Click the image below for an at-a-glance guide to the story's key players and an index of video clips related to this story.
I. The Ringleader
The Sulu Sea is a dazzling and distinct maritime domain, a roughly rectangular patch of Pacific Ocean defined by two chains of small islands—the peaks of volcanic ridges—that parallel each other at a distance of about 300 miles, reaching northeast from the coastline of Borneo to the main body of the Philippine Islands. Tracing a line along the northwestern end is a long, thin island called Palawan. The southeastern boundary is more punctuated, a chain of nearly a thousand small islands called the Sulu Archipelago. The enclosure creates a kind of oceanic lake, sheltered on all sides from strong currents. Its waters are generally calm and stunningly clear. The conditions are ideal for the formation of reefs, which attract scuba divers from all over the world.
But long before there were such things as recreational diving and vacations in paradise, the Sulu Sea was outlaw territory, a haven for pirates variously called Malay, or Sulu, or Moro—pirates so fierce that for centuries even Western warships gave the area a wide berth. The most infamous of these pirates hailed from the Sulu Archipelago, which is home to the Sama people, notable for their seagoing ways and for their embrace, centuries ago, of Islam. Officially part of the Philippines, the provinces in this region have long been at odds with the nation’s larger, primarily Christian collection of islands to the northeast, and for generations guerrilla forces have roamed the triple- canopied jungles of its island interiors. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the guerrilla movement was dominated by the Moro National Liberation Front, a group with a socialist flavor. In 1996 this group reached an accommodation with the Philippine government and became politically legitimate. But the instinct for rebellion runs deep in these islands, and insurrectionists remain; some style themselves not socialists or communists but jihadists.
Video Clip: Reporter Arlyn dela Cruz explains Abu Sayyaf's attitude toward beheading (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
It was from one of the area’s rebel bastions, the island of Basilan, that twenty-one gunmen in military fatigues and long-sleeved black shirts boarded a flat wooden speedboat and embarked on a daring overnight run across the entire 300 miles of the Sulu Sea. The date was May 27, 2001. With three huge outboard motors, the thirty-foot craft was built for velocity, not comfort, bounding at high speed from crest to crest, its flat bottom occasionally slapping down hard in the troughs. The men were all members of a relatively new Islamist faction called the Abu Sayyaf, which roughly translates to “The Bearer of the Sword.” They carried machine guns and the traditional long, single-edged machetes known as bolo knives. The larger world was as yet ignorant of their cause—Mohammed Atta was still polishing his flight skills in Florida, three months away from 9/11—but these Filipino guerrillas were already veteran jihadists.
Historically, the Sulu dispute was local, but among the men on this hurtling boat was one with a larger vision. His name was Aldam Tilao, a stocky and gregarious figure with a round face, smooth brown skin, and a receding hairline that he disguised somewhat by shaving his head and topping it with a beret or wrapping it in a black do-rag like an American hip-hop artist. With his single hoop earring and Oakley sunglasses, he affected the look of a Hollywood pirate.
Tilao was not the group’s official leader—that was Khadaffy Janjalani, a younger brother of the group’s founder (who had been killed by local police in a firefight in 1998). But the younger brother had been eclipsed by the group’s most flamboyant recruit. Tilao was a criminal, and to him Islam was just the latest cover for a lifetime of increasingly violent thuggery. Years earlier he had been linked by local police to Moro guerrillas, and was thrown out of Zamboanga College, in Mindanao, where he had studied criminology. If one of his fellow insurrectionists is to be believed, he was even tossed out of an al-Qaeda training camp during the years he spent in the Middle East, in the 1990s. It was during those years in Saudi Arabia and Libya that he began to worship jihadist superstars like Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who both had briefly set up shop in Manila after Yousef’s failed first attempt, in 1993, to destroy the World Trade Center.
Tilao returned to his home islands a middle-aged man. Taking the name Abu Sabaya (“Bearer of Captives”), he began a campaign of kidnapping, rape, and murder, and emerged as the spokesman and most visible face of the Abu Sayyaf movement. Tilao became a frequent voice on the radio in Mindanao, and he apparently so enjoyed this public persona that he nicknamed himself “DJ,” embroidering the initials on his backpack. His brazen insouciance and sense of style tapped a universal vein of teenage rebellion, which gave the group, despite its shocking cruelty, a hip, antiestablishment feel. Tilao’s ambition was nothing less than to become the premier southern franchise of global jihad.
His target that spring morning was Amanpulo, the most expensive diving resort on the southern coast of Palawan, where he and the others hoped to harvest a crop of wealthy foreign hostages. They would extort large ransom payments from the victims’ families and employers, and shatter the friendly calm vital to the Philippine tourism industry. Palawan was considered completely safe. The trouble in recent years had been confined for the most part to the southern islands. This thrust across the Sulu Sea was a bold move by Abu Sayyaf, and something of a stretch. Indeed, when Tilao and his men arrived in the unfamiliar waters off Palawan, in the predawn darkness, they got lost. The plan called for them to strike before sunrise and set off on the long return trip while it was still dark. But with dawn rapidly approaching, they grabbed several local night fishermen off their boats and pressed them into service as guides. Abandoning their primary goal, the raiders settled for a resort called Dos Palmas. It was built on a tiny island just off the coast, where visitors could stay in the bay area in little white cottages on stilts above the water.
