Arms for the poor
Mayor Alkramer Izquierdo walks slowly and circumspectly among the plank houses of Barangay Takut-Takut, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jolo. Four private bodyguards and six heavily armed marines follow him closely, making sure that nothing happens to the town's top politician.
'Actually, I do not want to walk with bodyguards. I would like to walk alone so that it is easier to meet the people. But that is impossible,' said the soft-spoken 43-year-old father of two.
'Here, every politician has his own private army and I, as a mayor, also have a military escort,' he said.
Jolo town is the capital of the island province of Sulu, which together with the provinces of Basilan and Tawi-Tawi, forms the Sulu Archipelago. Local police have identified 33 armed groups that could disrupt the local election, due to be held in May.
Palm-fringed beaches and crystal-clear ocean make the Sulu Archipelago one of the most stunning corners of Southeast Asia. Yet there are no tourists visiting this string of islets which, like a necklace of pearls that has been broken and scattered, stretches from the southernmost tip of the Philippine island of Mindanao to the shores of Borneo.
Among the reasons visitors keep away is Abu Sayyaf, a homegrown, small but vicious radical Islamic group that Washington, Brussels and Manila have added to their lists of terrorist organisations. The group's stated aim is to turn the region into an Islamic state.
In the past few weeks, a US-backed military offensive has claimed the life of several Abu Sayyaf leaders, including Jundam Jumalul, known as the Black Killer, and Jainal Antel Sali (alias Abu Solaiman). Khaddafy Janjalani, the group chieftain, was killed in early September but confirmed dead by a DNA test only this month.
The latter two had a US$5 million bounty on their heads, courtesy of the White House.
Janjalani's death prompted Philippine President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo to declare victory. 'The death of Khaddafy Janjalani marks the mortal turning point for Abu Sayyaf,' she said.
'The tactical prowess of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the fusion of intelligence and training with the United States and our allies in the region, and most of all, the vigilant support of the people and communities have combined to breach the deadly ring of evil, put its cells in disarray, and laid them open for the final blow,' she said.
However, not everybody in the province is convinced. Most locals think poverty, rather than an Islamic ideology bent on separatism, is to blame, and that only a marked improvement in living standards will rid the area of the stain of terrorism.
Among those endorsing this assessment is Mr Izquierdo. 'Poverty is the root of the problem. If a person lives in utter poverty, it is likely that he will resort to criminality. This is the case with Abu Sayyaf. People join them because of poverty, not because of ideological affiliations,' he said.
'Abu Sayyaf sometimes kidnaps people for ransom. When they do that, their number swells, because kidnapping brings a lot of money, so poor people want to join them.'
Jolo-based Catholic priest Romeo Villanueva said poverty had made kidnapping almost like a franchised operation in the archipelago. 'It is not always Abu Sayyaf that kidnaps. Sometimes it is normal people who are driven by poverty. When they do, they hand the captives over to Abu Sayyaf,' he said.
'It is like a contract business. Abu Sayyaf knows how to deal with captives and will get a higher ransom. The original kidnapper will get a cut of it.'
Six thousand people live in Barangay Takut-Takut, where tiny, flimsy houses cling together. The neighbourhood's houses are built on stilts, next to the sea. But under the shaky wooden footbridge that links them, the sea has almost disappeared under tonnes of domestic waste. In Barangay Takut-Takut, clean water is scarce. There is neither a proper sewage system nor any organised waste collection. Children play nonchalantly while rats roam free. A stench and sweltering heat swathe the area, making the air hard to breathe for the unaccustomed.
'Over 500 residents are sick with tuberculosis and others suffer typhoid. They cannot afford the treatment,' local community leader Rong Alih said. 'Most of the male inhabitants work as tricycle riders or sell fish. They earn about 100 pesos per day [HK$16] and have an average of three children each.'
Barangay Takut-Takut is like a skewed mirror that amplifies problems present in the rest of the Sulu Archipelago, deemed the poorest region of the Philippines.
In its year 2000 poverty incidence report, the National Statistical Co-ordination Board said the province of Sulu had a poverty rate of 63.2 per cent. In 2005, the Social Weather Station, a respected local survey institute, reported that 24.46 per cent of all primary school pupils were undernourished.
The region also has a high illiteracy rate. And if education is the future, tomorrow looks gloomy for the 500 students that crowd in shifts into the four classrooms of the Hadja Taiba Abubakar Schuck elementary school, the only school in Barangay Takut-Takut.
'There are only two desks. The rest sit on the floor,' said Nur-yam Aking, head of the school, which is housed in a semi-derelict building. 'There is no water and virtually no sanitation. The only toilet is in a state of disarray,' she added.
Mr Izquierdo's administration has put aside funds for a new footbridge to be built in the neighbourhood, but he says there is little he can do for the school. 'In this neighbourhood, people do not have a school. They do not have a decent social system or a way to earn a living. Yet they have to provide for their families,' he said.
'What would you do? What would you do if somehow you could make some money by kidnapping foreigners or Filipino-Chinese businessmen?
'It is not about an independent Islamic state. For most people, it is about survival.
'In Sulu, the war on terror is likely to be won at the dinner table rather than on the battlefield,' he sighed.
Octavio Dinampo, an expert on Abu Sayyaf and the last person to interview Janjalani, said: 'If five Abu Sayyaf leaders are killed, 10 more will rise and continue the struggle.'
This week, Abu Sayyaf's members have elected one-armed septuagenarian Radullan Sahiron (alias Commander Putol) their new chieftain.
Meanwhile, in Manila, Filipino Army spokesman Major Ernesto Torre Jr said the military offensive aimed at neutralising the group had been intensified.