Noah Eden works for the "Rewards for Justice" program, a Department of State initiative run by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.On the fringes of the earth - June 7, 2007..."Zamboanga?"
The airport security guard's voice expressed deep concern, as if to say, "Are you sure you want to go there?"
Jet-lagged and groggy from 22 hours of previous flights, I could only manage to respond with a quiet yes. My route to the Philippines had taken me from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis to Tokyo, and finally to Manila. Now, I was venturing even further from home -- to the city of Zamboanga and, a helicopter ride later, to Jolo.
Jolo is a small island in the southern Philippines, where the dreaded Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization is known to operate. It is one of the poorest places in the world, located in an autonomous region of the country where the per capita annual income is only $285 -- less than a dollar a day, and a far cry from Washington, D.C.'s average income of more than $35,000 per year.
Rewards for Justice
Our mission today is to pay out $10 million in a public reward ceremony to informants who provided information leading to the location of senior Abu Sayyaf leaders Khadaffy Janjalani and Abu Solaiman. These two were involved in the May 2001 kidnapping of 20 individuals, including three Americans, only one of whom made it back alive.
Back in Washington, I work for the Rewards for Justice program, a Department of State initiative run by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Our mission is twofold -- to bring to justice wanted terrorists, and to prevent future acts of terror from occurring. By publicly recognizing the contributions of these informants, we hope others will come forward with information that could prevent a future attack and even save lives.
To maintain confidentiality, each informant participating in the ceremony will appear with their face and body almost completely covered. Security is tight and will be coordinated by a variety of different players; the Philippine police, Philippine military, American troops, and the Diplomatic Security Service are all working in unison to keep the informants and dignitaries safe.
Children Wave From the Streets
After hovering over miles of tiny islands, blue sea, and white sand, we land on Jolo. I eat breakfast at the mess hall, get my bearings, and learn the day's itinerary. Shortly thereafter, reality hits in the form of a bulletproof vest, which I am instructed to put on before we leave the base.
Riding from a Philippine military base to the Hall of Justice, I am surprised to see children waving from the streets as our caravan of armored vehicles conspicuously cruises through town. It is a refreshing image for me, of unexpectedly hopeful youth. That vision lasts only a second, though, quickly revealing a study in contrast where the roads of danger and innocence intersect.
Show Me the Money
The ceremony begins with both national anthems being played -- a symbol of the deeply rooted history and friendship between our two countries. In attendance are the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, the Philippine military's chief-of-staff, and a number of other dignitaries.
After a few minutes of acknowledgements and gratitude, each informant comes forward to receive a briefcase loaded with cash before being whisked away to safety. As soon as the official ceremony ends, the press frenzy begins, lasting for several minutes until it is time to head back to base.
Partnership Breeds Success
Due to the close partnership between our two countries, the Philippines has witnessed several counterterrorism successes over the past few years. With strong collaboration among the U.S. Embassy, U.S. military and Philippine military, our mutual efforts to bring terrorists to justice are paying large dividends. Although this event was only the fourth Rewards for Justice ceremony held in the Philippines, we anticipate other informants will come forward in the near future -- thanks to the hard work and team effort of all those involved in making Rewards for Justice a success in the Philippines. To provide information about a terrorist or terrorist attack, please visit the Rewards for Justice website or email RFJ@state.gov.