Among the nearly twenty guests asleep in the bay cottages that morning were three Americans: Guillermo Sobero, a naturalized citizen from Peru who ran a waterproofing business in Corona, California; and a Baptist missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, who worked for the New Tribes Mission, a global evangelical group. Martin Burnham was a pilot, and his wife worked as his ground support. They were celebrating their eighteenth wedding anniversary, having left their three children with friends in Manila. Sobero’s wife (whom he was divorcing) and his four children were back in the States. He had told them he was celebrating his fortieth birthday with relatives at a resort in Arizona. Instead, he was halfway around the world, sharing a cottage with his young Filipino girlfriend, Fe.
The guerrillas raided the resort before dawn, first capturing the two guards and then moving from cottage to cottage, banging on doors and kicking them in if they were not answered quickly enough. Martin Burnham put on a pair of khaki cargo shorts and opened the door to his room. Gunmen seized him and took him away. Gracia managed to pull on shorts and a T-shirt and grab flip-flops for herself and her husband before being dragged out behind him, as other gunmen raided the minibar for food. All told the kidnappers took away twenty people, including the guards and a cook. The vacationers turned out to be mostly Chinese Filipinos, and when the raiders learned that two of their three American hostages were missionaries, they were deeply disappointed. The missions were generally poor, savvy, and fatalistic, notoriously unwilling to pay ransom. With their captives huddled on the boat under a tarp against the blazing midday sun, the kidnappers headed southeast toward Basilan.
They would need five days and four nights to complete the return voyage. They miscalculated their fuel needs, and when they ran low on gas they hijacked a fishing vessel and set their flat wooden boat adrift; the Philippine marines eventually recovered it. As Gracia Burnham recounts in her memoir, In the Presence of My Enemies, the hostages sang Disney tunes and Beatles songs to maintain morale, in between their captors’ harangues about Islam. Despite their frightening situation, they marveled at the beauty of the sea around them. Dolphins raced alongside the boat, dodging under its outriggers and occasionally leaping high out of the clear blue water. A tarp-enclosed platform was erected off one side of the boat for the women to use as a bathroom. Martin Burnham, handy with tools, made himself useful to his captors, even showing them how to strap together D batteries to recharge their satellite phone, which seemed particularly important to Tilao. He had the captives use it to call family and friends and implore them to pay ransom, and he used it himself to call a radio station in Mindanao and proudly announce his crime.
“The government only listens when we take people,” he said. “Well, I’ll admit we took those hostages. If [the government] wants to negotiate, it’s up to them.” He also warned, “Now that we have three Americans, you should not take us for granted.” He then put Martin Burnham on the line:
“Hi, my name is Mr. Martin Burnham. I am a United States citizen. I am a missionary … I along with my wife Gracia are in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf, Khadaffy Janjalani’s group. We are safe; we are unharmed. Our needs are being met … We are appealing for a safe negotiation. They are treating us well.”
Tilao had wanted Burnham to also identify his kidnappers as “the Osama bin Laden Group,” but Burnham was unfamiliar with that name and stuck with the more familiar local appellation.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had been in office for only a few months, quickly dashed any hopes that she would adopt a conciliatory approach toward Abu Sayyaf. “I will finish what you started,” she pledged. “Force against force. Arms against arms. This is what the challenge you hurled against me calls for. I will oblige you.”
On the fifth night, the kidnappers and their captives slipped off the boat into the warm, chest-high water off Basilan and walked ashore through the lazy lapping of the tide. Behind them, the spotlights of fishing vessels dotted the horizon. Islanders lived along the shoreline, but like these guerrillas, they knew how to move inland along narrow trails that pushed uphill into the black jungle. By straying just ten feet, a person could vanish into the dense vegetation.
II. The Colonel
Video Clip: Colonel Juancho Sabban describes the unique features of Philippine intelligence operations (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
Over the next year and a half, Aldam Tilao would in fact be hunted down and cornered, in a Philippine military operation that involved the CIA and the American military. Eliminating him 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.
The United States would play a crucial but almost invisible role in finding and killing Tilao, enlisting the remarkable skills of the Philippine marine corps for the most important ground work, and supplying money, equipment, and just enough quiet technological help to close in for the last act. Such an approach does present problems; the Philippine operation exposed some of the legal, logistical, and moral challenges of this kind of work. For one thing, the Americans worked hand in hand with Philippine forces who almost certainly murdered people standing in the way of their intelligence operation.
