“No,” says General Lito Sobejana in his native language Tagalog. “You cannot pay the ransom.”
I listen to him as he speaks patiently on the phone with the desperate wife of a man kidnaped by Islamic extremists. He translates the conversation when he hangs up the phone.
“She wants to try to raise ransom money,” he tells me. “They told her they would cut off his head today if she didn’t pay. But we have a strict ‘no ransom’ policy.”
The day before my meeting with the general, his men attempted a rescue and there was a fatal firefight. Six of the terrorists were killed. One of the general’s men was shot but survived.
We’re in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines, which is home to more than 21 million people and is considered the nation’s “food basket.” It’s been under martial law since spring. We travel with heavily armed guards day and night.
These days, the locals can’t freely move about to fish and farm without fear of being snatched off the street by Muslim terrorist thugs who raise money from the kidnappings. More than a dozen victims are currently being held. Four were captured right before my visit.
Terrorist kidnappings by Islamic extremists and insurgents have been a deadly problem here in the southern Philippines as far back as anyone can remember. And now, foreign fighters and ISIS-inspired terrorists are moving in. The U.S. is starting to pay close attention.
It’s the safest way to see the worst areas. He points toward the Muslim majority provinces of Sulu and Basilan where some of the most dangerous fighting is going on. He rolls up his right sleeve and exposes a badly mangled arm. It was shot to pieces by an AK-47 in a firefight with al Qaeda linked terrorists nearly twenty years ago. General Sobejano had led an operation that hunted down and killed the founder of al Qaeda-linked group “Abu Sayyaf.” The founder’s name was Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani.
“Right there, that’s where it happened,” the general tells me as he gestures toward the island of Basilan. The arm was saved, he says, only because the U.S. flew him to Hawaii where he received the best medical treatment. He’s also been shot in the leg. For his bravery, he’s received the Philippine military’s the highest award: a medal of valor.
Today, the general tells me they know where the terrorists are holding more than a dozen civilian kidnap victims.
“Why can’t you just blow them up?” I ask.
“They hide among their wives and children and other civilians. We can’t take the chance of hurting them. They are our citizens. We serve them, too,” he says.
“But if they know that, how can you ever win?”
In other words: How can the good guys who value life ever defeat an enemy that kills indiscriminately? It’s the same dilemma facing the U.S. in the ongoing War on Terror.
He takes a breath. “It’s hard.”
Sharyl Attkisson’s reporting on the Philippines will be featured on this Sunday’s episode of her investigative news program, “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.”