r e p o r t a g e

d o n o v a n  w e b s t e r


“I thought we should act as their protector – not try to get them under our heel.... But now – why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater.”

—Mark Twain on the Philippines 1


Basilan Island is a would-be paradise. A flung-dice dot on the map between the Celebes and Sulu seas – seventeen miles off the Philippines’ southernmost mainland state of Mindanao – Basilan has cathedral-like rainforests, volcanic highlands draped by misty waterfalls, and white-sand beaches so clean and fine they appear sifted from confectioner’s sugar. Analogous in size, topography, and sunny tropical sway with Hawaii’s Oahu, Basilan should, by all rights, be one of the world’s most-visited beach destinations.

Instead, thanks to the cruel whims of religion and time, the island’s 295,000 people have been left to cower day and night. And the only foreign visitors here at the moment – other than me – are roughly 600 U.S. troops billeted in camps across Basilan’s jungles. The reason for this paucity is simple: in this otherwise-perfect idyll, there exists a deadly and multi-headed peril called the Abu Saayef Group (or ASG). A loosely organized front of Islamic rebels, with slack but visible ties to Al Qaeda, the ASG regularly take – and often behead – Christian and America-friendly hostages in the name of Allah, ransom, freedom from Filipino rule, and whatever other excuses pop up as useful.


This is why, as I stand deep inside Basilan’s interior with U.S. Special Forces Captain Mike Lazich, he keeps returning to one question on his mind. “I gotta ask again,” he says, a smile on his narrow face. “You don’t feel threatened out here?”

Lazich is a lanky, black haired 29-year-old who, thanks to his ropey boxer’s physique, would stand out as a Green Beret even in baggy Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. He is also the ranking officer of “A Team” No. 111 of Special Forces First Division, based in Fort Lewis, Washington. At the moment, as he’s already sidling up to his seemingly favorite question for the third or fourth time, we’re standing in a meadow at a remote Basilan military camp called Kapatandan Grande. Beyond us, a three-acre field tufted with patches of tall grass stretches toward jungle so dense it rises from the earth like 70-foot emerald tapestry. Farther off, encircling us on all horizons, are tall ridges whose flanks are stippled a dozen shades of shiny, Crayola green.

It’s 1 p.m. on a Friday, with spring easing toward rainy, south-Asian summer. The day’s noontime downpour has finally passed, and a blistering equatorial sun is now re-booting the afternoon’s heat and humidity. In front of us, the other eleven members of Lazich’s “advisor” team drill forty Filipino Special Reconnaissance troops in something called “contact reaction.” Using the Americans as opposition, the Filipinos are war-gaming strategies for the next time they encounter an Abu Saayef ambush. “We’re doing this,” Lazich says, “because the Abu Saayef has been using some pretty sophisticated flanking maneuvers to kick these guys asses. The ASG is well trained. They employ some of the same strategies we Special Forces use. Our job here is to level the playing field.”

Like a bunch of outsize boys playing Army, the scrimmage across this field uses no live ammo. Instead, when discharging a weapon, each man shouts: “Bang!” If firing a machine gun, they shout “Bang! Bang! Bang!” This pantomime is far from frivolous, however, since each of these commandos has engaged the ASG in this neighborhood, some of them on this very field.

“So, really, you’re not threatened?” Lazich asks me again.

Yesterday, Lazich tells me, he spray-painted the black steel of his A4 automatic rifle an impressionist’s mix of green and brown, so it would better disappear into the landscape should he need to dive for cover. With an air of bored, casual menace, he’s rocking the rifle, which hangs slung under his right arm, back and forth in the air.

Strangely, the War on Terrorism feels no different here, in the home of the terrorists, than it does on any street in America. And, mostly, that comes down to a nervy sense of languor. As an abstraction, we all recognize that the war is terrifyingly and mortally real, and any glimpse at CNN or a morning newspaper’s headline confirms that. But standing on this steamy field, where slightly bored men are shouting “Bang!” at one another? Well, uh…

“Nervous?” I say to Lazich. “Not really. Why? Are you?”

Lazich shoots me a quizzical look, then he points at his A4 rifle and the black Beretta 9-millimeter pistol holstered on his right hip. He balls his right fist and punches the camo-covered Kevlar body-armor that envelops his torso.

He then reminds me I have none of these accessories.

“We’re Americans in Abu Saayef territory, man,” he adds. “This is bad-guy central. So, yeah, I’m a little on edge. It looks peaceful, but–” Lazich lifts his right hand and snaps his fingers “–that quick, hostile fire could be pouring out of the jungle on us. I about guarantee we’re being watched right now. That’s how these guys fight. They kill you when you’re not looking. Hey Bucko, welcome inside Unconventional Warfare 101. And get used to it, ‘cause around these parts it’s here to stay.”


If there is a preview to America’s spreading War on Terrorism, then the American push across Basilan and the southern Philippines is likely it. Initiated in late January of 2002, with a six-month term set to end July 31, this stripe of the War on Terror is philosophically and materially 180 degrees from the B-52 mauling of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan in October of 2001, where a possibly endless and already-garden-variety Coalition mop-up continues across that country’s crags and caves.