At the time of the Dos Palmas raid, Colonel Juancho Sabban, the deputy commander of southern operations for the Philippine marine corps, was in Hawaii beginning an advanced officer training course offered by the U.S. Department of Defense. On the first day of classes, the attendees from military forces around the Pacific took turns introducing themselves. Sabban—a thickset brown-skinned man in his forties with short-cropped black hair, full lips, big teeth, and a bull neck—spoke at some length. He dwelled particularly on Palawan, where he had been based for part of his career, and which he considered to be heaven on earth. So when he received a first report of the kidnapping, he expressed disbelief: Palawan was much too far away from Abu Sayyaf’s territory; the movement lacked the means to strike at the far side of the Sulu Sea. When the details were confirmed, he was embarrassed, but he was also impressed by what the guerrillas had pulled off.
Meanwhile, Abu Sayyaf was tying the Philippine armed forces in knots. The army conducted raids all over Basilan but was always one step behind. The island’s 500 square miles are mostly jungle, and its people have a long tradition of supporting rebels. Abu Sayyaf found moving and evading relatively easy. Tilao paused now and then to give cocky, even cheerful, radio interviews. From the midst of one firefight, with gunfire popping in the background, he fielded questions from the Radio Mindanao Network.
Where are the hostages? he was asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not with the captives. I’m a hundred meters away from them … We have thirty hostages now. We abducted ten fishermen when we left Palawan … So we can’t be blamed now if we make good what we said earlier, that we will execute the hostages one by one. It’s up to you.”
There was a burst of gunfire.
“Perhaps Gloria [the Philippine president] thinks we can be frightened,” he said. “We’ll keep adding hostages, even if they reach a thousand.”
Tilao went on to say that trigger-happy government forces were killing off the hostages faster than he and his men were. “The military thought that the hostages were our comrades, so two of them were killed. But I can’t tell you their nationalities nor identities. What we will do now, perhaps today, we will [have] executions, but we cannot tell how many and at what time.”
The Philippine army did seem more intent on killing guerrillas than on rescuing hostages. The captives were dragged from hidden camp to hidden camp all over the island that summer, as the rebels engaged in frequent shoot-outs with their pursuers. Martin Burnham and Guillermo Sobero had both been wounded in one such clash; Burnham had taken a stinging spray of shrapnel to his back, and Sobero was hit in the foot, which made it increasingly difficult for him to keep up. To distract and throw off government forces, Abu Sayyaf operatives conducted numerous raids, including one at a coconut plantation called Golden Harvest; they took about fifteen people captive there and later used bolo knives to hack the heads off two men. The number of hostages waxed and waned as some were ransomed and released, new ones were taken, and others were killed.
One victim, in early June, was Sobero. He had irritated his captors from the beginning, partly because of his disregard for their outward show of Islamic piety. He would, for instance, remove his shirt in the oppressive heat, exposing his arms and torso in a way they considered “un-Islamic.” They also coveted his young girlfriend. One day several of the guerrillas marched him off into the jungle after telling him, “Someone wants to see you.” Sobero had tossed his shirt to Gracia Burnham and asked her to keep an eye on his backpack until he returned. He never did.
Tilao turned the American’s execution into a joke. In another of his frequent radio interviews, he announced, “As a gift to the country on its Independence Day, we have released unconditionally Guillermo Sobero.” Then he paused, and added: “But we have released him without his head. It’s up to you to find Sobero’s head … but the dogs may beat you to it.”
Trudging behind their captors, the missionary couple endured. They focused on staying alive, attending to basic bodily needs—eating, sleeping, staying clean. No strangers to religious conviction, the Burnhams gently engaged their captors in theological discussion and found these jihadists to be shallow, even adolescent, in their faith. Unfamiliar with the Koran, the outlaws had only a sketchy notion of Islam, which they saw as a set of behavioral rules, to be violated when it suited them. Kidnapping, murder, and theft were justified by their special status as “holy warriors.” One by one they sexually appropriated several of the women captives, claiming them as “wives.”
Despite Sobero’s murder and the Burnhams’ continuing ordeal, the American government and the American public were largely indifferent. In this pre–9/11 era, the matter was regarded as a typical Third World outrage, the kind of nightmare often faced by missionaries in dangerous places. The official U.S. response was limited to occasional comments from the embassy in Manila, condemning the crime and demanding the hostages’ release. Despite a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists, the FBI would eventually be involved in a futile attempt to ransom the couple, losing $300,000 in the process. The money is believed to have been stolen by elements within the Philippine police.
After 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. The fate of Sobero and the Burnhams was suddenly on the lips of powerful people in Washington. During a White House meeting with Philippine President Arroyo, President Bush said the United States was prepared to help “in any way she suggests.” Given the ham-handed efforts of the Philippine army to that point, she was clearly in the market for new tactics. Tilao continued to taunt Philippine authorities in frequent radio interviews from his satellite phone.
In the fall of 2001, Colonel Sabban returned from his sabbatical and was put in charge of the Philippine marine intelligence operation targeting Abu Sayyaf. Sabban is a charismatic man, popular, tough, and highly regarded within the marine corps, an elite group so cohesive that at times its members have seemed more faithful to one another than to the government. As a young officer in 1989, Sabban himself had been arrested and imprisoned for following his leaders in a failed coup against then-President Corazon Aquino. Many of the officers caught up in that plot were absolved and reinstated years later, their involvement seen as motivated less by politics than by unit loyalty. The colonel’s career hadn’t suffered. If anything, his rebel past added to his luster as a man to be reckoned with. He knew the southern islands well, and he had what he called “assets in place.”
