An aide drew the curtains as the official took the CD out of his bag. The ground rules were clear: everything I would see or be told was for background purposes; I couldn't report this for CNN; I couldn't even tell anyone else this meeting took place. The date was December 12, 2002.
"This is highly classified, Maria," he said. "No copies exist outside of the military command." He pulled the CD out of its case, inserted it into the computer, and clicked the mouse. Seven files appeared on the computer screen. He clicked on one of the icons, and a black-and-white photograph appeared. taken from 7,000 feet in the air, it showed the Philippines' southern island of Mindanao, huge tracts of forests making it extremely easy to see where the trees had been cleared and the land put to use.
"Let me explain," he said, pointing to a large, developed clearing with many structures. "This was the main Abubakar complex" -- referring to Camp Abubakar, a sprawling complex and set of terrorist training camps that had been highly active for several years, despite one major government crackdown in 2000. The camps were run by the MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, for al-Qaeda and its associate groups. One of the camps, named Camp Palestine, was an exclusive Arab facility; another, named Camp Hodeibia, was for Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda's network in Southeast Asia.
"Camp Hodeibia was set up with al-Qaeda's help in 1994." He clicked on another icon. "When we looked through our files, we found this area had been photographed at the time. This is what it looked like. You can see here" -- using the mouse to point to a long rectangular shape -- "this long building is the barracks. Here, outside, you can see the clearing and something like an outdoor track which they set up. This must be their main area for training. Around the outskirts of the clearing, you can see a smaller series of structures, houses."
"Can we get closer?" I asked.
The official clicked on the mouse to zoom in closer. Now I could see the marks of the tracks and what seemed like fencing delineating the perimeter.
"Okay, that was in 1994," he said, closing the file. "Now look what happened in 2000."
In six years, the camp had grown significantly. Large swathes of trees had been uprooted to link the small original oblong area through a thick tunnel-like corridor to another large clearing farther south. It looked as if there was a T cut out of the forests, its base slightly enlarged and bulging. I used the mouse to zoom the picture in and saw that the running tracks had been moved from the original spot in 1994 to this bulge-like clearing to the south. At the base of the T was a small circular tract of land with several small structures and one rectangular building at its southernmost tip.
"See how they expanded?" he asked. Using the mouse, he traced the route. "Here, these trees were cleared to make room for this expansion. It's twelve by sixteen kilometers here. There are two bridges inside the camps. Here" -- using the mouse to point to a small sticklike structure -- "and here. And here's the football field. So we know as early as 1994, Hashim Salamat [the head of the MILF] had funding."
"But that's so early. Couldn't the Filipinos have set that up on their own?" I asked.
"No. No. Impossible. Hashim can't do it alone. That place is very inaccessible. Whoever made this had to have a lot of money and support. Look, it's in the northernmost, northeast portion of Abubakar."
In 2000, Philippine President Joseph Estrada had declared all-out war on the MILF and attacked the complex. But it had not been a successful war, and it was abandoned by his successor's regime.
"Are the al-Qaeda camps still operating?" I asked.
"I can't say they're al-Qaeda," the official replied coyly.
"But can I? Would I be accurate if I did?"
"We know there are foreigners there. A lot of Indonesians, Arabs, Middle Easterners," he replied. It was the intelligence I had been searching for. Despite the fact that the American war on terror was more than a year old, despite the Bali bombing, there were active al-Qaeda camps in the Philippines.
I took a deep breath. "Is the Philippines doing anything about it?"
"No. We're in peace talks now, right?" he answered, his voice heavy with irony. No Philippine government official wanted to say al-Qaeda. The evidence was filtering from its neighbors: more than a hundred al-Qaeda-linked terrorists had been arrested in Southeast Asia, and most of them confessed they had trained in camps in Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion, or in the Philippines.
"Ask your friend, Madam President," he added. When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office on January 20, 2001, she pulled the military back and reversed the policy of her predecessor, saying she believed the way to lasting peace with the MILF was to negotiate.
"Look," he said, taking the mouse. "This" -- holding it up -- "is Abubakar. Then up here" -- putting down a water bottle top -- "is Hodeibia. Then there's a huge mountain, and you get to Bushra in Lanao del Sur."