In the Philippines, the American program – which is soon to be rolled out in Yemen and the Islamic corners of the former Soviet Union – is about being pro-active against future terrorism. In places not actively hostile to American assistance (or that have invited an American military presence inside), the plan is to shatter terrorist networks though the introduction of enlightened self-interest. Instead of destroying cities and roads, American troops are spreading military expertise, making municipal improvements in support of our own troops there, and holding out the promise of a future more secure from terrorist threat. It is, in the estimation of Air Force General Donald Wurster, commander in charge of all American forces in the Philippines, a campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of people who have lived beneath the severities of terrorism for far too long.

“Our primary mission,” Wurster says, “is to advise and assist the Philippine Army in training. But somewhere down the list of our priorities, certainly, is a hearts and minds component. If through our presence we can show local people they don’t need to fear Abu Saayef, then maybe food or assistance won’t flow to the terrorists next time the ASG needs it. And once these terrorists are caught under-supplied or exposed, they quickly become vulnerable – or they chose to leave altogether.”

At its most basic, American forces are on Basilan to hone Filipino elite-forces skills to razor-sharp edges: from marksmanship to unit tactics and navigation to mission planning and secure communications. Then they send the upgraded Filipinos back into the world. Yet, while there, the Americans are also bound by a number of restrictions. Under terms defined by the Philippine Constitution, written since the U.S. decommissioned its last air and naval bases there in 1992, the active participation of foreign armies on Filipino soil is banned. Consequently the Special Forces can only conduct training on existing military posts. Owing to these same restrictions, the Special Forces also aren’t allowed to actively patrol in the field. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while the Americans can defend themselves and return fire if fired upon, they cannot chase the enemy once engagement has been made.

But the War on Terror in the Philippines doesn’t end with training. Beyond the battlefield drills, a battalion of engineers from the U.S. Marines, supported by several Navy Seabee construction battalions, are upgrading the island’s infrastructure: improving roads, digging new wells, erecting new bridges, and reinforcing the island’s harbors with the stated rationale of keeping the Special Forces supplied.

“Of course,” says General Wurster, “if these improvements have secondary and tertiary benefits to the Filipino Army and the indigenous people of Basilan, that’s O.K. with us. If hostages are recovered thanks to our training of the Filipino forces, that’s good, too. If our presence makes the ASG so uncomfortable they feel compelled to leave Basilan and never return, that’s great. But the improvements the Marines and Seabees are making on Basilan are purely – from our perspective – in support of the Special Forces training mission. Period.”

Five months into the program, the combined Philippine-American push is showing signs of purchase. On June 7th, a detachment of thirty-seven American-trained Filipino Rangers began stalking a paramilitary unit through the mountainous jungles on the Philippine mainland of Mindanao. Because the forty- to fifty-man guerilla force was away from Basilan, the Rangers were surprised to discover they weren’t just tracking an off-course cell of the ASG, but one commanded by Abu Sabaya, the most visible and media-savvy of the Abu Saayef’s five leaders, and a man responsible for hundreds of hostage-takings and a sizeable number of beheadings. Under pressure from the heightened military presence on Basilan, Sabaya apparently chose to depart the island. Displaced from his network of bases and supplies, he had been sending out for fast-food cheeseburgers and candy to provision his men. It was, in fact, a trail of candy wrappers found in the jungle that first caught the eye of the Army patrol.

The Rangers were then doubly surprised to learn that Sabaya had with him three high-profile hostages, all of whom had been missing for more than a year. Two of the prisoners, Martin and Gracia Burnham, were American missionaries to the Philippines who had been kidnapped in May of 2001, along with eighteen others at a resort off the nearby island of Borneo. The third hostage, Ediborah Yap, was a Filipina nurse taken hostage during a hospital raid on Basilan last year.

When afternoon rain forced Sabaya’s unit to establish a camp at the bottom of a narrow ravine, the Rangers began tactical encirclement. Crawling through the jungle to within 20 or 30 yards of the rebels, the Rangers were preparing for attack when ASG sentries spotted them. The Rangers opened fire, careful to avoid the hostages, who were by then housed inside a blue-nylon tent at the camp’s center. In the ensuing 30-minute firefight, in which the ASG outgunned the Rangers using grenade launchers before fleeing into the jungle, four rebels were killed, seven Rangers were injured, and Martin Burnham and Ediborah Yap were either executed or killed by Filipino Ranger crossfire (an investigation is on-going). At the battle’s end, Gracia Burnham was recovered by the Rangers, alive but with a gunshot wound in her leg.