The marines ran an old-fashioned intelligence operation. They did not have a budget to rival the army’s, and they had none of the technological wizardry of the Americans, who were deploying to the Philippines that summer for joint military exercises, but they had smart, trustworthy corpsmen who spoke the local languages without accent and were plugged into the islands’ families and clans.
Early on, the colonel made Tilao the primary target, and noted two obvious weaknesses. The first was his love of attention, his need to boast of his exploits on the airwaves; there had to be a way to take advantage of that. The second was his local roots. He had been born in Malamawi, a little island just off Basilan, where he still had friends and extended family. It was a small, small world, and Tilao had become a very big fish. He had been an outgoing attention seeker all his life, so he had left a larger circle of connections than most others in his shadowy organization, a circle stretching from Malamawi to Basilan and beyond. Sabban’s undercover agents began mapping Tilao’s connections, identifying family members, old friends, teachers, schoolmates. Then they fanned out, acting as undercover “spotters” to make informal contact. They would strike up conversations with targets, pretending to vaguely remember Tilao from school, or perhaps just to have read about him in the newspaper or heard his voice on the radio. They began to learn things; Tilao had been less guarded than he should have been. People had received letters, some with requests for supplies. The spotters were able to discover who had delivered them. The couriers were then followed, and fresh letters were intercepted and copied. Sabban’s men were careful not to disturb the web; they were content to patiently gather information.
One thing the colonel learned was that a prominent tennis pro on Basilan sometimes played with a man who claimed to have been Tilao’s closest childhood friend. The friend’s name was Alvin Siglos, and there was something very important about him beyond his lifelong connection with Tilao, something that the guerrilla himself did not know.
Being a terrorist often means killing strangers to make a political point, and in terrorist eyes, such deaths have no meaning beyond the political one. But in the Abu Sayyaf’s brutal attack on the Golden Harvest plantation, four of the plantation workers the terrorists had marched off into the jungle were cousins of Alvin Siglos. And one of the two men killed was his uncle.
Sabban had his ticket to Tilao.
III. The Informer
Video Clip: Alvin Siglos recalls his high school days with Tilao and the phone call that rekindled their relationship (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
Squat, dark, and powerful, Alvin Siglos had been the leader of a rambunctious gang at Basilan High School three decades earlier. The boys hung together constantly, playing sports during the day and gathering to raise hell at night. Siglos was the soccer team’s captain and best player, and Tilao was a pugnacious defenseman. Reckless and fun-loving, Tilao seemed as far from serious thought about politics or religion as a young man could be. He skipped classes and got in trouble for fighting. His father was an honorable, pious Muslim, but Tilao was not. He and the other boys liked girls, and they liked to drink, gamble, and fight.
Siglos had not strayed far from home or from his youthful pursuits. Sabban found him living in Zamboanga City, a sprawling metropolis just a short boat ride from Basilan at the southwestern end of the large island of Mindanao. He was a cheerful, garrulous man with uneven skin, thick black hair, and a wide face with narrow dark eyes set wide apart. He didn’t look like an athlete, but he was a star in the local softball leagues and was considered one of the city’s best tennis players. He had little education and no interest in religion or politics. He worked only when the need was strong and a suitable opportunity presented itself; he was the kind of man who lived off hustle and charm. He was also an enthusiastic gambler, wagering heavily on the hugely popular Zamboanga cockfights. He knew that his old high-school friend had moved to Saudi Arabia years earlier, and he’d learned only by accident that Tilao was back in the Philippines: One day in 2000 he heard someone sounding like Tilao boasting on the radio, though the voice had been identified as belonging to someone named “Abu Sabaya.” He was curious enough to ask one of Tilao’s cousins, and was told that his old soccer buddy was now the most notorious jihadist in the Philippines. Siglos began boasting that he was the outlaw’s “best friend.”
Months later, word apparently reached Tilao that his old friend had been talking up their relationship, and out of the blue the terrorist leader surprised Siglos with a phone call.
“Are there lots of millionaires there in Zamboanga City to kidnap?” he asked.
“No,” Siglos told him. “We are all poor.”
Another surprise call came after the Dos Palmas kidnapping, and this time Tilao wanted help. He asked Siglos if he had a bank account. He was looking for someone he could trust, someone outside known Abu Sayyaf circles, to collect and hold ransom money. Siglos said he had never had enough money to need a bank.
“I will call you again,” Tilao promised.
These furtive contacts with his friend on the run were thrilling for Siglos, and at first he didn’t waste much time thinking about the nature of the Abu Sayyaf’s crimes, or about its victims. Their childhood friendship transcended such abstract considerations, and he was inclined to help Tilao if he could. Then came the Golden Harvest kidnapping. What Tilao was doing no longer seemed so abstract.
