Just before dawn, residents of a small village on Jolo Island, in the southern Philippines, were woken by footsteps and muffled hoofbeats. Peeking out in the dim light, they saw dozens of heavily armed men marching past their houses. One was on horseback. With a pang of fear, some villagers recognized him: Khaddafy Janjalani, leader of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and one of Southeast Asia's most wanted men. They had seen his face in posters advertising a $5 million reward for his capture.
Most of the villagers stayed indoors. But after dawn one man stole outside. He drove to the army headquarters in Jolo, the island's main town, where he alerted military officers to the terrorists' route and their likely destination. The next day a Philippine marine reconnaissance platoon ambushed Janjalani in his jungle hideout, killing the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist and delivering what authorities believe was a crushing blow to Abu Sayyaf's morale.
That operation took place nearly 22 months ago. News photos at the time showed the informant, code-named Chief, with his face blotted out, posing beside the $5 million cash reward. Most people assumed he was headed for a new life overseas, where the terrorists could not find him. But today Chief, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap as his only disguise, is sipping a soda at the home of a Filipino general on Jolo Island, not far from his village where he still lives. For the authorities, Chief's decision to stay is one of many signs that Abu Sayyaf is on the run. "They suspect me, definitely," he says of the Islamist group's dwindling membership. "They have tried to kill me. But I never thought of leaving Jolo. I know the armed forces will protect me. And if I leave, the terrorists will suspect me more. They will come after my family." Chief says he doesn't regret what he did. "I didn't do it because of the money. I felt it was my duty to protect myself and other people. My motivation is peace."
Founded in the late 1980s by Filipino Muslims who fought with al-Qaeda during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Abu Sayyaf (Arabic for "Father of the Sword") aims to create an Islamic state in the southern islands of the mostly Catholic Philippines. Its bombings, kidnappings and assassinations have killed some 300 people and wounded hundreds more. Abu Sayyaf first caught the world's attention in 2000, when it used speedboats to snatch 21 tourists from a Malaysian beach resort within reach of Jolo. The following year it seized 20 more people from a resort on Palawan, in the southwest Philippines. It held the three Americans in the group for several months. One, Guillermo Sobero, was beheaded; another, Martin Burnham, was killed during a rescue mission that freed his wife Gracia.
Abu Sayyaf maintained ties with al-Qaeda, which provided large sums of money. It also forged links with Jemaah Islamiah (J.I.), the Indonesian group that carried out the Bali bombings in 2002, and gave sanctuary to some of the J.I. terrorists in return for cash, guns and bombmaking lessons. In 2004 Abu Sayyaf was blamed for one of the world's deadliest maritime terror attacks, when a Manila ferry exploded, killing 116 people. Last November the group was blamed for a Manila bombing that killed three people, including a Muslim congressman, and wounded a dozen more.
Keeping Up the Pressure
Now, however, Philippine authorities are saying they have the group on the run. With help from the U.S. military, they have focused on eliminating Abu Sayyaf leaders, embedding national troops and U.S. advisers in areas the group once regarded as its own, and winning local support with community projects. "The group has disintegrated," says Brigadier General Juancho Sabban, the Jolo-based head of Task Force Comet, the Philippines' counterterrorism effort. He believes Abu Sayyaf, which once boasted more than 1,000 men under arms, now numbers at most 250 fighters who dare not move around in groups of more than a dozen. Hard-core membership, Sabban says, has shrunk to 150.
To demonstrate the improving security situation on Jolo, Sabban takes visitors to his forward operating base in the former terrorist stronghold of Tugas, northwest of Jolo town. Accompanied by more than 50 soldiers in jeeps and armored vehicles, his convoy rumbles through small villages. Not long ago, the base's access road was a dirt track where Abu Sayyaf fighters came and went freely, using the dense rainforest as a retreat or as cover for ambushes; the main road through this part of the island was known as the Boulevard of Death. Now the road to the base is lined with houses, and local people wave at the passing troops. Sabban points out with relish that the Army camp is on land owned by an Abu Sayyaf member and near the spot where Janjalani was killed. In the forest shadows where Abu Sayyaf once roamed, Philippine soldiers now stand guard.
A key tactic of the security forces is identifying the terrorist group's leaders and picking them off one by one. The walls of military and police headquarters across the southern Philippines feature posters displaying photos of the most-wanted Abu Sayyaf and J.I. members and the prices on their heads. Rewards of up to $5 million are funded by the U.S. State Department's Rewards for Justice Program, which has paid out over $10 million so far in the Philippines. It relies heavily on local informants like Chief. Thirteen of the 24 most-wanted faces on the latest chart are stamped with a red X indicating death or capture.
Retreating and Regrouping
Officials claim their program has destroyed command structures and smashed morale and that Abu Sayyaf no longer publicly names its leaders for fear that they will be killed. The program has also cut off funding from al-Qaeda and other allies. "It was Janjalani who established connections with al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah," says Sabban. "Now that he is killed there is nobody to replace him [as a go-between]. That's why we believe the organization is so weak. If we push it more, maybe we can finally eliminate it." Abu Sayyaf members are now said to be so cash-strapped they have turned again to kidnapping civilians for ransom. In January, suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen killed a priest during a botched kidnapping on Tawi Tawi Island, not far from Jolo. On June 8 Ces Drilon, a well-known local TV-news anchor, vanished with her cameraman and an assistant near Jolo in what appears to be another Abu Sayyaf abduction.
"When the funding starts to dry up, they start to get desperate," says Colonel Bill Coultrup, the Jolo-based commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force, which provides military assistance, training and intelligence assistance to Philippine forces. Coultrup's 500 men, who include Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, are spread throughout the Philippines. Inside a nondescript, windowless building at the task force's Jolo Island base, a half-dozen soldiers are studying laptops. A large screen on the wall shows the video feed from an unmanned drone cruising over potential Abu Sayyaf hideouts in the jungle. The U.S. troops give vital advice about operations but are barred from taking part in combat missions and must stay well beyond small-arms range in any firefight. Says one slightly disgruntled Special Forces soldier: "With our rules of engagement, if I saw Dulmatin [a J.I. terrorist believed to be hiding on Jolo with Abu Sayyaf] walking on the beach in front of me, there would be almost nothing I could do without Philippine assistance." The U.S. soldiers are high-value targets for the terrorists, however in 2002 Green Beret Sergeant Mark Jackson was killed by an Abu Sayyaf bomb on the island of Mindanao. Outside the camp they wear full body armor and pack a fearsome array of weapons.