PANGLAO ISLAND, Philippines - Given the opportunity, I like to recharge my batteries on one of the Philippines' 7,000-plus islands but, before booking hotel and airfare, I always ask about the "Three T's" – typhoons, tsunamis or terrorists before I travel.
Bad weather has always been a worry: God has been mixed in his gifts to the natives of this beautiful archipelago. Every year, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of Filipinos die in floods, typhoons, mudslides, earthquakes, and other freaks of nature. But concern about local terrorism is more recent.
Paradise on earth shattered
In my case it started one morning in May, 2001, when I woke up at home, in London, turned on the cable news, and saw a band of wild, chanting militants, covered in machine-gun bullet belts, and standing in front of Bungalow 18 at the Dos Palmas resort on Palawan Island.
The news anchor said these men belonged to Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaida-linked Islamist group which had just invaded the idyllic beachfront in central Philippines, and kidnapped 14 local workers as well as three American tourists.
It was one of those "I must be dreaming" moments: only six weeks earlier, my wife and I had rented the same Bungalow 18 at the same Dos Palmas resort, thinking – at the time – that we had finally found paradise on earth. The kidnap victims could easily have been us. In the end, one American was beheaded and another fatally wounded when the inexperienced Philippine Army botched a rescue attempt months later.
Fast forward almost six years. The local papers are full of headlines about a "surge" of troops – but they're not referring to Iraq. Rather, analysts here are now predicting a final crackdown – "a mortal turning point" for Abu Sayyaf, whose remaining 300 or so fighters are now scattered across a couple of southern (predominately Muslim) provinces with little coordination and no leadership.
What happened? Within the past week, the Philippine Armed Forces, with support from U.S. military advisors "embedded" with those forces, have killed two of Abu Sayyaf's chiefs. Both of the leaders had plotted the Dos Palmas kidnapping and killings, as well as the 2004 firebombing of a Filipino ferryboat – one of South East Asia's worst terror attacks that killed at least 116 passengers.
After years of "just missing" the island-hopping insurgents, the "new" Philippine Army – U.S.-trained commandos equipped with night-vision goggles and other hi-tech surveillance gear – is taking the fight to the militants in their own formerly safe havens.
The killing of Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani and chief spokesman Abu Sulaiman is not only big news for Filipinos and foreign tourists who – like me – were increasingly worried about going diving and ending up a statistic in some terrorist lair. Washington had a $5 million bounty on both of their heads.
The U.S. Embassy, starving for some good news in the war on terror, is overjoyed. President Bush has dispatched Karen Hughes, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who has been tasked with improving the U.S. image abroad, to Sulu Island, on Abu Sayyaf's heartland. She is expected to meet with U.S. forces there and no doubt milk the hard-earned victory over Muslim extremism in far-flung Asia.
Of course, the war on terror against Abu Sayyaf, Jemmah Islamiah or any number of other al-Qaida offshoots in this part of the world is far from won. But it does appear that Abu Sayyaf – which could once outrun the Philippine Navy because it had faster speedboats – is now itself on the run, and reportedly surrounded by highly motivated and heavily armed commandos.
Meanwhile, about two battalions of U.S. Special Forces seem to be doing the right thing: staying out of direct combat while providing advice and logistics to the quickly maturing Philippine Armed Forces.
Isn't this the way it was supposed to be? The way it didn't work out in Iraq and – to a large extent – in Afghanistan? True, there are many differences, but the good news about the U.S.-led counter-insurgency in the Philippines is certainly worth a mention. Who knows, the day may not be far off when I plan a vacation to my favorite get-away and ask about only two T's – typhoons and tsunamis.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London and currently on vacation in the Philippines.