It was at this moment that Siglos was first contacted by an operative of Colonel Sabban’s. The marine asked Siglos if he wanted to work as an “action agent.” Apart from the pay he would receive, the Philippine government was offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Tilao’s capture or death. (The Americans would later put up a reward of $5 million. Tilao scoffed at the local reward, which he considered too small, but was proud of the American one.) At some level Siglos still loved his old friend; and he would later see that Tilao still trusted him. But as Siglos figured it, not even their mutual friends could fault him for informing on the outlaw. Nor could they accuse him of selling out his friend for money: Blood was thicker than friendship. Revenge weighed heavily on the scale. Siglos was so eager to cooperate that the marine intelligence unit was at first taken aback.
Video Clip: Captain Gieram Aragones describes his initial distrust of Siglos (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
Captain Gieram Aragones was unimpressed after the initial interview. He didn’t trust Siglos. A wiry man with pale skin, Asian eyes, and the nickname “Bong,” Aragones was obsessed with getting Tilao. It was the most important job he had been given, and apart from his ambition and professional pride, he found the Abu Sayyaf personally offensive, and Tilao particularly so. The son of a marine chaplain and a graduate of the Philippine naval academy, Aragones was a convert to Islam. He had taken well to undercover intelligence work, immersing himself totally in the culture and languages of Sulu province. To him, Abu Sayyaf was an illegitimate political movement and a bogus religious one. Tilao and the other jihadists gave his adopted religion a bad name. As an outward symbol of his determination, Aragones announced to his men that he would neither cut his hair nor shave until Tilao was either in custody or dead.
Siglos was a potentially important avenue to Tilao, but Aragones judged that anyone who talked so much and displayed such transparent lust for reward money was dangerous. The would-be informant boasted that he had worked many times as an undercover agent for the Philippine organized-crime task force, but his claims didn’t check out. Aragones saw him as a blowhard and an opportunist. Before putting Siglos on the payroll as an action agent, Aragones recommended to Colonel Sabban that the recruit be put to a test.
IV. The Reporter
Video Clip: Reporter Arlyn dela Cruz remembers her first meeting with Tilao (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
Colonel Sabban, as it happened, had exactly the same thing in mind. He’d been looking for a way to exploit Tilao’s vanity and obsession with publicity, and he had a friend who would be perfect for the job, a remarkable and daring young journalist named Arlyn dela Cruz.
Arlyn dela Cruz was a well-known TV personality, short and slender with long dark hair, big eyes, and full lips, very articulate and very ambitious. Her success as a journalist had been so sensational that it had brought personal and professional problems. In 1993, as a rookie reporter, she had been assigned, much to her surprise, to try to interview members of the Abu Sayyaf, after they kidnapped Fr. Bernardo Blanco, a Spanish missionary. Not only did dela Cruz get an exclusive interview with the group’s leaders; at least one of them, Khadaffy Janjalani, took a shine to her. Over the next few years she repeatedly visited jungle hideouts, bringing back scoop after scoop—videotapes and notes of exclusive interviews with Abu Sayyaf’s notorious leaders. Tilao was among those leaders, and he had greeted her in the jungle camp like an old acquaintance, a fellow celebrity. This struck her as so odd that she had asked Janjalani about him. He explained that Tilao had essentially appointed himself the group’s spokesman: “He likes to talk.”
Intelligence agents disappointed by her unwillingness to share information spread false rumors about dela Cruz—that she was having an affair with Janjalani, that her husband was somehow related to the rebel leader. On one occasion, while working as an independent journalist, she sold the videotape of an interview to a TV station for broadcast, and her rivals denounced her as a mercenary. The backbiting took such a toll on her personally and professionally that she resolved to stop covering Abu Sayyaf altogether. So when Tilao began calling, offering an interview after the Dos Palmas kidnappings, she turned him down.
She continued to refuse interview opportunities until Bob Meisel, the head of the New Tribes Mission office in Manila, personally implored her to get involved. He explained that official efforts had not borne fruit, and that after all these months the Burnhams’ family and friends were eager for any contact at all. Moved by Meisel’s pleas, dela Cruz began looking for a way to arrange a visit with Tilao and the captive missionaries. In November she flew down to Zamboanga City.
Colonel Sabban’s men had been watching dela Cruz for weeks. When she arrived in Zamboanga, they tailed her. Much to their surprise, within days she led them to Alvin Siglos. The colonel called her. “We know what you’re up to,” he said. Dela Cruz was not surprised; she was used to playing games with the various government intelligence units. Sometimes they used her, and sometimes she used them. Often their goals coincided. Sabban did not inform her at this point that his own team had been talking to Siglos. “Go ahead and keep on doing what you’re doing,” he told her. He said that if she and the informant went up into the Basilan jungle, he would make sure they would not be delayed at any of the military checkpoints along the way.
The venture would provide exactly the test of Siglos the marines wanted. If he could take the reporter to meet with Tilao and bring her back safely, it would demonstrate that he had the access he claimed to have. Debriefing him later would give them a better fix on where the guerrillas were, how numerous, and how well armed. It might even allow the marines to set up an ambush immediately afterward. Further, a videotaped interview might provide “proof of life,” showing that the Burnhams were indeed alive and giving some indication of their condition.
