By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the rough and tumble region where the center has never held and resistance to Christian Manila is centuries old, warlords and their small armies, rooted in clans, dominate the political arena. Dissident groups, a regular phenomenon, are referred to as "Lost Command" outfits, to indicate that they operate beyond the palethough they are believed to act as proxies for the more established groups, in much the same way that the holy warriors in Afghanistan acted as proxies for the U.S. (as did Hussein and Panama's Noriega) during the Cold War.
Abu Sayyaf has proved to be an especially large thorn in the side of the Philippine military since the early 1990s, with its bomb attacks in southern cities and raids on Christian villages, but especially since its 2000 kidnapping of 21 tourists and workers from Sipadan, a Malaysian resort, after which they crossed the porous border back to Jolo, a southern Philippine island where extremist Muslim groups are based. Emboldened by its success in gaining millions of dollars in ransom monies, which has enabled the group to purchase more high-powered arms and recruit more men, Abu Sayyaf struck again last May in a similar operation, this time taking hostages (including two American missionaries) from a plush resort on Palawan, the westernmost island in the Philippines.
Why would such a group attract Bin Laden's attention? Other than its extremist views and propensity for violence, there are more mundane reasons. A Janjalani sister is reputed to be one of Bin Laden's wives, and Bin Laden's sister is married to a Saudi businessman, Mustapha Jammal Khalifa, who also has a Filipina wife and visited the Philippines several times in the 1990s. He set up a foundation that Philippine military intelligence believes serves as a conduit for Al Qaeda funds to Abu Sayyaf. Al Qaeda has also provided monies to another larger armed fundamentalist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has battled the Philippine army, but in the past year has remained quiescent.
If these files were available to the FBI as early as 1995, why then were we caught flat-footed? Why wasn't closer attention paid to Project Bojinka, to the possible sponsor or sponsors behind it and behind Ramzi Yousef? In an interview with The Washington Post, Robert Heafner, now retired but the 1995 FBI head in Manila, said,"I believe everything was done that could have been done." Voicequeries to the FBI's press office yielded a terse "No comment." Similar questions directed at the State Department's Joe Reap, from its counterterrorist division, were equally fruitless.
In an essay written this past June for the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin titled "Iraqi Complicity in the World Trade Center Bombing and Beyond," Laurie Mylroie, author of Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein's Unfinished War Against America, argues that "a 'Chinese wall' stands between the Justice Department and national security bureaucracies." In cases of terrorism on American soil, the question of foreign "state sponsorship is entirely subordinated to the criminal question of determining the guilt or innocence of the individuals charged with the terrorist attack."
Another crucial point Mylroie makes is that Iraq's hand can be inferred from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I asked her if she felt that way about the second attack. She replied, "I can't actually see anyone else." Bin Laden's capabilities, she feels, are overblown. He serves as a "false flag," i.e., a front for another party. If Mylroie's thesis is correctand she makes a pretty persuasive caseonce the 1993 World Trade Center bombers were placed behind bars, the very real possibility that Project Bojinka would still be put into effect, that an organization much larger than Al Qaeda might back it (albeit very possibly with Bin Laden's participation), was essentially filed away and forgotten.
In my last conversation with the computer expert, he said he had gotten a call from a friend, a retired FBI agent now living in the Philippines. This man said he remembered the reference to crashing planes into specific targets. According to the expert, the agent said, "This was ignored in the preparation of evidence for the trial because [then] there was no actual attempt to crash any plane into a U.S. target. . . . So there was no crime to complain about. . . . " The conversation between the two ended with the ex-agent warning the expert to take extra precautions, as he had played a role in the jailing of the terrorists.