BASILAN ISLAND, Philippines - For years, Muslim extremists known as the Abu Sayyaf have terrorized the Philippines.
They shocked the world in 2002 by kidnapping American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham.
Today, the Abu Sayyaf's reign of terror is far from over, but are they as dangerous as they once were?
It's one of the most beautiful places on earth and in many ways untouched by time and progress. But for nearly three decades, a deadly enemy has preyed on the people living in the southern Philippines.
The enemy: Abu Sayyaf, which stands for "Father of the Sword." Its goal: Make the southern islands an Islamic stronghold.
Beheadings are the group's signature. They carried out that sentence against kidnapped American Guillermo Sobero simply because his ransom did not come on time.
In 2002, terrorists assigned a man we'll call "Aamil," a government spy, the chilling task of collecting Sobero's bones.
"If you don't pay the ransom, the Abu Sayyaf will kill you," Aamil said. "If you don't pay taxes, they kill you."
"They are very angry with Christians, especially the foreign tourists," he explained. "They want to Islamize the whole island of Basilan, but this is impossible because here the Christians and the Muslims live together."
Aamil also witnessed missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham in captivity.
"I saw them bring their hostages. They walked to the jungle and the hostages were tied to each other. They were tall, white, with straight noses," he said. "I reported this immediately to the military."
A Murderous Reign
CBN News Reporter Wendy Griffith was here on Basilan Island 10 years ago. The Abu Sayyaf were always on the look-out for their next kidnapping victim, especially white Americans, like this reporter.
While covering the Burnham's kidnapping, seven armed bodyguards accompanied Griffith at all times. The day after CBN News was there, the military closed the island to foreign journalists.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it's clear the terror group has murdered thousands. The more infamous include the following:
- 23 Philippine soldiers were killed during a raid in 2009.
- 15 Philippine Marines were beheaded during fierce fighting in 2007and 2011.
- Just this year, six rubber plant workers were killed and another two dozen were injured on Basilan Island when the company did not pay it's "protection fee."
Mayor Roderick Furigay leads Lamitan, considered Basilan island's safest city. Its population averages about 50 percent Muslim, 50 percent Christian.
Furigay believes God called him to lead this city and protect the people from terrorists like the Abu Sayyaf. But it hasn't been easy.
"My house was bombed," he said.
In 2010, the Abu Sayyaf set off a bomb near the mayor's house, but his family was not injured. Despite many death threats, Furigay still wanted to make Lamitan a safe place for families and even tourists.
"I felt led to come back and help the people (who were suffering) regain their confidence," he said.
Ten years ago, the Abu Sayyaf used this beautiful stretch of coastline on Basilan Island as a dumping ground for dead bodies.
Today, thanks to the courage and conviction of a Christian mayor, this beach has been transformed into the tropical paradise it was almost meant to be.
"Today, I can say they are safe. Although even in metro-Manila, there are kidnappings. In Lamitan, I can say that they are safe," Furigay said.
"I want to see peace and tranquility reign in this place," he added.
Another man who has stayed despite death threats is Pastor Marlito Catapan of Lamitan Alliance Evangelical Church. Catapan said he's determined to be a "light" in the darkness.
"We need to have full trust in God and stand your ground. The enemy is still around, but I still believe that God is greater than anyone else," he said.
Catapan said proof of that can be seen at his church's kindergarten, where more Muslim children attend than Christian.
"What amazes us so much, 70 percent of our children are Muslims, so that's how the Lord is working," he said.
Other good news: Abu Sayyaf's number's are way down. They have dropped from about 1,200 strong in 2000 to fewer than 400 today.
Cutting Off the Enemy
The credit goes to stronger military efforts, along with more civilian cooperation.
"We are very confident and optimistic that we will be able to once and for all, defeat the Abu Sayyaf group, slowly but surely," Col. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., spokesperson for the Philippines Armed Forces, said.
Aamil agreed that the Abu Sayyaf is not as strong as it used to be.
"The Abu Sayyaf group has weakened through the years. From 200 in Basilan, they are down to 80. They recruit young boys and they don't have a strong leader," he said.
But Col. Burgos warned that the bandits have many sympathizers, especially outside main cities like Lamitan where it's not considered safe.
"We need the people's help," Aamil said. "It is the local officials who can help eradicate the Abu Sayyaf group. First of all we need schools, electricity and the ownership for guns should be regulated."
One thing the mayor did was install video surveillance cameras around the city, as well as encourage the presence of U.S. troops.
Meanwhile, sounds of praise are rising up from places like the mayor's office as the staff sings and prays for their city.
Many cling to God's promise that He will one day soon cut off their enemies and bring an end to the bloodshed, fear, and violence that has plagued their beautiful land for far too long.