The trip into the jungle took two days. The reporter and the informer sailed through the military checkpoints, as the colonel had promised, and set off on foot into the jungle. They walked for about two hours, guided by a villager. Dela Cruz wore a blue sweatshirt and khaki pants, and carried a small digital video camera. She and Siglos were eventually met by about a dozen guerrilla fighters in a little clearing. Leading them was Tilao, looking thinner than usual after his months on the run, but still wearing his trademark sunglasses and black head wrap, dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt and army fatigue pants, with a rifle over one shoulder and a pistol strapped to his hip.
Tilao and Siglos embraced, laughing and crying, delighted to see each other again. “Auntie and Uncle will meet you tomorrow,” Tilao told dela Cruz, referring to the American captives. Then he and Siglos walked off together to talk. Sitting that evening with Tilao’s men, dela Cruz could hear the two friends talking animatedly well into the night, sometimes laughing boisterously, sometimes talking quietly for long periods. They spoke to each other in a local dialect that she didn’t understand. When dela Cruz awakened the next morning, the two were still talking, and she lay on the ground listening to them telling stories and laughing.
Video Clip: Reporter Arlyn dela Cruz discusses her meeting with the Burnhams (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
Later that day, Tilao produced the Burnhams. Both of them looked emaciated. Martin’s beard had come in thick and red, redder than the thin, sandy hair on the sides of his head. His cheeks and eye sockets were hollow, and his neck appeared long and very thin. His worn clothing hung on him. Gracia was similarly wan, her face lined and her eyes puffy. She smiled warmly and then quietly wept when she was introduced to dela Cruz and Siglos. Gracia was amazed that a reporter had found them in the jungle—but why a reporter and not a rescue force?
They spoke for more than an hour, the meeting recorded on videotape. Martin seemed matter-of-fact about their predicament, even resigned to it. He was poised, in firm control of his emotions. He talked about his determination to return home to his children. Gracia’s pain was closer to the surface, as was her anger. She spoke of her fear of being executed, her expectation of death. Most of Gracia’s anger was directed at the Philippine government.
They parted later that day. Dela Cruz hugged Gracia and Martin, promising to carry their message to their children, to their friends, and to the world. Tilao and Siglos choked up on parting. Dela Cruz and Siglos were then led away, and after a surprisingly short walk down the mountain, they arrived at a military outpost. Soon after dela Cruz’s return to Manila, her interview aired all over the Philippines and around the world.
Sabban and Aragones were heartened: Siglos had delivered exactly what he had promised. After debriefing him and dela Cruz, and watching the videos, the two marines determined approximately where Tilao and his men must be living on the island. But the Philippine army refused to allow the marines to conduct a rapid raid in pursuit. Sabban’s efficiency had embarrassed the army, and it wasn’t about to let the marines close out the mission. Instead, the army decided to pluck Tilao all by itself. Philippine army troops descended in force on Tilao’s hideout, and found no one.
Tilao and the captives had vanished.
V. The Special Agent
Outside the small world of military intelligence, Colonel Sabban’s success was perceived as failure: a mere journalist had walked into the Basilan jungle and scored an interview with a man the Philippine armed forces somehow couldn’t find. But within intelligence circles it was a different matter. Sabban’s small unit had accomplished more than all the rest of the Philippine military: It had not only found Tilao; it had also secured, in Alvin Siglos, a direct line to the guerrilla leader.
Other military and police intel units began vying for the services of this new action agent, and Sabban had to use all his clout to fend them off. In secret reports about the operation in Manila, the marine intelligence group was identified only as “MC-2.” When American embassy officials began inquiring about MC-2, they were told at first that no such group existed. This was apparently an honest mistake, because no one at the highest levels of the Philippine government had ever heard of it. But contact was finally made, and Colonel Sabban was suddenly awash in offers of help, from both the CIA and U.S. military intelligence.
Video Clip: Captain Gieram Aragones explains the nuanced relationship between Philippine intelligence and the CIA (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
In short order he was dealing with the complexities of America’s military-intelligence bureaucracy, and being amazed by how strictly the Americans followed their rules. He discovered, for instance, that there were things that one agency could deliver that another could not. For military equipment and ammunition, it was best to ask the military-intelligence folks, who were also permitted by the U.S. government to share “lethal information”—intelligence that might lead to a target’s death. For technology and money, he learned, it was best to approach the CIA. Unlike military intel, the CIA had deep pockets. The agency was barred, however, from directly sharing lethal information.
Sabban’s primary American contact was a bald, trig dynamo named Kent Clizbee, a CIA officer who showed up in Zamboanga City raring to go. The term gung-ho was inadequate to describe this big, pale, muscular American. He was nothing like the conventional image of the retiring, blend-into-the-background spy. Looming over his new Filipino collaborators, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, he looked like an American tourist who had taken a wrong turn. But Clizbee was an expert in Southeast Asian languages and cultures. When Sabban invited him along on a strenuous uphill hike for some exercise one afternoon, Clizbee, a U.S. Special Forces vet, earned any marine’s deepest measure of respect by easily keeping pace. He was the perfect ally. He wanted no credit. He didn’t want to plan or run the operation. He was a good listener.
