They used to call him the Singing Commander for the guitar he'd exchange for his M-16 after a hard day on patrol in the jungles of the southern Philippines. But Haji Abdullah Usman says "Seaweed King" better suits him now.
His transformation from Muslim rebel commander to manager of a thriving seaweed cooperative may point the way forward for the softer side of the Bush administration's war on terror: The effort to use aid to bring peace and order to the places that are currently breeding grounds for extremism.
Mr. Usman says that when he led his men out of the jungle following the Moro National Liberation Front's (MNLF) 1996 peace agreement with the Philippines, it was a joyous moment, but also a terrifying one: What, he wondered, are my men and I going to do now? The MNLF's 40,000-member army had been fighting since 1972 to create an independent state on Mindanao, the island home of most of the country's Muslim minority.
As an MNLF leader, he had received an education at Libya's Al-Fatah University in the mid-1970s. But thousands of his comrades had been fighting in the jungles of Mindanao since they were teenagers.
Their skills were confined to warfare, and Usman worried they might be driven to banditry if peace didn't provide them with tangible returns. He watched them grow restless as the status and relevance they once felt as warriors diminished.
"We came out of the jungle because we wanted our children to go to school, get married, have the lives that we didn't. But none of that happens without jobs." In 1998 the jobs came, thanks to grants and technical assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
US officials say they recognized that the 1996 peace agreement signed between the Philippines government and the MNLF wouldn't hold unless the former fighters found an economic stake in keeping the peace. After all, it was a peace agreement, not a surrender, and most of the MNLF fighters retained their weapons. "Heavily armed and unemployed is never a good combination,'' says one US official.
The USAID grants, now called the Livelihood Enhancement and Peace Program (LEAP), helped Usman and 800 of his fighters learn the seaweed trade. Today, the Taluk Sangay Seaweed Cooperative is flourishing in the gentle waters of the Sulu Sea off Mindanao's southern coast.
The cooperative sells seaweed to Japanese processors, who turn it into additives for items such as candy bars and ice cream.
Alih Amsani, a rebel-turned-seaweed farmer with a wisp of a mustache, breaks into a gap-toothed smile when asked about the benefits of working rather than fighting.
He points to his two children, a 12-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, both of whom go to school - something he never had a chance to do. "Before we had to carry guns in the jungle, no money, and never knowing where we'd be. Now I'm making a living and own a house,'' he says, pointing out that he now makes about $2,000 a year. That's enough to buy his most prized possession - a 5.5 horsepower Honda outboard motor that he stores in his kitchen when he is not using it to check on his seaweed.
Poverty is far from the sole cause of extremism. But the absence of economic alternatives in places like the Southern Philippines, say experts, creates lawlessness and hopelessness - fertile conditions for terrorism.
Not only did the MNLF have 40,000 men under arms and hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, but the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is still fighting for an independent state, has more than 10,000 soldiers. The MILF, currently in a shaky ceasefire, is scheduled to meet with the Philippines government for a fourth round of talks later this month or in early April in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Terrorism experts say Al Qaeda operatives have successfully recruited some members of the MILF. US special forces are currently on nearby Basilan island hunting the Abu Sayyaf, a small Muslim extremist group with historic ties to Al Qaeda, that also sprouted among the Muslim population of the region.
All of these armed groups, in need of financial assistance and operating outside the bounds of the law, create attractive conditions for terrorists to operate, terrorism experts say. In December 2000, an Al Qaeda operative worked with factions of the MILF to blow up a train station in Manila, killing 22.
Those ties convinced the US to also give $100 million in military aid to the Philippines. Experts here say wiping out the Abu Sayyaf, which has about 200 members, will be relatively easy. They say the hard part will be changing the economic and social conditions that created the Abu Sayyaf in the first place.
"The more prosperous an area in Mindanao, the fewer law-and order-problems we find. That's not a coincidence,'' says Ronaldo Ypil, a manager for LEAP, which is overseeing the work with the former MNLF members fighters. "The key to peace is economic development."
Since 1998, more than 15,000 ex-MNLF rebels have found a place in the peacetime economy with US assistance. They become seaweed farmers if they live on the coast, or rice and corn farmers if they live further inland. Some are fishermen.
"We really have to thank the US government for bringing us a chance for peace and development,'' says Usman, with the briny smell of drying seaweed on the back porch wafting into his living room. "But we're also very confused. Why are the US soldiers coming here? The problems can't be solved by bringing more forces and weapons to the field."
There is still a great deal of distrust here. Though the MNLF has a peace agreement with the government, Usman and his men still consider themselves members of the organization - and say they have arms stored in case the relationship breaks down.
"To this day I am MNLF. They should be careful,'' he says.
Disarming the farmers, most of whom retained their guns after the 1996 peace deal, is the next step. "Slowly we are trying to convince them to adopt a more civilian style. Over time, it's working'' says Ypil.
USAID is expecting that its budget for Mindanao will be increased in the coming year. US officials say $5 million more will be provided to help 3,000 other former rebels. They may also expand the program to members of the MILF, if that rebel group reaches a peace agreement with the government.
At Taluk Sangay, the LEAP program spent an average of $400 dollars per rebel to prepare them for seaweed farming. They provided them with seedlings, the monofilament line the seaweed grows on, and bamboo platforms from which they float the lines.
The farmers can achieve six harvests a year. Most days they pull up their lines to hand-clean sand and debris from the seaweed. Post harvest, the seaweed is dried for a week in the sun, fading from a brilliant green to bone white.