To Catch a Terrorist

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

I was curious about the captives and whether you had tried to get access to any of the Filipino hostages or Gracia Burnham.

The answer for the Filipino captives is no. I didn’t make an effort to find them because I knew that the story I was writing was going to be two or three times too long for the magazine. You make these choices as you report depending on what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

I tried to interview Gracia, and she declined and made herself unavailable. I never regarded speaking with her as a high priority because again, I knew I was writing a magazine story, which has limitations in terms of space, and Gracia has written a very good account of her experience in great detail. I had that to draw on, and I’ve found that generally speaking, people who have been through a terrible experience and have written a book about it are disinclined to talk about it further.

They’ve said all they’re going to say?

Exactly. I’d read her book and there were a few questions that I would have liked to have asked her, but they weren’t terribly high priority for me.

Do you recall any of the questions you were particularly interested in asking Gracia?

I wanted to ask her more about Martin and also this whole sordid practice of “Sabayaing,” or forcibly taking some of the female captives as “wives.” I wanted to explore that a little bit further with her —both her fear of that happening to her and also what kind of position that put Martin in. I also wanted to know what her insight was into the motivations of these men who kidnapped her because they claimed to be very religious and yet they clearly had excuses to satisfy every appetite without regard to anyone else. She was in a unique position to observe this. If anything, I think she went a little easy on them in her book.

Before you started interviewing people, had you already formed opinions about specific aspects of the story, or did you find that your conversations drove your understanding of events?

As with most things I write about, I didn’t know enough at the outset to have any opinions. Of course as you learn more about the story, you begin to be struck by some of the decisions that were made, by the significance of the events. I grew to believe that this story was not only significant but that it could probably serve as a model for how the United States ought to use its technology and military power effectively in the world.

Do members of the military share that perspective?           

There are different schools of opinion. There are people in the military who would agree with me —some because they have arrived at that decision independently. I think various factions within the military have their own personal interests at stake. For instance, if you are an admiral you might want to use naval power more, or if you are an infantry general you might prefer an approach that employs your soldiers. I personally think that this kind of an approach makes the most sense for today.

Do the members of the Philippine military share this perspective? In your piece, you suggest that Colonel Sabban and Captain Aragones felt they had a good relationship with the American military and the CIA.

Yes. They were delighted with our support. They would be the first to say that they would not have succeeded as readily if they didn’t have the help from the CIA and from American military intelligence.

It’s sobering that two of the American hostages were killed. Could things have turned out differently? Was the mission a success from your perspective?

It was a great success from the perspective of crushing Abu Sayyaf. It was only a mixed success in terms of rescuing hostages. This story illustrates not only how successful the United States can be when working through indigenous forces, but also some of the dangers of doing that. I believe that the hostages could have been rescued months, months earlier than Gracia was rescued, and that they could have been rescued without killing Martin if some of the egos and competition within the various Philippine military units had been set aside —and if people had been making decisions strictly on the basis of what would be the most effective way to proceed.

I do believe that the United States military probably has a higher degree of discipline in that regard than what you saw in the Philippines. There are also of course moral and legal issues raised by the willingness of the Philippine marines basically to assassinate people in the course of the investigation. The United States is complicit in that to an extent, and that’s a very serious problem we have to cope with in such situations. We can be very effective, but we also have to give up control to an extent that can endanger the success of the mission.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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