“What do you need?” he asked Sabban. One of the first things the CIA provided was money to buy a new satellite phone—for Tilao. The guerrilla had asked Siglos to get one for him; his own had either broken down or been lost, and he’d been using his cell phone to make calls out of the jungle. There were several cell-phone towers on Basilan, but service was poor. The colonel wanted Tilao to have a satellite phone, because it facilitated the kidnapper’s vital link with Siglos, and with the help of the CIA, it potentially meant being able to pinpoint his location. Siglos bought the phone at a store in Zamboanga; the marines recorded its serial number, and then Siglos passed it along to the couriers who would take it into the jungle with the groceries Tilao had requested—also purchased with money from the CIA. Tilao later called Siglos on the satellite phone and confirmed that he had received the goods, and he even put his captives on the phone—“Uncle and Auntie want to talk to you,” he said. Siglos recorded the call, as instructed, and collected $500 for his work.
Other units and agencies, Philippine and American, with an interest in pursuing Tilao were suspicious of Siglos. The FBI, which regarded all Philippine efforts as untrustworthy, wanted to pick him up as a suspected Abu Sayyaf member. But the truth was that Siglos was fully committed to taking Tilao down. The knowledge that he was betraying his friend pained him from time to time, but once he started down that road he never seriously considered turning back. The way he saw it, Tilao would be arrested and sent to jail, the hostages would be set free, and he would collect the reward money. He would avenge the murder of his uncle and get rich, which seemed a fair outcome to him.
With the Tilao-Siglos connection authenticated, the marines set about making it exclusive. They had been intercepting the terrorist’s letters and phone calls for months, and knew that he had other connections in Zamboanga who served the same purpose as Siglos, sending groceries and supplies. These other contacts began meeting with unfortunate accidents. They were eliminated one by one, until, by early 2002, Tilao had only one avenue for his requests.
And Siglos was a bountiful provider. The CIA arranged things to look as if he was getting money secretly from local political figures sympathetic to the guerrillas, and virtually everything Tilao asked for was promptly delivered. His steady stream of requests included many from Martin and Gracia Burnham, who saw the sudden bounty as an answer to her prayers. At times in the previous months, Martin had hoarded cookie and candy wrappers so that he could simply smell them to ease his hunger pangs. Gracia had prayed for such items as sanitary napkins, a Scrabble game, Nestea, Bisquick, peanut butter, and even hamburgers, and the CIA began seeing to it that these very specific prayers were answered. When Tilao asked for a backpack, the CIA had one prepared with a tracking device sewn into the fabric. Its signals were of no use at first, however, because the agency had to wait for the war in Afghanistan to end before it could get aircraft—manned and unmanned—to track them.
For most of early 2002, thanks to the CIA, the marines had at least a periodic fix on the meandering guerrilla band. When Tilao boasted in radio interviews—saying, for instance, “It’s really an embarrassment [to the authorities], because the superpower can’t do anything to us”—he was doing so on a CIA-supplied satellite phone, which gave away his position as he spoke.
The only hitch was that the spy agency was not allowed to relay the precise coordinates—in part to cloak the capabilities of the CIA’s equipment, in part because the agency had not been given a “lethal finding”—permission to pass along potentially lethal information. When its agents on the ground pressed, their request triggered an argument in Washington. The Pentagon wanted the precise coordinates turned over to Philippine forces, but the CIA refused, instructing its agents to give Sabban and his men only a five-mile radius.
The marines had other troubles. Every time Colonel Sabban requested permission to send a small force of his men under Captain Aragones into the jungle to find the Burnhams and deal with Tilao, the lumbering Philippine army insisted on doing the work itself, sometimes sending whole battalions after the nimble guerrillas. Although it had only general coordinates, the army did come close several times. Abu Sayyaf lost men in these skirmishes. Tilao and his group were feeling enough heat that in early April they slipped off Basilan in a small boat. By now, all of the hostages had been ransomed or abandoned but three: the Burnhams and a Filipino nurse. They made their way across the short passage to the Zamboanga Peninsula, stopped briefly at a small island, and then moved to a fishing village just north of Zamboanga City.
In the days afterward, the guerrillas seemed to have vanished, but then, just as suddenly, they reappeared. Tilao began calling Siglos from his cell phone—service was reliable in Zamboanga City so he did not need to use the satellite phone. U.S. and Philippine intelligence could not get the same precise fix on his position that they had gotten from the satellite phone, but by now they had something even better: aircraft.
VI. The Rescue
In moments of despair, Gracia Burnham told her husband she would rather be dead than continue running with their kidnappers. Martin reminded her of their children: “What do you think the kids would say if you could pick up the phone and call them?” Gracia was haunted by their vow to grow old together—it was happening; they were both so haggard, they seemed to have aged forty years. Martin’s weight loss was aggravated by such intense diarrhea that when he was chained to a tree each night, he tied rags between his legs to catch the flow. His ribs were showing through his T-shirts.
