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.

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.

How did the decision of the CIA not to share certain information with marine intelligence play into this? Was this a good decision? Should we have taken more direct steps to assist the Philippine forces?

I think the division of opinion in Washington over how to proceed is an illustration of the complexity of this problem. The fact that one agency is willing to do something and the other is not says to me that we don’t have a clear enough sense of policy and direction to dictate a uniform response. In the case of Abu Sabaya, in my opinion the CIA should have been able to share lethal information [that could lead to a target’s death] as it pertained to the hostage takers, the kidnappers themselves. I don’t see the logic of the CIA’s decision not to share that kind of information, and I think it proceeded mostly from a bureaucratic tendency to protect the agency’s methods.

This is foolish. The idea that we were somehow going to be giving our capabilities away to the Philippine marines and that this would somehow compromise us doesn’t make any sense at all. A scene in the story that got cut, unfortunately, because of length described the U.S. response when Colonel Sabban asked the CIA to provide him with a satellite phone. They originally provided him with a government-issue suitcase-size phone. And he said, “What’s this?” All he wanted was the kind of phone you can buy at Circuit City, which is ten times more sophisticated and more effective and can fit in your pocket. He was mortified that this was the best the United States had to offer. So this notion —particularly when you’re working in Southeast Asia —that the United States is so far advanced technologically that we have capabilities that no one else knows about —is just ludicrous. In fact, they’re ahead of us in most cases. They don’t have the means to actually put a satellite into orbit and employ global positioning, but they certainly are aware of the capabilities of global positioning. I think the CIA’s decision not to share this information didn’t make any sense at all.

Did some of the disagreement or uncertainties in Washington have to do with the U.S.’s attitude toward the Abu Sayyaf? Was the decision to pursue the group mainly symbolic—We have no tolerance for terrorists—or were they really perceived as a large-scale threat?

I think they were perceived as a large threat after 9/11. In general, we as a country have probably overestimated the level of threat posed by Islamists because 9/11 was such a spectacular success and so far beyond even the expectations of the people who did it. It led to speculation that their capability was even greater than that. In fact, 9/11 was far off the scale of what they’re actually capable of doing. We are, in my opinion, understandably overreacting. The thugs wandering around Basilan in the Southern Philippines were basically more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight than a serious threat to the civilized world. But they’re a very ugly, terrible people, and we’re right to go after them. I think that the potential in the present world climate for them to become a more serious threat is definitely there, which is why I favor the low-key approach that we see in the story. This approach isn’t going after a flea with a sledge hammer. It’s using power in the way that a judo master uses it—a minimum application of force to accomplish the purpose you want.

One thing I noticed when reading the piece was that the excerpts from Tilao’s radio messages seem fairly devoid of any actual religious fervor or of any pointed political message. Do you think that Abu Sayyaf has an authentic ideological cause or any real grievances?

Yes, I do think that there are legitimate political differences and concern about levels of funding. I didn’t explore this heavily, but clearly the movement in the Southern Philippines would not have lasted for generations and gone through all these permutations if there were not some legitimate underlying political grievances. But the religious aspect is part of what I consider to be—the word “fad” doesn’t seem serious enough—a phase or trend of the global jihad idea, which I don’t personally believe will last very long. Terrorism will be with us forever, but the global jihad is a passing phenomenon.

Could you talk a little bit more about your understanding of the emergence of the Abu Sayyaf? How did what seemed to be primarily a secular, socialist cause, became a religiously motivated jihad? To what extent was the Abu Sayyaf Group connected to a broader militant Islamic cause?

They aspired to join the global jihad, which was a concept that Osama bin Laden has successfully sold to portions of the world. The truth of it is that there is no global al-Qaeda. There is no global organization plotting the destruction of Western society. What you have is what we see in the Philippines: a small, supposedly Islamist movement that saw an opportunity to hitch its star to the wagon.

You note that Tilao wanted Martin Burnham to identify his kidnappers as “the Osama bin Laden group.”

Bin Laden has been very, very successful in creating an umbrella, a rhetorical umbrella, for a lot of disparate groups, all of them Islamist. They believe they are part of something much bigger than their own local struggle. And that’s a major accomplishment. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that because they wish to be called the Osama bin Laden group they’re somehow taking orders from Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri or anybody else. Sabaya was a Filipino first and last. He had a little bit of experience in the Middle East and saw an opportunity to make himself appear to be more important than he really was.

As far as you know did al-Qaeda ever acknowledge the Abu Sayyaf?            

I don’t know. I think they have. If not them then possibly Jemaah Islamiya, a very dangerous group in Southeast Asia that is responsible for bombings in Bali. So to that extent there is a loose linkage, but it’s much more of a franchise than a branch.

I can see the value of mutually acknowledging each other without actually sending orders back and forth or coordinating.

