Following my late night attendance of General Sabban‘s birthday party in Zamboanga, I met the general the following morning at the airport to catch a plane to Tawi-Tawi. I was pretty exhausted, but Sabban looked none of the worse for wear. I had been invited down to Tawi-Tawi for the activation anniversary of 2nd Marine Brigade. While there, I would also have the opportunity to interview many Philippine Marine Corps veterans. While waiting in the terminal, Sabban told me that he just got word that Force Recon had eliminated an Abu Sayyaf high value target in Sulu. They had baited the terrorist in with a honeytrap. Although retired and working as a security manager for a bank, Sabban still keeps his ear to the ground.
It was a short flight, and with the General, we walked across the tarmac and were met by several uniformed Marines who would drive us to our hotel in Hilux pickup trucks.
What I first noticed about Tawi-Tawi was that it was beautiful in a rural undeveloped sense. Houses are up on stilts, many roads are unpaved, and the island itself is mountainous and jungle covered. We’re about as far south in the Philippines as you can get, the last major island before Malaysia which is about 25 miles further south by boat. The island’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, although they are generally moderate. A few days later I observed Muslim men and women praying together, something that does not happen in more orthodox interpretations of Islam. I was also able to visit a church belonging to the minority Christian population just outside the city center. As we drive, I also spot wooden ships being built the old-fashioned way, framed out on land. I don’t think I had ever see something like that outside of a diorama at a museum, but here it was, indigenous ship building alive and well.
We get to the hotel at an amazing oceanside location and I soon come to discover that I will be escorted by Marines everywhere I go. My friends are afraid that I might be kidnapped. Personally, it seems a bit like overkill as Tawi-Tawi is not particularly dangerous, but my hosts feel responsible for my well-being. At least I know I am in good hands. Soon I’m sitting outside in front of the aqua-marine sea, interviewing General Sabban and his crew. We talked a lot about the Marine Corps, Abu Sayyaf, and counter-insurgency. I find the Marines to be well read and articulate. One asks me if I’ve read 100 Victories by Linda Robinson, and tells me he is currently reading General Petreaus’ book. General Sabban reflects back to Black Jack Pershing in his approach to counter-insurgency. The first time Pershing went in with an iron fist and found that this approach didn’t work. The second time, he won the hearts and minds of the populace while cracking down on insurgents, which provides a carrot and stick incentive system.