For the next two weeks, stragglers from the ASG cell would be dogged through the jungles of Mindanao by Filipino forces. Finally, just before sunrise on June 21st, the Philippine Navy spotted a fishing boat slipping offshore from a jungle beach. As a Navy gunboat approached, the crew of the fishing vessel opened fire, prompting yet another engagement that left all seven passengers on the fishing boat either dead or captured. Among those killed is said to have been Abu Sabaya, who was shot and sank below the surface as he tried to swim from the scene. Divers have been searching for his body, to make a 100-percent identification. Until then, all Sabaya has left behind has been his visual trademark: black and mirror-lensed wrap-around sunglasses he was never seen without.

For General Wurster and the Americans on Basilan, however, the destruction of Abu Sabaya doesn’t intimate the destruction of the Abu Saayef Group – or the close of operations there. In fact the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, recently committed 1,200 more Filipino forces to the island, stating, “We will not stop until the Abu Saayef is finished.” For several months, she has also steadfastly refused to negotiate with the rebels for a truce or the release of any remaining hostages. She and the Philippine government seem confident that, with continued pressure, the ASG can be eradicated. In early June 2002, as a move to check Abu Saayef, she entered into discussions with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to keep the Special Forces on Basilan longer, and to allow the Green Berets to train smaller, platoon-sized units in the field: a possibility that increases both the vulnerability of the Americans and the risk of further American-led escalation against terrorism in south Asia.

Wait a minute? Unconventional warfare in South Asia? American Special Forces “advisors?” Hearts and Minds? Isn’t the War on Terrorism starting to sound frighteningly familiar? Have we enjoined a global Vietnam?


The last U.S. advisors went so publicly to southern Asia, the nation of choice was South Vietnam. And like the War on Terrorism, the war in Vietnam was a policy-based offensive that started slowly, and was fueled by American good intentions. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, faced with a threatening Cold War, sent several thousand U.S. Advisors into South Vietnam to help prop up its ailing democratic government. By 1963, the Quiet Americans in Vietnam required 50,000 U.S. Special Forces to ensure their safety, and President Lyndon Johnson hit the slippery section of Vietnam’s crumbling slope. Within 18 months, 185,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed there. Over the next eight years, two million Americans would cycle through Vietnam, with 58,000 returning home in body bags, and the United States would be forced to employ every weapon in its arsenal short of a nuclear device in a failing effort to protect political order in South Vietnam. What had started as an exercise in promoting American ideals skidded into a national debacle.

Yet if Vietnam is the most memorable American episode in southern Asia, it is not the only one. Aside from activity in the region during World War II, perhaps the most notorious American “police action” into south Asia came a century ago. It also happened to take place in the southern Philippines. And, frankly, it didn’t go so well, either.

In 1898, the United States purchased the Philippines from Spain. The idea, known inside the American government as Plan Orange, was to hold the island group as a regional bulwark against Japanese Imperialism while simultaneously milking the resource-rich archipelago for economic gain. In the Philippine north, the largely Catholic and Spanish-speaking population was pleased to make acquaintance with Uncle Sam. After 300 years beneath stern Spaniards, the friendlier, easier-going, and wealthier Americans brought a breezier and more self-determined – if still colonial – presence to the nation. But though things went swimmingly for the Americans in the north, when troops led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing entered the southern Philippine island-state of Mindanao and ventured onto the Sulu Archipelago, home to Basilan and 500 or so other islands, events grew bloody and combative.

In the southern Philippines, the Americans came up against the region’s Islamic Moro people (their name is derived from Spanish for the Islamic Moors, North Africans who once ruled Spain), and the Moros chose to resist these newest, Christian colonizers. Followers of Islam since the 14th century, after the teachings of the Koran had been brought from Malaysia across Indonesia and up the Sulu Archipelago to the Philippines, the population of Basilan, southern Mindanao, and the Sulu islands was – and remains – more than ninety-percent Islamic. And because of these religious and cultural differences, the Moros felt their home should be autonomous from colonial rule. Their sovereignty, they believed, was guaranteed them by both the Koran and the Old Testament, where their spiritual father, Ishmael, had been promised his own great nation.

The Moros were prepared to fight for their freedom. Doing battle in their own neighborhood, adept at jungle warfare and ambush, and capable of disappearing into the local population when not actively fighting, they began attacking the Americans without warning and at all hours. As the Americans began defending themselves, a tide of casualties on both sides started to rise, and in response to the Moro’s all-out, close-contact charges from the jungle, the Americans developed a new weapon with such point-blank stopping power it wouldn’t be outmoded for eighty years.

Since the 1850s, the government-issue sidearm for all U.S. officers had been a six-shooting Colt .38 revolver. But against the Moros, the pistol not only took too long to reload, its complement of six bullets often wasn’t enough to halt even a single hard-charging Moro. In response, beginning in 1904, American officers were issued the new, brick-like .45 caliber automatic pistol, which took bullets nearly a half-inch in diameter and could be quickly reloaded with magazine clips holding a dozen bullets each.

Still, if the big pistol was a more efficient object for the Americans to have at hand, it did nothing to slow the ferocity of the attacks. The Americans and the Moros would scrap sporadically until 1913, and, depending on whom you ask, before the fighting was over the Americans had killed between 250,000 and 700,000 tribesmen. Yet despite the prodigious pile of Moro dead, in the end it was the Americans who cried uncle, granting the Moros a greater share of autonomy than any other ethnic group in the Philippines.

