The Abu Sayyaf guerrillas of the southern Philippines, the newest target of U.S. troops, are a brutal lot. They lock their hostages in windowless huts, decapitate those for whom ransom is not paid and mutilate the bodies of Filipino soldiers.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo defines the Abu Sayyaf as "a money-crazed gang of criminals." The group's barbarism and mercenary bent, according to Western diplomats and other experts, have cost the guerrillas the funding they allegedly once received from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Nevertheless, the campaign against international terrorism is bringing American soldiers to the Philippines to help against Abu Sayyaf. U.S. military cargo planes flying into the southern port city of Zamboanga are bringing soldiers, engineering equipment and communications gear.
About 660 U.S. soldiers are to take part in the mission, under rules that will allow them to defend themselves but not engage the guerrillas. About 160 members of the Special Forces will work closely with Filipino troops as they track the Abu Sayyaf fighters through the jungles of Basilan Island.
For the last eight months the guerrillas have moved from camp to camp, always a step ahead of Filipino troops. The rebels drag along their kidnapping victims, including American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. Villagers on Basilan claim they saw the American couple being transferred to another hide-out a week ago.
Since the Burnhams were kidnapped from Las Palmas resort on Palawan in May, the Abu Sayyaf has captured and released about 50 hostages for an average ransom of $20,000.
But the guerrillas are asking for $10 million for the Burnhams. "Americans are rich," said the group's spokesman, Abu Sabaya. "They can pay much more."
In its early days, the Abu Sayyaf said it was fighting for an Islamic state on Mindanao. It received funding from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and from Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, according to U.S. and Filipino officials.
As the Abu Sayyaf movement degenerated, however, the group lost support. Former allies dubbed the kidnapping of children and the abuse of women "un-Islamic." Anti-terrorism experts and defectors from the group believe al-Qaida severed its link at least two years ago. So did other militant groups, including Moro nationalist guerrillas on Mindanao.
The Abu Sayyaf attacks have helped bring to a standstill the Philippines' tourism industry. Yet Arroyo's decision to take advantage of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and invite in American troops has caused a backlash in her country.
"People might think the soldiers are there for combat," Arroyo said this weekend as she tried to calm the nation. "They are there to do training."
Arroyo said Sunday that she is calling a meeting of her national security council to define the scope of the U.S. engagement. The Filipino Senate, meanwhile, is to hold a formal inquiry this week.
"First they call in the U.S. troops, then they don't want them anymore," said political analyst Abby Tan. "It's typically Filipino."
The arrival of the U.S. advisers extends the international war against terrorism to a jungle island whose caves and mountains serve as formidable hideouts for the Abu Sayyaf, loosely translated as "Bearer of the Sword."
The Abu Sayyaf hit the international spotlight in April 2000 with an armed raid on the remote Malaysian diving resort on Sipadan Island. Eleven of the 21 hostages it captured were Western tourists.
The Sipadan caper turned into a windfall. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi paid an estimated $25 million ransom for the freedom of the Westerners as a humanitarian gesture.
The ransom allowed the guerrillas to buy speedboats able to outpace the Philippine navy's antiquated fleet and to purchase weapons on the open market.
"Now they outgun and outrun us," lamented a naval commander.
Local support for rebels
The poor and mainly Muslim population is supportive of the Abu Sayyaf, a loyalty encouraged not by their cause but the money, the boats and the livestock that the rebels dispense after a major ransom has been collected.
The group's success in evading army patrols and moving their prisoners from base to base is often blamed on the symbiosis that exists between Muslim extremists and soldiers who used to be members of Muslim separatist movements before they changed sides.
Released hostages report hearing the group's spokesman and subcommander, Abu Sabaya, receive advance notice of army attacks.
Basilan is an idyllic tropical island with lush jungle, caves and teeming wildlife. The tepid waters and coral reefs of the Sulu Sea surround it. Escape to hundreds of small islands is easy.
U.S. forces might be reminded of the frustrating jungle warfare in Vietnam. On Basilan, the distinction between residents and rebels remains blurred.
"The enemy can hoe the fields in the daytime and fire his guns at night. You never know if the guy who gave you a can of water is going to pick up a gun from his haystack and shoot you in the back as you walk away," said a Philippine marine lieutenant who served for two years on Basilan.
The frustration and anger of soldiers, observers say, has led to abuse and atrocities against the local population.
Using human shields
When cornered, the guerrillas have used the human shield strategy to engineer their escape. They limited air strikes and artillery attacks on their camps by placing the hostage huts in the center of their encampments.
Last month, troops cornered one group of Abu Sayyaf fighters in a village on Mindanao. The guerrillas rounded up 100 men, women and children, chained them together and hid inside the crowd, holding hand grenades and pointing M-16 assault rifles at their captives. The cordon of chained hostages, begging the troops not to shoot, led the guerrillas out of the encirclement through a ring of armored cars and soldiers.
The group's founder, Ustadz Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, was an idealist adopted as a baby by a Christian family. He studied Islam in Egypt and fought with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion.
Charismatic and pious, he ordered local officials to reduce the water and electricity rate, punished landlords who abused their tenants and dreamed of a Muslim state where Christians would be tolerated and allowed to practice their religion.
Janjalani was killed in a firefight with troops in 1998, and after an internal power struggle his younger brother, Khadaffy Janjalani, took over.
Defectors from the group describe him as an indecisive leader who quickly came under the sinister influence of Abu Sabaya, a man who always wears dark sunglasses, and Commander Robot, a guerrilla who styles himself on the action movie heroes of Philippine cinema. The trio converted the group into a terror industry.