ON THE NORTHERN COAST of the Philippine island of Jolo lies a small resort, some 30 bamboo-and-thatch huts stretching a quarter-mile along a white-sand beach overlooking the tropical Sulu Sea. People spend their days here kicking back in hammocks, spearfishing along the coral reef, or simply watching fruit bats sail between the coconut trees.
Nobody ventures very far from the resort. It's paradise, after all, plus there's the fact that the whole place is ringed with concertina wire anchored by sandbagged gun emplacements, and that you might be killed if you were to go anywhere else on the island without an armed escort. The Beach Resort, as it's called, is officially known as Buhanginan Base, home to 125 Filipino marines and 12 American Green Berets, part of a joint Philippine-American task force formed after 9/11 to take down a terrorist group called Abu Sayyaf. The troops' mission was to contain the outfit, a onetime jihadist faction responsible for a string of Western tourist kidnappings from high-end resorts in Malaysia and the Philippines but it was much more ambitious than that. Even before the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001, the lawless jungles of the southern Philippines had emerged as the biggest terrorist base outside Central Asia. The ultimate goal was to prevent another Afghanistan to deny that sanctuary to fleeing Al Qaeda operatives and regional groups like Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiya, the outfit later believed to be responsible for the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings and those of the J.W. Marriott Hotel and the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2003 and 2004.
By 2006, after four straight years of operations, the joint troops had sustained an estimated 100 Filipino and 11 American dead. And they'd contained Abu Sayyaf predominantly to a single island, its historical stronghold of Jolo. Geographically isolated, blanketed by jungle, and run by an obscenely corrupt government, Jolo (pronounced HO-lo) is a terrorist sanctuary par excellence. Its half-million inhabitants are like many Abu Sayyaf members of the Tausug tribe: desperately poor, Muslim in a country of Roman Catholics, and linguistically separated from the rest of the Philippines. But ever since a charismatic Filipino brigadier general named Juancho Sabban took command in April 2005, the joint forces were actually succeeding in winning over the Islamic people of Jolo. Using a classic "hearts and minds" strategy of about 85 percent civil-affairs projects and 15 percent combat operations, they'd turned this 345-square-mile island into the one theater in the war on terrorism where the momentum seemed to be moving in America's direction.
"We think there is a model here that's worth showcasing," Major General David Fridovich, the Hawaii-based U.S. Special Operations commander in the Pacific, told reporters last spring. "There's another way of doing business."
Last July, I moved into a tiny hut at the Beach Resort. Jolo was unlike any war zone I had ever been in. In many ways Buhanginan Base reminded me of a tropical frat house, albeit one with its own 81mm mortar pit and an inordinately high level of scar tissue. The Filipinos and Americans often hung out, shooting hoops or mangling eighties power ballads on their guitars. Nights were, if possible, even mellower. Dinners featured whatever creature the cook could get his hands on: wild boar, goat, bonefish, a python. After the meal, we'd gather in the officers' wardroom, a thatched hut swathed in mosquito netting, to drink brandy cut with wild ginseng and watch a heinous Philippine soap called Majika, which chronicled the tragic love triangle between two spandex-clad witches and a swinging warlock. It was must-see TV for the Filipinos and Green Berets, who used the commercial breaks to fine-tune operational plans.
Outside the perimeter, the scene was a bit different. Poverty seeped into every pore and up the nose. Every few hundred yards along the coastal road (the island's only paved thoroughfare) stood small clusters of huts on stilts, constructed of bamboo, tin, and salvage by refugees from the interior who'd fled the fighting. There was no means of private transport save a precious few bicycles and dirt bikes. Families bathed and washed their clothes in water holes the color of Yoo-hoo. Yet Jolo's is a gun culture, and many households owned an assault rifle, if very little else. During lunar eclipses and New Year's, the sky above the capital, Jolo City, looks like the first night of Operation Desert Storm over Baghdad as folks unload flaming rivers of phosphorous-coated ordnance into the heavens to chase off evil spirits.
I spent my first week on the island accompanying the marines and Green Berets to schools and medical clinics. The picture I got was certainly of a terrorist group on the defensive, but to what degree it was hard to know. Then, one night as we were watching Majika, a Filipino major named Jimmy Larida called me over to his table. Larida was a sweet-natured operations officer built like a floor safe; I'd been hounding him for days to take me out on something sexier than a book drop. I found him sitting alone before a large operations map.
"Here," he said, pulling out a chair. "I want to show you something."