Now back in the land of the Moros with the War on Terrorism, and once again, as in Vietnam, fighting an irregular army capable of disappearing into the population like drops of water in a filled bucket, has America entered a bloody, protracted conflict with no end in sight?

“Don’t get us wrong,” says Pentagon spokesman Lt. Commander Jeff Davis, “there will not be American boots on the ground in the southern Philippines for years and years to come. Now, that said, we are currently asking Congress for extra funds to keep the Special Forces in place longer – but the word indefinite is not being used. These days, the Defense Department is very conscious of avoiding open-ended troop deployments. Everything we do, every plan we make, has a very deliberate end-date. We’re not flying the War on Terror by the seat of our pants. Though, as I say, the mission to the Philippines could very well be extended.”


“All I know about the length of my stay on Basilan,” Lt. Colonel Roger Griffin is saying, “is that I’m here until they tell me to go.”

Griffin, 43, is the officer in charge of all U.S. Special Forces activities on Basilan. And sitting in his eight-man barracks, a stilt “nipa” hut of bamboo, woven palm fronds, and window screens, at a Basilan jungle outpost called Tabiawan Camp, Griffin gives every indication of a man dug in for the long haul. “My whole job here,” he says, “is to help the Filipinos with their terrorist problem. Together, our aim is to make the ASG so uncomfortable – so unwelcome – that they want to leave this place and never come back. How do we accomplish that? How long will it take? Well, some of that is up to the Philippine government and our Department of Defense, and some of it’s up to the ASG.”

Tall and lean, with a more cerebral cast than many of the Special Forces troops, Griffin could well be the hood-ornament for Donald Rumsfeld’s gleaming, post-September 11th American military. Possessing both elite combat skills and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Griffin was the go-to man in the fall of 2001, when the Department of Defense was selecting the first battalion troops to insert into Afghanistan. Six months later, a few men from his division, who also carry advanced degrees from the Kennedy School, are still on the ground in Kabul, advising President Hamid Karzai on the organization of a new Afghan government. Another of Griffin’s troops, Sergeant Nate Chapman, was the first U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan, shot by unknown enemy forces in January 2002.

“Yep, Nate was one of mine,” Griffin says, a streak of remorse in his voice. “And I personally made the visit to his house … told his wife of events. As we talked, there were two little kids running around–” Griffin scissors his right index finger and middle finger in the air, pantomiming running kids. “That’s hard. But that’s war.”

Now sitting in his Philippine jungle hut and questioned about the lengthening shadow of “mission creep” and a prolonged, Vietnam-style guerilla war against the ASG, Griffin doesn’t bat an eye.

“All I can say is that this is a smarter Army,” he responds. “We’ve studied the lessons of the past, and we think we’ve learned them. That’s why our mission here has so many restrictions. That’s why very specific end-dates exist for everything, and why we follow very specific protocols. We’re here specifically to help the Filipinos fix their own problems. We’re not fixing problems for them. We’re very deliberate about what we’re doing here. Beyond that, all bigger philosophical questions about the War on Terror are best answered by the President and the Department of Defense.”

As Griffin suits up for our first day of tours around Basilan, he is, in fact, the embodiment of what must be the Pentagon’s new buzzword: deliberate. He’s double-checking the vehicles we’ll take, and pulling on form-fitting body armor. He triple-checks his A4 rifle and the 9-millimeter pistol on his hip. Beyond him, Tabiawan Camp seems so locked-down and secure it’s like a prison in reverse: a fortress to keep people out. A nest of razor wire barriers encircles the base perimeter, with gated guard-posts and sentry checkpoints protecting the two roads leading into the base. Inside the wire are a half-dozen nipa barracks, mess huts, a large command building (complete with dozens of laptops and computers hooked to the Internet), a physical-training tent, several steel shipping containers – inside of which satellite communications are maintained between bases on Basilan and the United States – a new and clean shower facility, a medical hut, a heli-pad, and, at the camp’s center, a concrete slab of a basketball court.

Every morning at 6 a.m., a 200-man battalion of Filipino troops arrives from their own temporary base just down the road, and falls-in on the basketball court. Then, as orders are issued, the troops – joined by American trainers – are loaded into armored trucks and sent to link with other battalions and twelve-man “A-Team” advisor units at nine training camps scattered across the island. For their own protection, all U.S. troops not involved in teaching on any specific day are ordered not to travel beyond Tabiawan’s boundary. And any non-training-related trip outside the fences, such as the one we’re about to take, is such a rare exception it sends a flurry through camp.

