CAMP BAUTISTA, Philippines -- It was one of the largest payouts ever in the State Department's Rewards for Justice program: $10 million to a handful of brave Filipinos who had the fortitude to stand up to terror. On Thursday, four of them courageously appeared at the nearby district governor's office with U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney and Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, to collect their share of the reward. The brief public ceremony may well mark the beginning of the end for the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a radical Islamic terror organization affiliated with Al Qaeda and responsible for kidnapping and killing scores of Americans and Filipinos.
Information provided by the reward recipients -- whose identities were kept secret to prevent reprisals -- resulted in successful military operations by the Philippine military, in which two notorious ASG kingpins -- Khadaffy Janjalani and Abu Solaiman -- were killed. Two years ago, when our FOX News "War Stories" team was last in the Philippines, it was unthinkable that private citizens on this Muslim majority island would aid the Manila government in tracking down radical Islamic terrorists. But that was then and this is now -- and a lot has changed in those 24 months.
The Rewards for Justice cash handed to four brave Filipinos is only part of the story. In fact, the rewards program dates back to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president. But critics of paying rewards for information leading to the death or capture of terrorists have claimed that with Islamic extremism, tribal and religious loyalties trump the desire for financial gain. That may be true in some places, but it's not the case now in the Philippines.
What changed here aren't the motives or methods of the terrorists. The ASG and Jemaah Islamiyah -- an organization that originated in nearby Indonesia -- are both still committed to the tenets of radical Islam, to jihad and autonomous states governed by Sharia law. Their adherents take the lives of "infidels" with the same brutal violence as the followers of Osama bin Laden. Just three weeks ago, seven construction workers were kidnapped and beheaded. A good number of the terrorists here trained in Afghanistan back in the 1990s.
What has been altered is the approach being taken by both the Philippine and U.S. governments. Decisions in Washington and Manila -- to wage this fight not simply as a military campaign against terrorists, but primarily as a battle for the hearts and minds of the people -- are paying big dividends. As one Philippine officer put it: "Today we are making a difference in the lives of the people. It has taken time, but now they know they can trust us. That's why they cooperate with us against the terrorists."
When I asked Maj. Gen. Ruben Rafael, the commander of Joint Task Force Comet and the senior military officer in this remote part of the Philippine archipelago, for the secret to this success, he replied, "Patience, persistence and perseverance. Last Christmas none of my soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines took leave because we needed to keep the pressure on the terrorists. It was hard on the troops, but it proved to the people we were here to protect them and that we are here to stay."
U.S. Army Col. David Maxwell, who commands Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, fully supports that sentiment -- for the Filipinos. But of the Americans under his command, he says: "We're here on a temporary basis to help them put us out of work." Then the veteran Special Forces officer quickly added, "But none of us want to leave before the job is done."
The "job" for less than 160 U.S. Special Operations personnel here at what they call "Advanced Operating Base 150" is to "advise and assist" the Filipinos in their fight against the ASG. For these Americans from the most elite units in the U.S. military -- who are used to doing the fighting themselves -- this is a very tough mission.
The U.S. troops here live and work side-by-side with their Filipino counterparts in what they call an "austere environment." That's putting it mildly. This close to the equator, it is incredibly hot and humid. Among the 620,000 people who reside on this 345-square mile island are known and wanted terrorists. Yet, in the process of helping Gen. Rafael's troops hunt down killers, the Americans are building schools, holding medical, dental and veterinary clinics, paving roads and helping police solve crimes.
Maj. Matt Whitehead, the commanding officer of AOB 150, put it best when he described events like this week's Rewards for Justice payout: "All of us here, from the State and Justice Departments, the Agency for International Development and our troops work through, by, and with our Filipino counterparts. These successes make it all worthwhile."