An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia


Maria A. Ressa

Free Press, 2003, 241 pp.   ISBN 0-7432-5133-4


Ressa is the Jakarta Bureau Chief and lead investigative reporter for CNN in Asia.  In this book she unravels – with names, dates, and places – the history of the infiltration and support by al-Quaeda of many terrorist groups throughout Southeast Asia.  She provides details of a number of failed and postponed terrorist plots as well as those that occurred.  The terrorist cancer has metastasized.  Deeply disturbing.


At the end of 2002 the world’s attention was focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but “I knew that the next major battleground would be to their south and east, in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries where al-Quaeda was busily setting up its training camps and financial networks and where it had already been active for years.” (2)


“Over the years, al-Qaeda successfully infiltrated and co-opted homegrown Muslim movements around the world: in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Chechnya, Kashir, Africa, and Southeast Asia.  Groups from these regions have their own domestic agendas, but they are also pushing forward al-Qaeda’s anti-Western goals.”  “This has been going on in Southeast Asia since 1988.” (4) 


Al-Qaeda has been capitalizing on the growth of radical Islam and anti-U.S. sentiment around the world. (4)


No central data bank on terrorism exists in the Philippines, Indonesia or other countries in the region.  (5)


“The only truly globalized enterprise today is terrorism” (6)


“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 run with al-Qaeda’s support and leadership.” (9)


[The bombing in] “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.” (10)


“Every single major al-Qaeda plot since 1993 has had some link to the Philippines.” (10)


“The countries with the largest Muslim populations are in Asia: Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.”  Nearly 25 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia.  Southeast Asia’s 500 million people hold the key to the future of al-Qaeda.  “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.” (11)


“During times of sweeping change, people look for meaning, creating boom times for religion.”  “The call to jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was highly appealing in Southeast Asia.”  (12) 


“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.’” (13)


“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 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.” (16)


“In 1995, al-Qaeda sent new operatives to the Philippines to run terror plots against the United States.  This time ... al-Qaeda began infiltrating and co-opting home-grown organizations and weaving together a far more complex and insidious terror network called the Jemaah Islamiyah.”  “ developed the so-called counter cells in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.” (43-44)


Indonesian clerics ... have built a network, the Jemmah Islamiyah, that is working for the overthrow of Malaysia’s secular government as part of a vision of turning most of Southeast Asia, and even part of Australia, into one giant Islamic state.” (67)


“It was only after the September 11 attacks that it became clear that there was an entrenched al-Qaeda network in Malaysia.” (69)  “They were plotting to overthrow Mahathir’s government, planning assassinations, and sending fighters to fuel Indonesia’s Muslim-Christian conflict in the Maluku islands.” (70)


“The Bandung bombing was part of an ambitious JI plot in 2000 to deliver thirty-eight bombs to priests and churches in Indonesia.  The bombs in Bandung exploded prematurely, killing three of the bombers.” (74)


The Jemmah Islamiyah structure consists of five divisions:  Missionary (recruiting), Training and Jihad, Economics, Front Organizations, and International Affairs. (75)


By 1996, Jemmah Islamiyah had divided into four territorial groups called mantiqis: 1) Malaysia, Singapore, and southern Thailand; 2) all of Indonesia except Sulawesi and Kalimantan, 3) Philippines, Brunei, the east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and Sulawesi and Kalimantan, 4) Indonesia’s Irian Jaya and Australia.  (77)


“Money that Malaysian Muslims donated to help stop conflict actually fueled Muslim-Christian violence in the hands of Jemmah Islamiyah.” (78)


“It’s clear al-Qaeda had other ambitious plots it was developing simultaneously with the 9/11 attack.” (80)


The place where al-Qaeda was most successful in creating its own battlefield in Indonesia was in Ambon in the Maluka islands (once known as the Spice Islands). (84)


“Looking ahead to 2004, the danger is clear.  Radical groups linked to al-Qaeda will be trying to destabilize Indonesia’s first ever direct presidential elections by infiltrating not only the political parties themselves but the very security forces tasked to keep the order.” (97)


JI operatives working with al-Qaeda attempted to plant 38 bombs in Indonesia on Christmas Eve, 2000, targeting priests and churches in eleven cities.  Twenty of the bombs exploded, most within thirty minutes of each other in ten cities, killing nineteen people and wounding more than 120 others.  “Six days after those bombings, five nearly simultaneous explosions hit the Philippine capital, Manila, killing twenty-two people.”  (102)


