A U.S. military convoy passes in a village in Maimbun town in Jolo island in the southern Philippines on Thursday 25 Jan 2007. Filipino security forces, assisted by U.S. troops, are pursuing two Jemaah Islamiya bombers, Dulmatin and Umar Patek, and Abu Sayyaf militants who are protecting the two men, tagged as behind the 2002 Bali bombinngs that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. (Mindanao Examiner Photo exclusive for The Australian)
JOLO ISLAND (Emma Kate Symons / 27 Jan) - ''THE Americans like to talk about the battle for hearts and minds. But you need to hold them by the balls. There has to be the threat of force.''
As the afternoon call to prayer echoes across the teeming port town of Jolo, the chain-smoking Filipino intelligence boss spits out his lewd warning to fugitive Bali bombers Dulmatin and Omar Patek.
The two Jemaah Islamiah leaders are holed up somewhere in the cloud-covered jungle only a few dozen kilometres from where we sit beneath the mango trees at Philippines army headquarters, shared with the assisting US special forces.
''We know where they are,'' the spy boss says of Dulmatin and Patek. ''But it's a matter of getting there in time. They could be inside Mount Dajo but to get there even with choppers, they would know we were coming and move on.''
From heavily fortified Camp Teodolfo Bautista, the American-backed local forces are waging an extraordinary, ''surgical'' military manhunt for some of the world's most wanted terrorists, believed to be hiding out on this 300sqkm volcanic island at the Philippines' southern tip.
It is an operation involving up to 8000 local troops and hundreds of US special forces and intelligence experts. Operation Ultimatum has ''liquidated'' a handful of ''high-value targets'' including Khadaffy Janjalani, the leader of local al-Qa'ida-linked Islamist terrorist outfit Abu Sayyaf, believed to now be under JI control.
But Dulmatin -- with his $US10 million ($12.9 million) US government bounty (double the reward offered for Janjalani), reputation for being the ''genius'' bomb technician behind the 2002 Bali attacks and responsible for a subsequent string of deadly attacks in the southern Philippines and possibly around Asia -- is enemy No1.
The wealthy Javanese was a protege of master JI bomb-maker Azahari bin Husin, who was killed in a shootout with police in Indonesia in late 2005. Azahari's death left three Bali bomb masterminds on the run -- Dulmatin, Patek and fellow Indonesian Noordin Mohammed Top, who has narrowly evaded capture on several occasions.
Dulmatin -- also known as Mutkamar, Amar Usman, Djoko Supriyanto and Joko Pitono -- came to the southern Philippines some time in 2003. The region has been home to a violent Muslim insurgency, led by the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is now involved in official peace talks, for more than three decades.
Dulmatin's mission was to develop the southern Philippines chapter of JI and share bomb-making techniques with his Abu Sayyaf brothers, after he directed the 2002 Bali attacks that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Abu Sayyaf is a shadowy local kidnap-for-ransom group held responsible for killing hundreds through bombings, beheadings and abductions, targeting Christians and foreigners.
Now, after several years establishing bomb-training camps in central Mindanao funnelling technical expertise and al-Qa'ida-sourced money to their ideological brothers, Dulmatin and Patek are virtual prisoners on one of the world's most dangerous and isolated islands.
They are confined to Jolo, an autonomous 94 per cent Muslim region of Mindanao, where dense jungle and cloud cover can limit visibility to 1m.This week, as reported by The Australian, the military confirmed Dulmatin was wounded in a fierce gun battle that killed Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Solaiman.
Dulmatin escaped on foot, probably with Patek. Yet according to the top Philippines and US army commanders, the JI pair have been cornered.
In a series of exclusive interviews with The Weekend Australian, top Philippines and US commanders and intelligence officials offered unprecedented insight into their tactics, shared intelligence capabilities and conviction that on the frontline of the Southeast Asian war on terrorism, they are winning.
A group of deep penetration agents inside the Abu Sayyaf and JI cells on Jolo are funnelling prized intelligence about the location and activities of the Bali bombers and their 100 or so Abu Sayyaf cronies. The fugitives have been forced to change locations every six hours -- sometimes disguised by wigs and burqas -- in small groups to evade detection.
