may, for instance, have heard about Arlyn dela Cruz’s trip off to the jungle to meet with Abu Sabaya and the others from Bong [the nickname for Captain Aragones] or Colonel Sabban, I was far more interested in her own account. She was actually there.

As you move through the story, you’re always asking yourself What is the best, most reliable account that you have of what happened here? The virtue of having multiple accounts is that you can weigh different people’s versions of accounts against each other, and you can also take into consideration the participants’ motivations. For instance, some people tend to be very self-serving in their accounts of events so you have to be careful to weigh that tendency against what others have told you.

Did any of your sources stand out as being particularly insightful or credible?

In keeping with how successful the reporting effort was for the story, I was struck by just about everyone. I thought Bong was a reflective, articulate, and interesting character. He had both professional and personal motivations that made him really compelling. I thought Arlyn dela Cruz was a fascinating character, someone who spoke candidly about the problems that her success as a reporter had created for her both professionally and personally. Because of that candor I found her to be especially believable in her account of events. Alvin in his own way was remarkably open and candid. He didn’t try to portray himself as anyone other than who he was, and I think he was very frank about his motivations and his ambivalence. He felt a sense of loyalty to his friend, but he felt a greater sense of loyalty to his family and greed.

I often find working as a reporter that people are infinitely fascinating. Their motivations, their values, the decisions they make, how they feel about the decisions they make, are always really interesting. It’s what makes reporting such a fascinating way to make a living. You have conversations with people that go far beyond the normal conversations that you have in life except with your most intimate friends.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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