One of Southeast Asia's most violent terrorist groups, Abu Sayyaf, is under siege in the southern Philippines. While its top leaders are being targeted and killed by the military, some of its rank and file members have begun to defect. Recently, reporters escorted by Philippine Marines met several former guerrillas to hear their story. Douglas Bakshian just visited the island of Jolo where the Abu Sayyaf is based and has this report on the defectors.
The defectors use fictitious names for their protection. Their background seems simple as told through military interpreters. They were middlemen in a fruit business in which they purchased produce from farmers and resold it to a retailer.
But a deal went bad and the retailer did not pay the nearly $6,000 he owed for the food. To get their money, they kidnapped him and after the ransom was paid, they let the businessman go. Fearing retaliation from his relatives and the authorities, they fled their homes and joined Abu Sayyaf, a group in the hills that they had heard of.
The Abu Sayyaf has claimed it is fighting for a separate homeland for Muslims in the southern islands of Philippines, which has a mostly Christian population. But it is most famous for a series of bombings, brutal kidnappings and beheadings.
One of the former guerrillas, Brian, 29, a father of four, said he was not originally interested in jihad but after he became an Abu Sayyaf member he was indoctrinated. He said he never witnessed any atrocities such as beheadings, but he saw a lot of violence in battles with the Philippine Marines.
Brian spent three years with the Abu Sayyaf. He says life in the jungle became difficult because the guerrillas were on the run from the Marines and it was hard to get food. He says there were times when, if they were lucky, they would eat once a day, but the next day there would be no food. They also feared dying in clashes with the military.
Brian said he left Abu Sayyaf because it was doing un-Islamic things. One day he just had enough. He says the group was killing people, and stealing other's property, and some members stopped praying.
When he saw an opportunity to slip out of the group he fled for his life. He surrendered to the Marines last October. He says Abu Sayyaf was being poorly managed when he left, and more defectors could be coming.
Over the past several months, an aggressive military operation on Jolo by the Philippine Marines, using intelligence and equipment provided by the United States, has severely crippled the Abu Sayyaf. Two senior leaders have been killed and its activities have been curtailed.
The Abu Sayyaf is said to be harboring members from the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people. Another former fighter, Adam, 25, says he saw JI member Dulmatin, the man behind the Bali attack, but he was heavily guarded.
He says he approached Dulmatin but was kept away by others because Abu Sayyaf leaders were afraid someone would get the word out that Jemaah Islamiah was on Jolo.
A third former rebel, Jordan, 26, who has three children, says he left Abu Sayyaf to return to his family. He also was afraid of the Marines, known for their overwhelming firepower.
The former fighters have rejoined their community and will be part of a militia to defend their neighborhoods if the guerrillas come back. The Marines also are on call if further protection is required.
Philippine Marine Lieutenant Colonel Nestor Herico, says he hopes more Abu Sayyaf members will give themselves up when they get the word that their former comrades are living peaceful lives with their families. He says over time, this process will weaken the Abu Sayyaf leadership, which he refers to as "the big fish."
"You are going to take out the water in a basin with a big fish in there," he said. "I consider them the water. If you are going to take out the water, the big fish will die. So not having a mass base I believe the hierarchy of Abu Sayyaf will just die a natural death, or most probably they will just leave the area."
About 200 Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are thought to still be on Jolo. The Marines say they are willing to be lenient with those who surrender, because they want them to once again live harmoniously in their own communities.