The army even knows that Dulmatin has hidden two of his sons away on nearby Basilan island, probably with the widow of Abu Sayyaf founder Abburajak Janjalani. ''This is a Philippines battle and the Philippines forces are winning,'' says US Colonel David Maxwell, the US commander of joint special forces operations in the southern Philippines.''
The Philippine navy has done a tremendous job with the ability for Dulmatin and Patek to move by water. They have really isolated Jolo so well and it is probably difficult for them to move off the island.''But where are they going to go? You look at what the armed forces of The Philippines is doing in central Mindanao. Are they going to go back after they were evicted by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front? Basilan (island) is very secure these days, they can't go back there.''
They will have to leave The Philippines and right now their best hope is to continue to remain here on Jolo because they've got a low level of basic support network that has allowed them to survive. But it's only a matter of time.
The armed forces of The Philippines are going to win over all the sanctuaries and they are going to win over all the people and eliminate the ability for them to survive on the island.''The fight on Jolo is being keenly watched by the Australian armed forces and their bosses in Canberra, who are negotiating a status of forces agreement with The Philippines.
On Monday, Australian ambassador to The Philippines Tony Hely and defence staff will be in Zamboanga City, the closest mainland Mindanao city to Jolo, to meet with local officials.For now, Australia is limited to providing intelligence support and training in bomb detection, hostage rescue and maritime security. But once the defence pact is signed later this year, Australian forces could conduct large joint training exercises and potentially send forces to assist in Jolo.
General Eugenio Cedo, commander of Philippines forces in Western Mindanao, said he would warmly welcome Australian military support in the south. But he and a handful of top military brass are surprised that Australia has not joined the US and Philippines in offering generous rewards for the capture of Dulmatin and Patek.
This week they urged Canberra to join in.The Philippines military admits there have been some missteps in its hunt for Dulmatin. In October, it arrested Dulmatin's wife on Jolo, with two of the bomber's children. She offered valuable intelligence, including listing at least seven JI operatives in the south, before being deported to Indonesia.
''We shouldn't have arrested the wife,'' says army Captain Abdurassad Sirajan. ''He was probably with her the same day. You put the wives under surveillance and monitor them, then you come much closer to capturing the high-value targets.''Maxwell agrees that Dulmatin and Patek ''must be captured or neutralised'', despite the difficulties presented by the complex jungle terrain.
''The Philippines forces are trying to win the hearts and minds of the local population. But sometimes it's like chasing ghosts,'' he says.''Also, the culture on Jolo is very complex. The Abu Sayyaf group has strong family ties, and strong tribal ties (to the local warrior Tausug tribe). Where there are blood relations and religious connections, those ties remain.''
As a palpable sign of the intense US interest in winning this battle against terrorism, the Hawaii-based commander of American special forces in the Pacific, Major General David Fridovich, US President George W. Bush's special state department adviser on ''reaching out to the Muslim world'' Karen Hughes and US ambassador to The Philippines Kristie Kenney, all came to Jolo island this week.
The Americans are waging a costly fight against poverty, exclusion and discrimination on the island, with a host of multi-million-dollar aid projects, ranging from internet-equipped schools and roads to medical centres, ambulances and hospitals.
It is their calculated battle for hearts and minds on Jolo, a desperately poor community of 600,000 where fresh water, electricity and basic healthcare are rarities.Yet for all the aid and work to shield civilians from becoming ''collateral damage'', Islamist ideology and hatred of Christians, foreigners and particularly Americans, the Philippines former colonial masters, are still powerful forces on Jolo.
Gesturing towards Jolo's grand mosque, a persistent stronghold of radical Muslim muftis preaching violent jihadism, Sirajan, a Muslim and Jolo-raised former Moro Islamic Liberation Front commander, says ruefully: ''Even if we have killed Janjalani and all the terrorist leaders like Dulmatin and Patek, there will still be terrorism here.''It is an ideology, it is ingrained religious extremism, it is a part of life here.'' (The Australian)