There’s ample reason for this security. In the jungles just beyond these fences, a very real ASG threat hangs in the air. Having had a unique level of self-government for a century, the people of Basilan and the Sulu islands now occupy a unique Philippine sub-directorate. Known as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), they have, after years of no-holds-barred fighting, forged a mostly peaceful truce with the Filipino government. But beginning in 1990, believing the ARMM’s two legitimate parties, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, had become too chummy with Manila, a man calling himself Abu Saayef (“Father of the Sword” or “Bearer of the Sword” depending on translation) split from ARMM with the goal of establishing a strict, Taliban-style government on Moro lands.

Abu Saayef, whose real name was Abdurak Janjalani, was born into Islam on Basilan, and left in the 1980s, to study the Koran and Arabic in Libya and Saudi Arabia. He later fought alongside Osama Bin Laden against the Russians in Afghanistan, an experience that is said to have hardened his fundamentalist beliefs. In 1989, he returned home and began to collect like-minded Muslims to his cause, using money and weapons donated from both Al Qaeda and Hamas to fund and arm his forces.

At first, the ASG devoted itself mainly to bombings intent on driving out Christian influence in the region and destabilizing the existing ARMM government. Soon Christian missions, municipal offices, and villages inhabited by Christians all across Mindanao and the Sulu islands echoed with the booms of fragmentation grenades and home-made explosions. Eventually these ASG-sponsored blasts reached all the way to Manila’s shopping malls and Aquino International Airport, 600 miles to the north.

By 1993, the Abu Saayef Group, by then estimated to be well more than a thousand strong, began taking hostages and negotiating their ransoms as a means of income. The level of hostilities escalated, as the Philippine armed forces increased their hunting for Abu Saayef guerillas. In June of 1994, ASG gunmen, in one swoop, took fifty Christians hostage on Basilan, eventually releasing all but a priest (who was never heard from again) after the Philippine government paid a ransom of 500,000 pesos. In April 1995, in retaliation for the shelling of an ASG camp in Basilan’s interior, Abu Saayef rebels razed the Christian town of Ipil, murdering all fifty-three civilians and Filipino Army troops there. By the time Abu Saayef himself was killed, in a police shoot-out in December of 1998, he was the most-wanted outlaw in the Philippines.

With the death of Janjalani, command of Abu Saayef Guerrillas was thrown open, and the groups’ initial goal of self-government was supplanted by a terror-and-ransom campaign aimed merely at keeping the movement afloat. For a time, Janjalani’s younger brother, Khadaffy, ran the organization; but he, too, is believed to have been killed by Filipino Army forces in June of 2001. Whether Khadaffy is still alive, however, is irrelevant, since control of the shattered ASG front by then had spread to several other leaders across southern Mindanao and the Sulu islands. As of September 11th, 2001, the ASG was being commanded by five equally ruthless bosses: Sahinum Hapilan on mainland Mindanao, Galib Andang (alias Commander Robot) on the island of Jolo, Isnilon Janjalani on Mindanao and Basilan, and Aldam Tilao – the famous Abu Sabaya – on Basilan.

To keep local economies disrupted and populations in slow-motion terror, the ASG also continued its program of destroying bridges and wells. In an effort to isolate villages further and sow fear, hostages by the heaping handful were taken, usually as they traveled between towns or through the jungle. When the ASG had the good fortune to capture Americans and Philippine military personnel, they generally held them for enormous ransoms, instead of the pittances the locals paid; and they often didn’t release them even after money had been tendered. The parents of Martin Burnham, for example, paid representatives from ASG $300,000 for the release of both missionaries, only to see both the money and its reciprocal promise vanish.

Other times, to reaffirm their unpredictability, the ASG doesn’t negotiate at all. Instead, they’ll mutilate or behead their captives, then leverage the act’s horror for maximum visibility. In May of 2000, 13 Filipino soldiers were hacked to pieces after their ASG raid on Basilan went bad, with two of the troops left by a road beheaded and with their eyes plucked out.

In June of 2001, Abu Sabaya himself telephoned a local radio station. Speaking on the air, he informed the people of the southern Philippines that, as a gift to President Arroyo on the occasion of Philippine Independence day, he was pleased to release one of his Americans hostages, a Californian named Guillermo Sobrero, who had been taken in the same raid that had netted the Burnhams.

“We’ve released unconditionally one American, our amigo Guillermo,” he taunted. “But we released him without a head.”


Ready for our journey beyond Tabiawan’s wire, Colonel Griffin leads me from our barracks to a pair of armored Toyota Landcruisers opposite base command. Each vehicle is fitted a machine-gun-toting security officer in the back, who is connected by radio headset to both the other vehicle and to a base station in the command post. As we ready to depart, the lead driver, a sergeant named Mark Jackson, gives orders to the driver and the armed security detail.

“We’re headed into known ASG traffic areas,” he says. “If we meet resistance from the front, we will engage them and provide cover, and we will back the vehicles up and remove ourselves from the conflict. If we’re engaged from the sides, proceed forward at a maximum rate of safe speed. If engaged from the back, keep moving and increase your rate of speed.”

We depart, rolling out of camp along a mud-based road whose new gravel top has been recently provided by Marine and Seabee construction teams. As we drive, however, the peril conjured by the international press and the Special Forces is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the people of the island run through the jungle toward roadside from their cinder-block or nipa houses, waving and shouting hellos.