In several intelligence documents, I had seen lists of foreigners training in three MILF camps, including Camp Bushra. One named fourteen men -- from Indonesia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. That report was dated August 24, 2001. Years before that and until today, thousands of Islamic militants, Filipinos and foreigners, have learned terrorist techniques in more than twenty-seven camps set up by the MILF in the southern Philippines. These training courses are not just patterned after the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan; they are run with al-Qaeda's support and leadership.
He clicked on the mouse again. "In Bushra, there are three camps, here -- 1, 2, 3. See them? One of them is Palestine, but we don't know which one. But here, this is target 1..."
"When was this a target?" I asked.
"During the war."
"Yes," he said. "This is area 1" -- using the mouse to encircle it -- "this is area 2, and there's area 3. Area 3 is supposed to be the main camp, Bushra proper. You can see it's obliterated." All that remained was a clearing. No structures. "Area 2 is also obliterated." Then he clicked and enlarged area 3. "Now area 3 -- that still exists. There are structures still there, and the camp seems to be in relatively good condition, meaning someone is taking care of it."
"It's still being used?" I asked.
Incredible. One year earlier, I had wagered with several friends there would be an attack in Indonesia before the end of 2002 because government denial allowed the terrorists to work in peace. When the Bali bombings killed more than two hundred people on October 12, 2002, it was in spite of many signals that authorities had documented of a growing threat. Bali could have been prevented. The Indonesian police had had the names of every single one of the Bali plotters well in advance. But political gamesmanship -- courting moderate Muslims by ignoring extremists -- had prevented anyone from taking action.
Now I had the same churning feeling at the pit of my stomach. The lessons hadn't been learned. Indonesia may now be arresting terrorists, but the key American ally in the region, the Philippines, remained in denial about the existence of terrorist training camps. The terrorists still have a place to train and gather. If they can do that, another attack is certain.
Long before the United States was ever aware of it, Osama bin Laden had declared war on America in Southeast Asia, his first attempt to expand his influence. In 1988, he sent his brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa to the Philippines to set up a financial infrastructure of charities and other organizations. Khalifa married a local woman and integrated into Filipino society, often asking politicians and Manila's elite to sit on the boards of his charities. In fact, he had the help of the Saudi Arabian embassy to establish his first charity. That was phase one. A few years later, in 1994, when the financial support network was in place, bin Laden activated phase two by sending in several cells of expert terrorists. It is no coincidence that every single major al-Qaeda plot since 1993 has had some link to the Philippines: the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; the 1995 Manila plot to bomb eleven U.S. airliners over Asia; the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa; the attack on the U.S. naval destroyer, the USS Cole, in 2000; the 9/11 attacks in 2001; the plot to truck-bomb U.S. embassies and Western interests in Southeast Asia in 2002; the Bali blasts later that year, and the J. W. Marriott Hotel attack in August 2003.
In 1994, one Filipino investigator picked up the underground movements and began to warn of an alarming trend he had discovered. Colonel Rodolfo "Boogie" Mendoza had combined hundreds of wiretaps and countless man-hours of surveillance into a 175-page report on the infiltration of local Muslim groups by international terrorists. It documented the dramatic 150 percent rise in terrorist acts from 1991 to 1994; the boom of madrassas, or Muslim religious schools (1,308 in number), and mosques (2,000); and a watch list of Arab nationals Mendoza believed were involved in spreading radical, jihadist ideas from the Middle East.
The statistics were alarming. His watch list alone -- those names he believed were connected to international terrorist groups -- had more than 100 names on it.
The countries with the largest Muslim populations are in Asia: Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. More than 230 million -- nearly 25 percent -- of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia, influenced by its history, traditions, and cultures.