By the end of 2000, JI ad proved it could carry out simultaneous attacks in 12 cities in two countries.  “It had sown terror and ratcheted up conflict between Muslims and Christians, playing both sides off each other.  The possibility of a Muslim revolution was—and is—still very much within the terrorists’ reach.” (103)


Al Qaeda exploits local conflicts.  “In Indonesia, local conflicts began with ethnic divisions or ancient political vengeance.  In the Philippines...there are separatist groups that are often lumped together but in fact can vary from mafia-like shakedown artists to true Muslim extremists.” (104)


“In its first four years until 1995, police say the Abu Sayyaf carried out more than one hundred terrorist crimes, many of which targeted foreigners.  Kidnapping for ransom because a reliable cottage industry for them.” (108)  “With the implicit support of many Filipinos, the Abu Sayyaf began making money from everyone—starting with journalists.” (113)  [Ressa describes the Burnham ordeal and speaks highly of Gracia Burnham.]


“Self-interest at every level has obscured and twisted every step of the global war on terror, and these are the cracks al-Qaeda continues to exploit.” (123)


Hashim Salamat, chairman of the MILF has created a nation within a nation: a true Islamic community, governed by a Muslim council, protected by a Muslim army, and living and dying according to Islamic sharia law.  It controls a substantial chunk of Mindanao.  (124)


“...the Philippines is America’s only former colony, and the Philippine-American War in 1899, while often forgotten in U.S. history books, killed at least 250,000 people.” (126)


“In Afghanistan, the U.S. government had helped fund mujahideen in the 1980s; in the Philippines, the government licensed a jihad movement on their own turf.” (128)


“Iran’s Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, in Southeast Asia, use the same network to funnel money and create front organizations.” (130)


“Worldwide, the CIA estimates that more than 30 percent of all Islamic NGOs have been unwittingly or knowingly infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other terrorist support groups.” (131)


“The financial machinery is very, very important to the spread of terrorism and its operations.” (131)


In 1999 as-Qaeda make the Philippines one of its primary training grounds, but it had laid the groundwork much earlier. (133)  “At one point, MILF cadres were being trained in twenty-seven camps in Mindanao.” (139)


“Singapore has been so fully infiltrated by al-Qaeda that it was the target of a bomb scheme even bigger than the Bali blasts.  The (fairly simple) Bali bombing was a second choice, activated when plans for an extraordinary group of explosions in Singapore were abandoned in their late stages.”  (144)


“Al-Qaeda’s appeal to Muslims of all educational and economic backgrounds has consistently been underestimated....” (144)


“Al-Qaeda’s recruits in Singapore are not downtrodden or marginalized; they were looking for spiritual renewal.  They want to fill a spiritual void.”  “Majority of them have average intelligence, and they were educated, English education.” (149)


“When we asked them what inspired them, the fact was that they felt they had to be part of this great cause in order to fight against American interests....” (150)


The Singaporeans arrested “had no previous criminal records.  They were not particularly pious; they were not members of any mosque in Singapore.  They were educated in national schools in Singapore.  Yet they espoused a radical strain of Islam that focused on an anti-American agenda.”  (152)


Bin Laden has global objectives, but within that he has been able to accommodate all of these disparate movements and be able to link it with his overall objective.  So it’s, in a way, a franchising of international terrorism.  (per Singapore’s deputy prime minister).  (152)


“Al-Qaeda’s strategy is for all Muslims, not just Arabs, to rally to fight for all Muslims wherever they are oppressed.  And the great oppressor is America, Israel’s backer.  This call to jihad resonates.” (per Singapore’s president,153)


To the discomfort of its neighbors, Singapore has been the only nation to state publicly the locations of training camps in the region. (154)


“We know from their internet exchanges that there are 100 radical groups in Indonesia with a total of several thousand members.”  (per Singapore’s president, 161)


“On October 12, 2002, al-Qaeda pulled off its second-worst attack after 9/11, at the Sari Club in Bali, Indonesia, killing more than two hundred people.  Ironically, it was a Plan B for the terrorists, who had been forced to abandon bigger plans for multiple bombings in Singapore.” (164)


