An American Caught in a Philippines Nightmare

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Talk about a holiday in hell. As thousands of troops, planes and helicopters press their assault for a third day on Islamic fundamentalist rebels on the troubled Philippines island of Jolo, 24-year-old American Jeffrey Schilling may be wondering — if he's still alive — how he found his way into this nightmare. Held captive by an army led by one of his wife's relatives, who has threatened to cut off Schilling's head unless the U.S. government releases one of the most dangerous terrorists in its prison system, he now also has to contend with the fact that his captors are under fire from an army that has thus far proved singularly inept in its efforts, egged on by a beleaguered president who made his name playing the hero in countless Filipino action movies and is now desperate to redeem his tough-guy image.

The government of President Joseph Estrada admitted Monday that a number of civilians had died in its assault, which began Saturday but showed no sign of easing up despite international criticism for risking the fate of some 19 hostages, including Schilling and two French photographers. Having been paralyzed by months of hostage negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf organization, the Manila government's decision to take harsh action is hardly surprising. After all, the $15 million in ransom money paid by Libya to secure the release of a group of European, Lebanese and South African tourists had only emboldened Abu Sayyaf to seize more hostages and had allowed them to buy more sophisticated weaponry. The infusion of cash has also exacerbated factional tensions among the guerrillas, making it even less likely that any deal reached would be honored. But the government offensive that began Saturday has been anything but a surgical strike, severely diminishing prospects for the hostages' survival.

Although details remain unclear, Schilling may have initially gone willingly to an Abu Sayyaf camp before being abducted. The Berkeley graduate, who recently converted to Islam, had decided earlier this year to take his first trip abroad. He had befriended Filipino Muslims living in the Bay Area, and had headed for Zamboanga. There he met and quickly married a local lass, who happened to be related to Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya, who allegedly invited the couple to visit one of his organization's camps. But family ties didn't do much for Schilling — soon after his arrival, the group accused him of working for the CIA and warned that he would be beheaded unless the U.S. releases World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. The connection isn't entirely arbitrary: Abu Sayyaf was founded by Filipino Muslims returning from Afghanistan, where they took part in the U.S.-backed jihad against the Russian-backed government. Yousef had not only been their comrade-in-arms in Afghanistan, he'd also allegedly spent a few years in the Philippines planning acts of murder and mayhem with his Filipino buddies. Not surprisingly, as spokesman Abu Sabaya boasted to a radio interviewer after Schilling's capture, the Abu Sayyaf had been dying to get their hands on an American. Schilling couldn't have picked a worse place at a worse time to broaden his horizons.