Locked between giants India and China, with 1 billion people each, Southeast Asia's 500 million people have often been ignored in recent history, but these chains of islands may hold the key to the future of Islam, and they certainly hold the key to the future of al-Qaeda. Unlike the Middle East or South Asia, Islam in Southeast Asia is moderate, malleable, and adaptable. Islam here is relatively new; it was brought in by traders in the thirteenth century rather than imposed by conquest, and Islam has merged freely with local cultures. Like most other religions in Southeast Asia, what lies underneath is still visible: at times, strains of animism and Buddhism peek through. Islam here has coexisted for centuries with other religions. In fact, Indonesia's 220 million Muslims are abangans -- Muslims who fused Islam with Buddhism, Hinduism, and other beliefs like animism. Consequently, many hardliners in the Middle East patronizingly dismiss Islam in Southeast Asia as "not real" or "the fringes."
That is a mistake. Islam here is a work in progress, and as such has responded often successfully to the challenges of the modern world. The growth and appeal of radical Islam in the region is not only part of a global trend; it is also part of the march of progress. The war on terrorism here is a struggle for the soul of Islam.
Radical Islam's entry into the region coincided with a growing demand for democracy. Most nations in Southeast Asia have a colonial past: Indonesia was ruled for 350 years by the Dutch; the Philippines was ruled by Spain for 250 years; Singapore and Malaysia were ruled by the British. In the 1970s, these countries developed strongman leaders: Suharto, Marcos, Lee Kuan Yew, and Mahathir. By the late 1980s the cry was for democracy. Ironically, democracy -- the nemesis of radical Islam -- helped create the conditions under which the radical ideology could spread in Southeast Asia. It began with People Power in the Philippines in 1986. The ensuing chaos, reorganization of the political landscape, and shifts of power helped al-Qaeda infiltrate the MILF, the largest Muslim separatist group in the country, and the more extremist Abu Sayyaf. More than a decade later, the same thing happened in Indonesia, when massive, violent protests forced President Suharto to step down.
During times of sweeping change, people look for meaning, creating boom times for religion. Radical Islam in Southeast Asia was growing by leaps and bounds, spurred by the oil boom of the early 1970s. After the price of oil quadrupled, Saudi Arabia poured massive amounts of cash into Southeast Asia, building mosques and religious schools and spreading the austere version of Wahhabi Islam. That was followed by the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, a revolution that had a profound effect on Muslims' belief in Islam as a form of political power. Finally, there was jihad, the first modern holy war, in 1989.
The call to jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was highly appealing in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines alone, more than one thousand Muslims made the trip. They were joined by hundreds more from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. When they returned home, they brought back the radical ideas -- and terrorist techniques -- they learned from the camps of Afghanistan.
The network al-Qaeda set up in Southeast Asia is not just its new center of training and operations; it is also a model for other regions, such as Chechnya and East Africa. Harnessing local groups, al-Qaeda has encouraged them to carve out autonomous Islamic areas that can be linked together worldwide. "He was able to tap different youths in different regions on different issues," Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, told me, "by pegging it all as a war between Islam and the West, but in fact, he was damaging the regional conflicts for his own agenda, which was to topple important Muslim countries and seize power for himself." Much like fascism and communism before, the goal is political power: using Islam as a tool for global domination. "Their goal is world dominion," says Philippine immigration commissioner Andrea Domingo, "and they are using religion as the battle cry."
I sat down with Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in January 2003, less than a month after I saw the aerial photographs of the MILF training camps. About a year earlier, more than 600 U.S. special forces, part of 1,200 American troops, were sent to the Philippines, dubbed "the second front" after Afghanistan. Their focus was the extremist group the Abu Sayyaf, notorious for kidnappings and beheadings. I believed that American and Filipino troops were looking at the wrong people.
Based on hundreds of intelligence documents from more than half a dozen countries across the region, along with intelligence from at least three Western nations, including the United States, it was clear to me that the main al-Qaeda ally in the Philippines was the MILF, the largest Muslim separatist group in the country. Yet when the United States had tried to place it on the list of terrorist organizations, high-level American and Filipino sources told me that President Arroyo personally lobbied to keep it off. The MILF is interwoven into the social fabric of the south. It is strongly identified as a prime fighter for Muslims and enjoys popular support. President Arroyo's critics charged that she wanted to sign a peace agreement as a great vote getter for the 2004 elections, but a few days before my interview, Arroyo announced she would not be running for office in the 2004 elections.