I don’t believe that Tilao or Khaddafy Janjalani ever met with Khalid Sheik Mohammed or any of the other organizational leaders of al-Qadea, but they represented an aspiring faction in Southeast Asia. And given the presence of a very large, restive Islamist community in the Southern Philippines, it had the potential to become a serious threat to the Philippines. That alone made the country very concerned. Our concern joined with theirs after 9/11 when we made it our business to target these small groups wherever we found them.

The Abu Sayyaf seems to have lost its prominence. I recently read that another member of the Abu Sayyaf had been killed.

Yes, someone named Abu Solaiman, who became a spokesman for the group when Tilao was killed. He was apparently involved with the group when they kidnapped the Burnhams. He was killed; Khadaffy Janjalani is also believed to have been killed. Movements like these that adopt violent, militant Islam as their banner are like the Ebola virus. They are terribly frightening because they’re so vicious. But they can’t be effective in the long run because they burn themselves out. The vast majority of people cannot stomach that kind of extremism or that kind of violence. And so they become holy terrors for a brief period of time and then they burn themselves out. They’re either killed or they wander off and try to start living a normal life.

You give the example of Alvin Siglos who might have been the ideal ally but instead became an agent for the Philippine marines.

As I said in the piece, the idea of political violence sounds good until it’s someone you love who gets killed. And then it’s not an abstract idea any more. Then it’s something very real and you begin to realize how horrific the notion of killing someone for a political reason is. It can only stay abstract as long as it doesn’t touch you. In a small community like those islands in the Philippines, it didn’t take long before it touched Alvin Siglos personally.

Do you know if the U.S. is still involved in supporting Philippine efforts to take out Abu Sayyaf members?            

Yes. In fact, when I visited Jolo, the little island where General Sabban is stationed, a fairly significant detachment of U.S. Special Forces was there. They weren’t there just to give community pep talks. One of the smart things that our military is doing, and Bob Kaplan has written about this, is we are establishing a presence, a very small presence, of special operators and special forces, throughout the globe —and in some cases in very obscure places because we have an interest in what’s going on there. I think that’s a very low-key but effective way of dealing with these small cells of Islamist terrorists who pop up throughout the world.

Do you think that the Philippines is a good example of what the United States can expect in other parts of the world in terms of the level of cooperation and the talent and capabilities of the local intelligence forces?

Yes, in many places it is a model because these Islamist cells often pose even more of a threat to the local authorities than they do to the United States’ interests or to the world, so it behooves us to work with local authorities even when—and this is not true of the Philippines—even in places where we don’t necessarily have friendly relationships, or where we don’t necessarily even approve of the government. In a war you take your allies where you find them. So within limits I think it may be necessary for us to cooperate with unsavory elements to accomplish a larger goal.

I do think it’s a model for how to proceed. And I think that it’s not something the United States has been very good at throughout our history. We’re a very cocky and very arrogant country militarily. We believe that we have better soldiers and better equipment and better tactics, and our tendency is to ask the locals to stay out of the way. Whereas I think in this war, the smart thing to do is to take a back seat, to offer to help and give up a little control over the operation, but accomplish more by doing so.

Would military exercises be the logical first step if we were working with a country or group that shared a less similar ideology?

I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re necessary. And I don’t think that it was even necessary in the Philippines. The American presence in Southeast Asia and those military exercises serve a larger military purpose than going after al-Qaeda. The presence doesn’t have to be that visible—in fact, in some cases it’s better if it’s less visible.

Do you think other areas would be receptive to U.S. support?

They would be if it served their interest. And in many cases, as I said, the existing authorities are more threatened by these little groups than is the United States. So they would, if approached correctly, welcome American assistance to help find these people.

I understand you ran into Atlantic national correspondent Robert Kaplan in the Philippines while you were reporting this piece.

I should start by noting that when this happened there were only five national correspondents for the Atlantic. It’s hardly a major media outlet covering the world. I traveled initially to Manila and then took a plane down to Zamboanga City and made arrangements to get on a small plane to fly to Jolo, which is one of the more obscure places in the world.

I called ahead just to tell Colonel Sabban that I was arriving, and he said, “Oh, do you know Bob Kaplan?” And I said “Yeah,” and he said, “He’s here right now.” And I thought what are the chances of two of us being in Jolo at the same time. We had Southeast Asia covered! Bob was actually leaving Jolo the day that I arrived, and I didn’t see him there, but eventually we hooked up in Zamboanga City and had a nice night out on the town.

We seem to have the area covered!

TheAtlanticMonthly is heavily into Southeast Asia.

Are there other parts of the world you’re interested in exploring, or other projects for the Atlantic that you’re working on?

I’m working on one story right now that happened in Iraq. And I’ve also potentially got in the works a series of stories about efforts to extract the last drops of oil from the planet. There are huge pipelines and underwater drilling platforms and very ambitious engineering projects going on in far flung places around the globe. In keeping with my general policy of being fascinated by anywhere I’ve never been, I’m always looking for an excuse to go someplace new.