Griffin rolls down the reflective window on his side of our Landcruiser. He begins waving back. “The response we’ve gotten is amazing,” he says. “Initially, when the first members of the Special Forces got here in February, the people were very skeptical and afraid. There was little contact, and the few locals who did have dealings with us were reserved and scowling. Now I’d say ninety percent of the island is delighted we’re here. They’re re-establishing shops and businesses. They’re beginning to return to their villages from the cities. Just this week, 400 people moved back to the Muslim village of Marengai, which had been an ASG stronghold. The people, I think, are appreciative of what we’re doing. I get written invitations to speak at different civic events all the time. Just the other night, I emceed the coronation rites for a teenage King and Queen in the town of Tabiawan.”

Griffin pauses for a minute. “Not that long ago,” he adds, “the Special Forces got invited to play a softball game against a team of All-Stars from the island. Four thousand people showed up at the local ballpark. It was a big, happy party. Several years ago, the last time there was a public sporting event at that park, somebody fragged it. Grenades.”

Which begs the question: What about that ten percent who don’t appreciate the American presence?

Griffin taps his A4 rifle. “Our job,” he says, “is to be friendly, but never to present a soft target of opportunity. If they come, believe me, we’re capable of taking care of ourselves.”

That hard-target mindset is evident every morning, as, shortly after the Filipino troops and their American advisors leave for training, the Seabees and Marine engineers depart their camp adjoining Tabiawan. As the construction dump trucks and trailered Caterpillars head out, an impressively intimidating security detail, led by armored personnel carriers topped by grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns, travels with them. In the sole instance so far where American engineers have been fired upon by the ASG – a minutes-long jungle-road skirmish on June 17th – no American or Filipino troops were wounded, though several rebels were made casualties.

Ten miles along, we arrive in the island’s seaport capital of Isabella, and the hellos and waves continue. As we cross the city, passing blocks of low, Spanish-colonial plaster buildings fronted by big walled courtyards, I notice the exterior walls of shops and houses show ghostly traces where, recently, pro-ASG graffiti has been scrubbed away. “This really is a beautiful place,” Griffin says, apropos of nothing.

“Yeah,” responds Special Forces Major Jeff Prough, who is riding along, “except a small portion of the people here want to kill us. And we don’t know which portion that is.”

The road exits Isabella, winding over jungled mountainsides that run to the seacoast. We drive across a bridge, beneath which a 50-foot waterfall tumbles toward the beach. Then, as the road turns inland from the shoreline, Griffin lifts his A4 rifle across his lap and says: “O.K., we’re getting to an area where the ASG is known to travel. Let’s keep an eye out.”

Ahead of us, the road snakes through several tight, ambush-friendly curves. A thick jungle encloses the roadsides and rises above us, creating a shadowed, verdant tunnel. Behind me, the security officer has his rifle at the ready, and his head rotates back and forth as if on a swivel, eyes scanning the jungle. We keep going, and in another few minutes encounter ten-foot-long bundles of palm tree trunks stacked and bound together with barbed wire. These have then been laid out on the roadbed from alternating shoulders.

“We put these in to slow vehicles down through here,” Griffin says. “We’re almost to the Scout Ranger camp, and our security people want a good clear look at everyone driving past their gate.”

Halfway down the makeshift obstacle course, the Landcruisers make a sharp right turn, and – executing a long s-curve between tall screens of woven palm frond – we pass a nearly invisible security gate then roll under a raised barrier and inside another tall nest of razor wire.

“We’re here,” Griffin says. “Scout Ranger camp. Home to the best, most-feared Filipino unit on Basilan.”


Except for its proximity to a paved road and the lack of a basketball court, the Scout Ranger camp is interchangeable with Tabiawan. There are palm trees, camouflage-covered soldiers, nipa-hut barracks, a mess hall, and a headquarters choked with computers and laptops, Dave Matthews Band and Puddle of Mud CDs, and a big box of recently released Hollywood DVDs that the soldiers can watch on their computers at night. As we step from the cars and begin looking around, we’re met by a smiling, sturdy, thirty-year-old named Captain Doug Kim. He’s the officer in charge of “A Team” No. 113, and his job in the War on Terrorism is to improve the marksmanship of Philippine forces. After introducing himself and shaking hands, he gives me a pair earplugs, then starts leading us toward the camp’s deepest recesses, where perhaps a hundred Philippine Rangers are firing at paper targets.

“I tell ya,” he’s saying above now-deafening bursts of machine gun fire, “we’ve been really impressed by these guys. They’ve got unmatched discipline. They’ve got high standards. They just needed better equipment and a little fine-tuning.”