Never having been elected president herself, Arroyo's reign was highly political, wracked by infighting and intense lobbying. She came to power in January 2001 on the wave of protests that threatened to derail her country's fragile democracy. It was a bastardized version of the mighty 1986 People Power revolt, which captured the world's imagination and peacefully ousted then-President Ferdinand Marcos, who had been in power for twenty-one years. Those heady protests brought democracy to this country, but in the decade that followed, the political infighting, rampant corruption, and a sluggish, barely moving economy all took their toll on its once idealistic people.
The Philippines practiced one-man, one-vote democracy. A high illiteracy rate ensured election campaigns would cater to the lowest common denominator, turning campaigns into rock-and-roll parties with politicians banking on name recognition rather than issues and platforms. By the 1998 presidential elections, Joseph Estrada -- an aging movie star known for playing underdog roles -- won the polls. Under him corruption became so flagrant, his society rebelled. He became the first Philippine president to be impeached for corruption, and the trial -- held by the senate -- was so flawed that, during the televised proceedings, when a decision was made not to accept key evidence against the president, some senators walked out and the people took to the streets.
The protests, dubbed People Power 2, lasted around the clock for nearly a week. It was history strangely revisited: The middle class and elite flocked to the streets against Estrada while his poorer supporters held their own demonstrations in another part of the city. The military was the deciding vote, planting the seeds for its further forays into politics. Less than a week into the civil disorder, the military abandoned Mr. Estrada and threw its lot behind his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. A little less than two years into his six-year term, Mr. Estrada was deposed.
On January 20, 2001, in the middle of a massive crowd of people on the main highway, EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue), where People Power had succeeded in 1986, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took the oath of office as her nation's fourteenth president. But the power of the people was tainted by a key difference between 1986 and 2001: The protests that brought Arroyo to power deposed a duly elected president, not a dictator. That would haunt the first few months of her presidency as Estrada's supporters attempted to launch a third People Power revolt against her on May 1, 2001. For a while, Filipino society split on economic lines: Mr. Estrada's supporters came from the bottom rung, while Mrs. Arroyo was backed by the middle and elite classes. She survived the split, attempting to unite her fractured people, but the damage had been done. Through the beginning of her term, Mrs. Arroyo was constantly forced to compromise her vision in order to maintain the unwieldy coalition that brought her to power. By announcing she would not run for office in 2004, she defanged the political lobbyists and empowered her administration by effectively declaring her political debts paid.
I had done many one-on-one interviews with her for more than a decade -- first when she was a trade undersecretary, then a three-term senator, a cabinet member, the vice president -- including the day after she took office as her nation's leader. At 4 feet, 9 inches, this petite, energetic woman was fun to interview. She was lively, honest, at times impatient, but always willing to engage in a debate.
So now, in January 2003, my crew was set up, and I was going over my notes when her aides walked into the room at Malacañang Palace. Our interview was in her study: a two-camera shoot, which meant there were at least fifteen other people listening to our conversation. We stood up. The door opened, and she walked in -- wearing a suit that was the same color as mine. Wearing nearly identical red, we looked at each other. My cameraman, Andrew Clark, was horrified. She laughed and ducked back out. "Let me change!" she said.
When she returned, she sat down, and we began by discussing her decision and some general topics of the day. Her main goals now, she said, were political and economic reforms, setting the stage for the 2004 elections and setting the policies to win the war on terror.
"We have the terrorist threats, and that's the biggest security concern." She outlined a comprehensive strategy. "We have to tackle it in several ways: a military solution, a political solution, cultural solution, economic solution: they are all important. The military solution is to make sure we win the victories. The political solution is to continue to talk peace with those who are willing to try peace -- to give peace a chance. The cultural solution is that there is that threat to make the terrorist war a religious war. Instead, we must make it an opportunity for religious understanding. And the economic solution, of course, is to remove the recruiting grounds for terrorism -- which is not to be distracted from our fight against poverty."
