“We are the worst nightmare of the enemy,” Lieutenant Colonel Rapi told me while speaking of the Philippine Scout-Rangers when I met him at Special Operations Command at Fort Magsaysay. To find out why the Scout-Rangers are so formidable, I had to travel to the Philippines southernmost major island called Tawi-Tawi.

It was early in the morning, and everyone had been partying hard the night prior at the 2nd Marine Brigade activation anniversary party on Tawi-Tawi, but I had come all the way to the Philippines and was going to interview as many soldiers as I could before leaving. After a few rings, General Cirilito “Lito” Sobejana answered. I told him that I was already on my way to begin the ascent up the mountain which looked like that jungle crag that you see in the beginning of Indiana Jones.  Over beers the previous night, the former Scout-Ranger officer and I had promised to go to the top the following morning.

“Give me ten minutes, I’ll be right there,” Sobejana answered.

The General met me at the base of the mountain and we began to climb along with a small news crew from local the media who was also there for the activation anniversary. Currently the Sulu Task Force Commander, Sobejana had taken a Navy ship to Tawi-Tawi from Sulu to attend. I got the sense that he was enjoying a few minutes of relative relaxation, despite the squad of Philippine Marines to our front and bringing up the rear. Sobejana had been given a deadline by President Duterte to end Abu Sayyaf once and for all. It was tight to say the least as July was just a few months away. The national security advisor had then padded the timeline in true military fashion, giving Sobejana only until June to complete an impossible task.

As we walk, we talk about another country that we both have in common: Syria. Sobejana was deployed to the Golan Heights as a peacekeeper where he was involved in a number of infamous international incidents that involved ISIS and the FSA including one dust-up which saw the Philippine troops blow off an illegal order from the United Nations. But that’s another story for another time.

It was a humid, sweaty climb to the top but worth it for a beautiful view of the tropical jungle island surrounded by crystal clear aquamarine waters. Tawi-Tawi is the last major island in the chain of islands before reaching Malaysia making it a stop in the underground ratline for smugglers, brigands, and terrorists which are nearly impossible to contain in an archipelago nation consisting of around 7000 islands. Sobejana points out the adjacent island called Simunul, where Islam first landed in the Philippines, pre-dating the introduction of Christianity by several hundred years.

As he points to the island, I again glance at the massive scar which curls around his elbow and forearm. I first noticed it last night at the party when I went to shake his hand.  He shook left-handed. I noted that his right arm had been injured and endeavored to get the story behind the General’s war wound which was partly why I asked to interview him the next day.

At the top of Tawi-Tawi with General Sobejana, the Task Force Sulu commander and Medal of Valor recipient.

At another area at the summit of Tawi-Tawi, I noted men and women praying together at the tombs of local sheiks as we passed by. This is forbidden according to strict interpretations of Islam. Sobejana confirmed that Tawi-Tawi practices a more moderate and reasonable form of Islam. Although the island has a small auxiliary support network for Abu Sayyaf terrorists passing through on their way to Sulu, the island’s main issue is kidnapping rather than acts of terror. The Philippine Marine Corps stationed on the island keeps those criminal elements from getting out of hand.