"They'll slit your throat on Jolo," people told Col. Jim Linder, head of a U.S. military task force in the Philippines. He recalled the prediction as we buzzed toward Jolo Island in a helicopter. Linder, a 45-year-old South Carolina native who has the remnants of a Southern drawl, has led Special Forces operations in the Middle East, Central and South America, Eastern Europe and Africa for the past 20 years. His latest assignment is the remote 345-square-mile island at the southernmost edge of the vast Philippines archipelago. Jolo is a known haven for Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, including Abu Sayyaf, or "Bearer of the Sword," which has used the island for 15 years to train terrorists and to coordinate attacks.
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Curiously, Jolo was also one of the first places where the United States ever battled Muslim insurgents. On March 7, 1906, less than a decade after the United States seized the Philippines in the Spanish-American War, the people of Jolo—known as Moros, after the Spanish for Moors—revolted, among other reasons because they feared that the American effort to enroll their children in schools was part of a plan to convert them to Christianity. The Moros, armed with little more than swords, launched an insurgency against U.S. troops.
"They chased a bunch of Moros up that old volcano and killed them," Linder said to me, pointing out of the helicopter window. Below, the island rose into a series of steep volcanic ridges, each one glowing a lush green against the silvered surface of the Sulu Sea. In the Battle of the Clouds, as the confrontation on Jolo 100 years ago is called, U.S. forces killed 600 to 1,000 people. "It was commonly referred to as a massacre," Linder added quietly.
Today, a crucial but little-known battle in the expanding war on terror is under way on Jolo Island. Designed to "wage peace," as Linder says, it's an innovative, decidedly nonviolent approach by which U.S. military personnel—working with aid agencies, private groups and Philippine armed forces—are trying to curtail terrorist recruitment by building roads and providing other services in impoverished rural communities. The effort, known to experts as "the Philippines model," draws on a "victory" on the Philippine island of Basilan, where U.S. forces in 2002 ended the dominance of Abu Sayyaf without firing so much as a single shot. "It's not about how many people we shoot in the face," Linder said. "It's about how many people we get off the battlefield."
On Jolo, U.S. military engineers have dug wells and constructed roads that allow rural farmers for the first time to transport their produce to markets. This past June, the Mercy, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, visited Jolo and other islands to provide medical and dental care to 25,000 people, many of whom had never seen a doctor. American military medical and veterinary teams have held mobile clinics, where Special Forces, speaking native Tausug and Tagalog, gathered information from local residents as they consulted on agriculture and engineering projects. American soldiers are even distributing a comic book designed for ethnic Tausug teenage boys thought to be at risk of being recruited by Abu Sayyaf. The story, Barbangsa: Blood of the Honorable, tells of a fictional young sailor named Ameer who defeats pimply-faced terrorists threatening his Philippine homeland.
The southern Philippines has long served as a "war laboratory," says Marites Vitug, author of Under the Crescent Moon and a leading authority on armed rebellion in the region. "All sorts of armed groups dominate a populace long neglected by government," she says. "Local rulers compete for legitimacy with armed rebel groups, bandits, Muslim preachers, Catholic volunteers, loggers legal and illegal, the Marines, the Army. In this sense, Abu Sayyaf was ripe for growth. Modern history has proved that whenever the legitimacy of a state suffers and the economy goes down, other forces come to the fore as an alternative."
As Islamic revivalism swept through Asia and the rest of the Muslim world in the late 1980s, the angry young founder of Abu Sayyaf, Abdurajak Janjalani, began preaching violent jihad to Muslims on the island of Basilan. In 1991, Abu Sayyaf launched its first attack, against a Christian missionary ship, the M/V Doulos, a bombing that killed 6 people and injured 18. Abu Sayyaf reportedly went on to receive funding from Osama bin Laden through bin Laden's brother-in-law, Jamal Mohammad Khalifa, a Saudi businessman who ran Islamic charities on Mindanao. Both Abu Sayyaf and bin Laden's followers were linked to the failed plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Manila on January 13, 1995. In May 2001, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped an American missionary pilot, Martin Burnham, and his wife, Gracia. The couple spent more than a year in captivity before Martin was killed in a battle between the terrorists and Philippine forces, during which Gracia was rescued.
Over the years, Abu Sayyaf has received training and reportedly provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-linked operatives, including Ramzi Youssef, who planned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly murdered the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. According to Vitug, the author, Abu Sayyaf has also been linked to the Philippines armed forces, through profitable illegal logging deals. Indeed, Abu Sayyaf has lately developed into a more conventional criminal syndicate, with jihad becoming secondary to making money through kidnapping.
International jihadists first used the lawless jungle islands of the southern Philippines as a way station between battlefields during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. At the time, the United States, which had operated military bases in the Philippines since 1947, was paying little attention to Islamist movements in the region. "The U.S. bases closed in 1992, and U.S. military assistance was reduced way down; the country kind of fell off our scope," a senior U.S. military official told me in Manila. "Well, it fell off our scope, but not the scope of some very bad people." He went on: "Ramzi Youssef, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Khalifah, bin Laden's brother-in-law, were all here setting up networks, financing, training and all grafting on to the growth of this pan-Islamist movement. They were developing tentacles and establishing themselves, shifting people back and forth from Afghanistan to the Philippines."
In February 2002, some 660 American soldiers landed in the Philippines to train the Philippine armed forces in joint military exercises known as Balikatan ("shoulder to shoulder" in Tagalog). Eight months later, terrorist bombings in Bali killed 202. "After the Bali bombings," the U.S. official told me, "we began to look very carefully at what do we need to begin doing to build up a very weak host nation that is struggling to come to grips with a very severe problem." At least two of the Bali bombers—members of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian militant group—have found sanctuary on Jolo and other southern Philippine islands.