In our last four interviews, I had grilled the president harshly about the MILF's links to al-Qaeda. Each time, Mrs. Arroyo had denied that they existed, characterizing the MILF as a domestic political issue. "After September 11, the MILF made it very clear that they are not linked to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda," she had told me earlier. "I think that their statement is a very big confidence-building step, and it makes our peace process even more successful." Now that she was stepping down, I tried again. Her position had clearly changed.
"We are hoping that by dealing with the MILF both militarily and politically, that we can get them to understand that they must break all links -- if any -- with terrorist groups, and that there is life -- there is more life for their people, who are of course, our people, if they go on the road of peace talks, laying down their arms and seeking to participate in development."
It was something -- hedged, perhaps, but far from a categorical denial of the evidence of the aerial photos. She continued, "I would not want to, I would not want to be detailed on intelligence reports, but what I can say is that our peace efforts are aimed at getting the MILF to recognize that peace is the better road for them than being linked up with terrorist groups."
The truth in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is something that anyone concerned about the future of terrorism needs to face. Few countries did it instantly, but the September 11 attacks were like a tidal wave, washing away the flimsy, outdated security and defense paradigms largely determined by the cold war. In effect, it was a pivotal moment that forced reexamination of recent history. Stripping away outdated notions revealed new, unfamiliar terrain that showed the extent and power of the infrastructure al-Qaeda had been building since 1988. In one Southeast Asian country after another, I witnessed a level of denial from political leaders who did not want to even admit there was a threat. There were several reasons: acknowledging the threat required taking action; sometimes, leaders were afraid of its impact on tourism; other times, officials had different priorities and terrorism didn't seem like an unmanageable problem.
These leaders' reactions were similar to the reactions triggered by Boogie Mendoza's pioneering report in the mid-90s. There was interest, but as long as there were no attacks, no one felt the need to take action. That only meant the terrorist cells could build their network in peace.
Mendoza's report was released on December 15, 1994, the same month Khalifa left the Philippines as Phase 2 -- the creation of terrorist cells -- began. Intelligence sources say bin Laden himself had already made at least one trip to establish his network. A former CIA station chief in Manila placed bin Laden in the country in 1992. "Bin Laden presented himself as a wealthy Saudi who wanted to invest in Muslim areas and donate money to charity," the former CIA officer said. Then President Fidel Ramos even allegedly authorized the use of a C-130 airplane to fly bin Laden from the capital, Manila, to Mindanao. Others said bin Laden allegedly met with several government officials who helped him purchase property and set up bank accounts.
Mendoza's report was largely forgotten, and Mendoza's career was even derailed by political opponents until the events of September 11 brought him back to the center of the action. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda had long since brought in its top guns -- to Manila's red-light district.
Copyright © 2003 by Maria A. Ressa
An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia
Seeds of Terror
An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia
Every major al-Qaeda attack since 1993 has had a connection to the Philippines, and Maria Ressa, CNN's lead investigative reporter for Asia and a Filipino-American who has lived in the region since 1986, has broken story after story about them. From the early, failed attempts to assassinate Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton to the planning of the 9/11 strikes and the "48 Hours of Terror," in which eleven American jetliners were to be blown up over the Pacific, she has interviewed the terrorists, their neighbors and families, and the investigators from six different countries who have tracked them down. After the Bali bombing, al-Qaeda's worst strike since 9/11, which killed more than two hundred, Ressa broke major revelations about how it was planned, why it was a Plan B substitute for an even more ambitious scheme aimed at Singapore, and why the suicide bomber recruited to deliver the explosives almost caused the whole plan to fall apart when he admitted he could barely drive a car.
Above all, Ressa has seen how al-Qaeda's tactics are shifting under the pressures of the war on terror. Rather than depending upon its own core membership (estimated at three to four thousand at its peak), the network is now enmeshing itself in local conflicts, co-opting Muslim independence movements wherever they can be found, and helping local "revolutionaries" to fund, plan, and execute sinister attacks against their neighbors and the West.
If history is any guide, al-Qaeda revisits its plans over and over until they can succeed -- and many of those plans have already been discovered and are here revealed, thanks to classified investigative documents uncovered by Ressa.