Ringleader in Burnham ordeal killed in firefight

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Stan Finger, The Wichita Eagle

Gracia Burnham said she doesn’t find pleasure in the death of Abu Sulaiman, the mastermind behind
her kidnapping, “but I do find a real sense of relief.”

When the phone rang in Gracia Burnham’s home in Rose Hill early Wednesday morning, she thought it was a friend calling to wish her a happy birthday.

It turned out to be much bigger than that: official word that Jainal Antel Sali Jr., popularly known as Abu Sulaiman — a top leader of the Abu Sayyaf rebel group, which has links to al-Qaida — was killed in a gunbattle Tuesday with army special forces in the Philippines.

Sulaiman, 41, was the mastermind behind the kidnapping of missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham, another American and Filipino tourists from a resort on the southeastern island of Palawan in May 2001.

The Burnhams were held captive in the jungle for 377 days before Martin was killed June 7, 2002, in a firefight that wounded but freed Gracia. The other American kidnapped with the Burnhams, Guillermo Sobero, had been beheaded earlier.

“I felt this huge rush of relief” Wednesday at the news of Sulaiman’s death, Gracia Burnham said. “I think he was the most dangerous of all the Abu Sayyaf leaders. He was the mastermind of much atrocity there in Southeast Asia.

“Sulaiman’s dream in life was to come to America some day and, in his words, ‘wreak havoc’ here. He made no bones about it: He hated the West.”

Gracia and Martin were celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary at the Dos Palmas resort, about 375 miles southwest of Manila, when about 20 masked gunmen stormed the resort early in the morning on May 27, 2001.

The Burnhams had been living in the Philippines since 1986, working for New Tribes Mission, a nondenominational group that works in remote parts of the country. Martin was a pilot, ferrying missionaries and equipment around the tropical island nation. That meant landing on short, uneven runways carved out of the jungle and often shrouded in fog. The Burnhams were in close contact with Sulaiman for several months during their captivity.

“Martin and Sulaiman had lengthy talks,” Gracia said. “He would get bored, and often in the afternoon Martin would go over to his hammock and just visit with him.”

They would talk about “all kinds of stuff,” she said, from ideology to dating in America. As the weeks of captivity stretched into months, Gracia said, her frustration would boil over with questions such as “What is this all about? Why are we still here?”

“Martin would say, ‘I think God’s just giving these guys one more day of grace, one more day to turn around, one more day to do the right thing.’ Gracia Burnham said she doesn’t find pleasure in the death of Abu Sulaiman, the mastermind behind her kidnapping, “but I do find a real sense of relief.”

“Sulaiman’s day of grace is over.”

The kidnappings prompted Philippine authorities to allow the deployment of U.S. troops in southern Mindanao to train and arm Filipino soldiers working to wipe out the resilient Abu Sayyaf.
Sulaiman is the highest-ranking Abu Sayyaf commander killed by U.S.-backed troops. At one point, Washington had offered up to $5 million for his capture.

On Tuesday, army forces raided Sulaiman’s camp, sparking a three-hour gunbattle through dense forests, said regional army spokesman Maj. Eugene Batara. Other insurgents escaped but troops are
chasing them, Batara said.

Gracia Burnham doesn’t find pleasure in Sulaiman’s death, she said, “but I do find a real sense of relief that his hatred and his venomous talk is going to be gone.

“He was such a proud, boastful, angry, hateful man.”

She called the news of his death “a milestone even for America, because I think the atrocities committed on the West have been planned in Southeast Asia.”

Gracia, who turned 47 Wednesday, has written two books about her experiences –“In the Presence of My Enemies” and “To Fly Again” — and established the Martin & Gracia Burnham Foundation to collect funds and resources for mission work.

Her oldest son, Jeff, is 19 and a student at Liberty University in Virginia. He has begun earning the licenses he needs to become a missionary pilot and got married last summer. “He wants to do what Martin did,” Gracia said.

Her younger children, Mindy and Zachary, attend Rose Hill High School. “I think we’ve been really blessed,” Gracia said. “We just get along well… probably because of what we’ve
been through.”

It’s hard for her to think of the death of the leader of her captors as a birthday present, Gracia said.

“On the other hand, I think God hasn’t forgotten me and my family,” she added. “What are the odds that that would happen on my birthday?”

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