As we stand and watch the rifle-range training, Kim says that, when the Special Forces instructors first arrived, the Filpinos’ weapons were in terrible shape. “Their bullets were keyholing targets,” he says. “They made a long, thin, keyhole-style rip through the paper instead of a circular round one. What causes that is the rifling inside a gun’s barrel has worn out, so the bullets don’t come out of the rifle barrel spiraling; they bounce around as they move down the barrel, Then, as they exit the barrel, they begin tumbling end over end through the air. It’s hard to shoot anything consistently if your bullet is flying like a knuckle ball. So we got the Philippine Army to find these guys some new weapons – several thousand M-16 A2s, the same ones our Marines use – and now their accuracy is fantastic. Just fantastic.”

After a round of shooting, Kim and I follow the Filipino troops down the rifle range to examine targets. Kim is right, the bullet holes in these targets – black human-scale silhouettes – are now tightly massed in the center of each silhouette’s chest. As we return up the range, new targets in place, he adds that, under a program the Special Forces is calling “Train the Trainer,” half of the roughly 200 men cycling through the Scout Ranger camp at any time are riflery instructors.

“We’re not going to be here forever,” Kim says. “So our goal is to train instructors inside the Philippine forces in how to teach their people. That way, they can pass the knowledge on after we’re gone. Otherwise, once we leave, the systematized methods of training we’ve developed can unravel pretty quickly. It’s a critical piece of our mission here: not only to train the Filipino forces, but to train instructors for the future. After all, I don’t think anyone expects the War on Terrorism to be over any time soon.”

Does Kim think his tour on Basilan will end with the current, July 31st pull-out date?2

He shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “And it’s not for me to decide. All I need to know is that I’ll be here as long as my presence is required.”


How long Captain Kim’s presence is required in the southern Philippines, however, remains seriously open to question.

While awaiting my visit to Basilan and Tabiawan, I spent four days at the secured Royal Orchid hotel in the mainland seaport of Zamboanga, just across the seventeen-mile strait from Basilan. It was an eerie experience. The hotel staff warned me not to leave the facility’s grounds. At night, teams of sentries with assault weapons guarded the hotel roof, its interior swimming-pool courtyard, and each hotel entrance. On one occasion, my room’s outdoor patio was occupied overnight by a camouflage-dressed security soldier in a camouflage-colored tent and who carried a camo-painted assault rifle, who strongly urged me to keep my room’s lights down and the drapes closed.

On another occasion, when visiting the hotel’s restaurant/bar for dinner, I was approached by a local who suggested that, were I to follow him outside, I could be “the next Danny Pearl. We know where you’re from, and we know what you’re doing here…” Another night, while at the hotel, I engaged a benign-looking local man about the current situation for the southern Philippines and Abu Saayef. After explaining his take to me (which turned out to be from the Moro perspective, as he, like most locals, is a follower of Islam), he concluded our conversation by advising me that the battle for the Moro lands was far from over.

“For now,” he said, “the fight will slow. The terrorists are going underground. They’ve left the jungle camps, and have gone back into the urban jungle. Abu Saayef will disappear into the towns and cities until the heat is off. Then they’ll reorganize and start their terrorism campaign again.”


During my last day on Basilan – on the afternoon following my visit with Captain Kim – and having been shown the panoply of American-improved roads, wells, and bridges all across the island, Colonel Griffin and I finally fetch up at Mike Lazich’s remote jungle training camp, Kaputandan Grande, in the middle of, as Lazich puts it, “bad guy central.”

As we stand and watch Filipino contact reaction drills across the open field, Lazich, like all the Green Berets on Basilan, seems far more interested in the training and the constant low-level threat from the jungle than he is in the length of his stay on this island. “This is a classic Special Forces mission,” he says. “We’re keeping our footprint small, we’re looking to win hearts and minds, we’re keeping our force protected and secure, and we’re training. We’re hitting the ‘Train the Trainer’ program especially hard. I don’t have time to worry about how long my visit here will last. And what’s the point that thinking about it anyway? I’m staying until they tell me to go.”

After several more mock battles, Lazich and his team inform the Filipinos they now want to try the exercise in the jungle, where conditions will be a little more demanding. As we begin walking toward a thick stand of rubber trees a few hundred yards beyond their nipa barracks, sweat now dripping off our faces as we go, we’re met by a small boy, perhaps five years old, who runs to me and hugs me around the legs.

“Uncle. Uncle,” the boy is saying, over and over.

“That’s Jeffrey,” says Lazich. “He used to live back in the jungle. His father was an ASG rebel who he was killed here in a firefight awhile back. The people of Kaputandan Grande have sort of adopted him. He hangs with us a lot. We feed him.”

Before sending the Filipino forces out into the forest, Staff Sergeant Mike Walton, the “A Team’s” chief trainer, gives them a chalk talk using a whiteboard and magic markers. After discussing the two most-used tactics used by the ambushing ASG – either flanking maneuvers, or a tactical “drawing in” of the Filipinos to a vulnerable position before retreating and letting rear-positioned snipers take over – he breaks the Philippine troops up into fighting units.

