Love, stealth rout Abu Sayyaf terrorists

By Jim Gomez - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Mar 4, 2007 10:25:04 EST

INDANAN, Philippines — Marine Lance Cpl. Steven Valls had used his M-16 in Iraq, but here on the Philippines’ restive Jolo island, he is fighting terrorism with a labor of love — helping paint school buildings and pave a dusty road.

At night, America’s unique battle against al-Qaida-linked militants often turns stealthy. U.S. planes zoom in the sky over Jolo’s thick tropical jungles with cameras that could pick up minute details like a flickering rebel bonfire, said two Filipino security officials who declined to be named, citing policy.

Forbidden from local combat by the Philippine constitution, U.S. troops have embarked on humanitarian work to wean villagers from terrorism and trained its high-tech surveillance equipment to track militants.

The combination has been lethal for the Abu Sayyaf, a small but brutal group that has launched deadly terror attacks across the country.

Philippine troops killed Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khadaffy Janjalani last September and his presumed successor Abu Sulaiman in January in Jolo partly helped by America’s technical backup, according to the two security officials, who had knowledge of the operations.

“When you get number one and number two, obviously, you’re getting the head of the octopus,” Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon said.

“It would have been difficult to accomplish that without the joint activities that we have,” he said, referring to U.S. non-combat assistance to Philippine troops.

A closing ceremony for a two-week humanitarian mission by hundreds of U.S. and Filipino troops Saturday in Jolo’s poor Bato-Bato coastal village in Indanan town showcased the extent of the Americans’ rapport with villagers.

Villagers waved at and cheered on soldiers in a U.S. military convoy like they were movie stars. “Hey Joe, OK Joe,” they yelled. Hundreds of grade school students waved small U.S. and Philippine flags as U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney and Filipino officials arrived.

A Bato-Bato mother of four children, Anang Hadiola, said she did not fear the heavily armed Americans.

“When they meet us, they say, ‘Good morning.’ They’re kind and they’re hard working,” she said.

Valls, the Marine from Delcambre, Louisiana, served as an electrician. He ran power generators to allow fellow Marines from the Okinawa-based 9th Engineering Support Battalion to work on road and school repairs in Bato-Bato.

“I think it’s a good approach,” he said of the U.S. aid work.

“The people seem real nice, always smiling. They seem to like what we’re doing,” he said.

Mortar rounds exploded and gunshots crackled in Indanan’s hinterlands about two weeks ago in what appeared to be a clash between Abu Sayyaf gunmen and Filipino troops, but Valls considered Jolo relatively safer and more promising than Iraq.

He was deployed in Iraq’s volatile Anbar province from February to September last year.

“It’s pretty crazy out there, I don’t know. It’s getting better I hope,” said Valls, taking a break from work. “I think it’s a lot better over here than in Iraq. It’s a lot nicer and not as much danger.”

Another Marine, 1st Sgt. Daryl Cherry from Dover, Delaware, was equally impressed. “I think we’re having the desired effect,” he said.

Indanan’s jungle mountains have been a sanctuary to the Abu Sayyaf and other gunmen for years. They often ambush troops and others on a hillside road, dubbed the “highway of death,” officials say. Nowadays, the gunmen rarely bother Indanan, a town of about 50,000 on Jolo island in Sulu province.

“Madame ambassador, the legacy of the American people here in Sulu are not these projects alone ... it is by giving us again the hope, by showing to us that, indeed, peace is possible,” provincial administrator Don Loong told Kenney at the tightly guarded ceremony.

Such praise for America’s soft counterterrorism approach on Jolo stands in contrast to criticism over U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the fight against the Abu Sayyaf and the appalling poverty that breeds it is far from over, Loong said.

A study of the intensity of five problems — lack of water, lack of electricity, crushing poverty, widespread sentiments of being a minority and high illiteracy rate — that foster armed conflicts was done on Jolo, Loong said.

“The problem was not that all these problems existed. The five were at its worst on Jolo,” he said.