According to Philippine and U.S. officials, Santos is the leader of a group that is the new face of international terror: militant Islamists who easily blend in with the local population. Santos is accused of being the head of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), which has allegedly forged alliances with Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups. The RSM consists of former Christians who have converted to Islam—or, as they say, "reverted," since much of the Philippines was Muslim before the conquistadors arrived. Santos, who was born Catholic and converted to Islam in 1993 while working in computers in Saudi Arabia, is believed to have been involved in a series of bombings in the Philippines, including the February 2004 attack on a ferry in Manila Harbor that killed 116 people. Philippine security forces arrested Santos in October 2005 after the United States put a $500,000 bounty on his head as part of the U.S. rewards for justice program, which offers cash to those who turn in suspected terrorists. The U.S. Embassy called his arrest "a significant victory in the fight against terrorism."
Because the criminal case against him was pending, he would not discuss details of the matter. He said he'd been an imam, or teacher of Islam, and that he advocated holy war, but he not only denied leading the RSM, he even denied the group's existence. "I don't consider this a case about terrorism, but religion," Santos said, meaning that he'd been swept up in what he viewed as the West's global war against Islam. "Terrorism," he said, "is an excuse of the American government to justify attacks on Muslim countries."
Santos showed me marks on his arms that he said were cigarette burns left by Filipino interrogators, but he said neither the CIA nor the FBI had laid a hand on him during their interrogations. I had assumed that an accused terrorist would voice hostility to the U.S. counterterrorism campaign in the Philippines. But he seemed to support the U.S. presence, especially if it highlighted the Philippine government's failings. "I've heard about the Mercy ship, and as long as there is no hidden agenda, it's good for the people," he said, adding: "Since the government hasn't done anything for them, it's really a slap in the government's face."
As the helicopter touched down on Jolo in a grassy clearing, four Special Forces soldiers emerged from the jungle and squinted into the wind kicked up by the rotors. They led us to a school, where a small group of American civil engineers were installing solar panels to power its first Internet connection.
Colonel Linder said that, all in all, the Moro people have been welcoming. The greatest skepticism he faced was that of the local mayor, Butch Izquerdo. "Initially, Mayor Butch was real suspicious of us," Linder said. Izquerdo feared the Americans were after Yamashita's gold, a mythic treasure buried in the Philippines by a Japanese general at the end of World War II. Linder told the mayor, "We are here for treasure—it's in that 6- or 8-year-old child. They're the treasure of Jolo."
I had only a few minutes to speak on my own with villagers, including Izquerdo, who, out of the soldiers' earshot, muttered that he still thought they were after Yamashita's gold. The local head of the Red Cross whispered that she had consulted Muslim rebels and was surprised when they encouraged her to cooperate with the U.S. military—as long as she could get long-sleeved shirts for the rebels.
After we climbed into the helicopter and lifted off again, Linder directed my attention to a high, broken ridge—a reported Abu Sayyaf haven. The ridge dropped sharply into a small clearing where U.S. Special Forces troops were building another tin-roofed school. Children gathered in the green courtyard. From this vantage, life on Jolo appeared pretty tranquil. But it isn't. Abu Sayyaf insurgents weren't operating in the open, but that didn't mean they were gone. "We're very much in a war out here," Linder said."We'll spill American blood on Jolo. It's only by luck, skill and the grace of God we haven't yet."
Eliza Griswold is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Her book of poems, Wideawake Field, will be published next spring. Photographerlives in New York City.