As the Filipinos fan out, Walton also offers two other pieces of advice. First, he tells everyone going into the forest check the magazines and safeties on their assault rifles. Though they’re still to shout “Bang!” to simulate pulling the trigger, now, in the thicker forest, the odds of meeting Abu Saayef fighters has risen slightly, and everyone should be prepared for such an accident.

“And one other thing,” Walton says. “Be deliberate as you move through this forest, even if you’re moving fast. The ASG loves to hide packed balls of sodium nitrate and nail fragments at your eye level. They attach ‘em to trip wires and blasting caps. That explosion will blind you if it doesn’t kill you. It’s a real threat.” (A couple of weeks into the future, one of my hut mates at Tabiawan Camp, Special Forces Sergeant Mark Jackson – my driver of the past few days – will soon be killed by a similar, remote-control nail-bomb while sitting at a cafÈ in Zamboanga.)

The jungle practicing continues. For another hour, at an ever-increasing pace, soldiers hurtle through the rainforest and rubber trees, shouting “Bang! Bang! Bang!” and acting slightly hopped-up as their training inches them closer once again to the real thing. As the exercise continues, Colonel Griffin and Captain Lazich watch closely and talk of some training sites, in still-denser jungles beyond the boundaries of this sprawling base. Should approvals go through, they, too, may soon be able to turn up the pressure on the Abu Saayef Group. As Lazich and Griffin chew over the prospect of a stepped-up War on Terror, it’s hard to know if they’re anxious or excited about the possibility.

Finally, with the afternoon draining toward evening, Lazich and Sergeant Walton call an end to the day’s maneuvers. Following a quick “After Action Review,” where Walton imparts a few final tidbits for the day – “I can’t say this enough, you need to watch for ASG flanking maneuvers at the first sign of contact, it’s their favorite move” – the now-sweat-soaked and muddy Filipinos begin walking back to their own nipa-hut barracks on-base. As they go, Lazich escorts Griffin and me back to our vehicles.

“We’re just keeping up the mission,” he says as we approach the cars. “We’re training the trainers and expanding our presence here. That’s our orders. We’re in a war against terrorists, and anybody who’s thought about that knows it probably won’t end soon. The only other thing I know for sure–” he pauses and stares across the encircling forest of would-be paradise “–is that all of us, Philippine and American alike, need to stay sharp. The terrorists are still there, lying in the tall grass and waiting for their next opening. Those guys are serious, and they’re growing more desperate. So be careful getting back to Tabiawan. It’s a jungle out there.”


© 2003 Donovan Webster

1“Mark Twain (1835-1910) was the most prominent literary opponent of the Philippine-American War and he served as a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until his death. In February of 1901, as his essay ‘To the Person Sitting in Darkness’ was creating a storm of controversy throughout the United States, a Massachusetts newspaper editorialized that ‘Mark Twain has suddenly become the most influential anti-imperialist and the most dreaded critic of the sacrosanct person in the White House that the country contains.’” Jim Zwick, MARK TWAIN ON WAR AND IMPERIALISM.

2According to the New York Times, May 20, 2003, President Bush intends to send “American troops to help root out Muslim militants in the southern Philippines, but he did not provide any details of how or when they would be sent.”

Mr. Bush appeared to be making the statement as a public gesture to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines, who stood at his side during a full-dress East Room news conference this morning that celebrated the United States-Philippine alliance and Ms. Arroyo’s support for the United States during the Iraq war.

“She’s tough when it comes to terror,” Mr. Bush said. “She fully understands that in the face of terror, you’ve got to be strong, not weak. You can’t talk with them; you can’t negotiate with them. You’ve got to bring them to justice.”

…. Today Mr. Bush said that the Philippines would be considered a “major non-NATO ally,” which would give it greater access to American defense equipment and supplies. Nations like Israel and Australia already have such status.

Mr. Bush’s announcement that the United States intended to send troops to the Philippines to combat terrorism was a reiteration of an administration policy that has bogged down for the past two months.

In February, the Pentagon said that it was ready to send 1,700 troops to fight terrorist groups in the southern Philippines, but that plan was stalled when Philippine officials balked and said that their Constitution did not permit foreign troops to carry out combat missions. Both nations have pledged to work together to hunt down members of Abu Sayyaf, a group of about 250 guerrillas who have kidnapped and beheaded foreign tourists and missionaries.

But the details of how the United States can fight terrorists in the Philippines within the restrictions of the Philippines Constitution has still not been worked out, as administration officials made clear today. In his remarks, Mr. Bush said the extent and nature of the American troop commitment was up to Ms. Arroyo.

“We will be involved to the extent that the president invites us to be involved,” Mr. Bush said.

Ms. Arroyo’s government is also fighting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a 12,000-member Muslim separatist group. “That group must abandon the path of violence,” Mr. Bush said. “If it does so, and addresses its grievances through peaceful negotiations, then the United States will provide diplomatic and financial support to a renewed peace process.”

Elizabeth Bumiller, “Bush Affirms U.S. Is Ready to Send Troops to the Philippines,” New York Times, May 20, 2003; continued here.




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