“That feeling of exclusivity, of self-discipline, of being part of an elite who see a vision for a better world, of a tradition for excellence you must maintain: all that is exactly what al-Qaeda creates in its global network: from the schools known as pesantrens and madrassas, which begin to train young minds of four or five year olds, to the training camps hidden around the world, to the terrorist cells that carry out its plots.  Certainly, al-Qaeda members want to change the world.  Young Muslim men dream of joining al-Qaeda, of being trained to think and act like al-Qaeda, of standing up to oppression.” (166)


Al-Qaeda has been compared to a corporation that franchises terrorism, but it operates at a far deeper level than that by molding young minds at extremely formative stages and providing an ideological cause that includes ... self-sacrifice for a greater cause and a guaranteed place in heaven.” (167)


The first course for every Muslim student who wants to go on a jihad includes weapons training such as handling antitank and antiaircraft weapons like the Sam-7 and stinger missiles and how to set explosives and use grenades and mines. (168)


“The camps were part of a weeding-out process, and only the best of the best were invited to join.” (171)


“The ease with which massive explosives were obtained—enough to kill over 200 people [in Bali]—and the relative simplicity of the plan make it a virtual certainty that something like it will happen again.” (189)


[The last chapter is entitled “American Missteps.”  It is easy to point to things America has done that have been used to incite hatred.  It’s not so easy to know what the results of various alternatives might have been.  Or whether there is any action that cannot be viewed or portrayed as oppression by those determined to do so.  dlm]


“Decades from now, I am afraid we will look back to March 19, 2003, the day the attacks began on Iraq, and see it as the beginning of the end of the American empire.”  “By attacking Iraq, the United States became both the hero and the villain of the war on terror, its actions making it the most powerful recruitment tool Osama bin Laden could have wished for.”  (190)


In much of Southeast Asia the chip on the shoulder is an unspoken part of foreign policy.  “But just as the colonizers are emulated, they are hated....”  (191)


“After 9/11, Southeast Asians felt tremendous sympathy for America.  When the United States toppled the Taliban, it was seen as payback for September 11.  But when, in Iraq, the United States proved it could—and would—act unilaterally, hatreds shot to the surface.”  “It would prove to be a terrific recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.  The divide between Americans and the rest of the world, particularly with Muslim nations, has never been greater.” (191)


“Within the Msulim word, says Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohannad, it is growing too dangerous to ally openly with the United States, which is increasingly being seen and portrayed as an enemy of Islam.”  “U.S. actions intended to make the world safer are actually pushing moderate Muslims to take a step closer to the radicals.” (192)


“Often Americans are hated because they show a disregard of others’ ways of life and a deep-seated disrespect of other cultures.” (193)


Per Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, “Before September 11, terrorism was viewed as something ugly, but you lived with it.  Saddam Hussein was viewed as something ugly, something that was for the Iraqi people to take care of.  After September 11, terrorism looked different.  Saddam Hussein, who played with terrorists and had weapons of mass destruction, looked much more threatening to the United States than just to his own people, and so it changed the calculation entirely.” (199)


“Any conflict situation, any areas of lawlessness, of the breakdown of law and order—these are the magnets for al-Qaeda.”  (202)


“Should the United States be the global policeman?”  “In a perfect world, perhaps that responsibility could fall on the United Nations, but we live in an imperfect reality, and as East Timor has shown, it takes too much time to pull together a multilateral initiative.  The United States can set the standard, and it must do so with an even hand.  I believe the United States can rise above self-interest and act according to its lofty ideals.”  (202)


“Bust someone must counter al-Qaeda.  If that group has reached around the world and convinced its Muslim followers that if one Muslim hurts, they all hurt, then the United States can do the same for the other side.  It’s a universal hope—and an act of enlightened self-interest.” (202)


“We know al-Qaeda has dedicated resources to procure and develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.”  (219)


“Finally, there is the propaganda war, the ideological battle the West is losing.  In Southeast Asia and South Asia, it begins with the ‘pipelines of terror’—the Islamic schools, ... which spread the virulent ideology of radical Islam to children.”  “Law enforcement and military action are not enough.  If pursued excessively, they are bound to fail.  The United States and its Western allies have become their own worst enemies by acting in ways that reinforce and perpetuate the stereotypes propagated by al-Qaeda.  These is only one way to win the global was on terrorism—by supporting the moderate Muslims around the world, and by asking for their help.” (220)