After a short stay in the fishing village, the band moved off into the jungle north of the city. Here the guerrillas, no longer on familiar or friendly ground, had to be concerned about being seen, even by villagers. They could not let the Burnhams be seen, so the couple were no longer allowed to bathe in rivers. Tilao seemed increasingly beleaguered, and it was apparent that he was tired of living on the run. In May, during an interview with Radio Mindanao Network, he warned, “If we see our situation becoming difficult, maybe we will just bid goodbye to these two.” It was clear which “two” he was talking about.
From a base in Zamboanga City, the marines had reestablished their Siglos supply line. The action agent delivered supplies to a courier named Hamja, who took them to the guerrillas. From a house on stilts in the fishing village, he would steer his boat up the coastline and leave the goods at a drop point on the beach; Tilao’s men would pick them up and carry them into the jungle. At about that time, in early spring, the CIA agents finally got their aircraft: a Predator, an unarmed, unmanned surveillance drone that flew so high in the sky that it could not be seen or heard from the ground. It was equipped with high-resolution video cameras, one of them infrared.
As long as the guerrillas stayed close to the city, food was plentiful, even fast food. When Gracia told Tilao she had prayed for a hamburger and pizza, he told Siglos, “I would like my goats to eat hamburger and pizza.” Pizza was purchased, along with burgers from Jolli-bee’s, a local fast-food chain. The food was still hot when it was delivered, its glow registering brightly on the Predator’s infrared. Reprovisioned, the guerrillas pushed farther north into the hills of Zamboanga del Norte.
Video Clip: Captain Gieram Aragones recalls his vow not to shave or cut his hair until Tilao's capture (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
Clizbee and a fellow agent tracked the fugitives, working in their “office,” a blue shipping container installed under the reviewing stand at the marine base in Zamboanga City. They studied monitors displaying data from a variety of tracking and surveillance systems. To make up for the CIA’s refusal to provide exact coordinates, Colonel Sabban sent Aragones and an eleven-man team into the jungle to keep visual tabs on their targets. Aragones, whose hair now hung to his shoulders and whose wispy mustache and beard blew in the wind, found them easily, guided by the tracking devices. The marine captain and his men blended silently into the jungle, and waited and watched. Tilao had nineteen men with him, and the three hostages. Aragones felt that if he and his men could choose the moment, they could easily rescue the hostages and either kill or arrest the kidnappers.
But once again competition arose over who would attempt the rescue. The American command, with forces again in the Philippines for the annual joint exercises, wanted to conduct the raid, using one of its SEAL teams. The Filipinos balked at this, and squabbled among themselves. Colonel Sabban argued that since his unit had found Tilao, and since his men were already in position, and since they counted only twenty armed men guarding the Burnhams, the marines not only deserved to conduct the mission but were best positioned and suited for it. He did not prevail. Army commanders were determined to prove themselves.
The raid took place on the afternoon of June 7, 2002, in the rain. The guerrillas had stopped to camp atop a small mountain, the ground descending steeply before them to a stream. As the Philippine army troops encircled the camp and prepared to assault, the Burnhams were quietly stringing up the small shelter they used on rainy days and hanging their hammock. They had just closed their eyes for a nap when the army struck and gunfire erupted. Martin Burnham was killed in one of the first volleys, shot through the chest. The Filipino nurse was also killed, as were some of Tilao’s men. Eight of the attacking soldiers were injured. Lying beside her mortally wounded husband, herself shot in the leg, Gracia played dead, resisting the urge to cry out in pain and terror. When the shooting stopped, she raised a hand slowly, trying to draw attention without drawing fire. The raiding party at first tried to reassure her that her husband was still alive, but more than a year on the run in the jungle had turned Gracia into a hard-eyed realist.
“Martin is dead,” she told them curtly.
The attempt to rescue the three hostages ended up killing two of them. It was a failure in yet another way: Tilao himself had escaped. The army found his backpack—the one with the hidden beacon—but the rebel leader and a small group of men had once again slipped the noose.
Gracia Burnham arrived back in civilization to a storm of media attention. Doctors in Zamboanga City attended to her wounded leg, and by phone she both celebrated and grieved with her family. Just before leaving the Philippines for the United States, three days after her rescue, she was wheeled out to microphones at the airport in Manila, her leg propped up in front of her. She was still gaunt, but she looked clean, rested, and enormously relieved. She seemed suddenly ten years younger. The raid had been characterized by many in the press as a debacle, but Gracia lived up to her name. She thanked the Philippine people for their prayers, and she thanked the government for her rescue. She talked about how much her husband had loved the country. She expressed no sympathy for the riddled, fleeing band of kidnappers, or for their “holy war.”
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.
Video Clip: Watch the CIA surveillance footage described in the piece (Press the play button to begin.)
Click here to watch a larger version of this clip.
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.”
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.”
"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 inPhilippine 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.