MANILA, Philippines – She has reported on some of the worst terror attacks in Southeast Asia but it took the faces of those who lived through terrorism’s horrors to unnerve Maria Ressa.
“It’s a very emotional topic, this one,” Ressa’s voice broke as she launched her new book “10 Days, 10 Years: From Bin Laden to Facebook.”
At the book launch on Friday, October 12, Ressa spoke before an audience that included the trio as well as the journalists, families and officials who formed part of the crisis team she led to bring the three back home.
“It was cathartic to write the book, even more so to actually place it in a global context,” said Ressa, CNN’s former lead investigative reporter on terrorism in Southeast Asia. At the time of the kidnapping, she was head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs.
“Rarely do you get to see people face to face and then understand that the kidnapper who punched Ces was actually the son of a man who was a subcommander of the Abu Sayyaf who was trained by Ramzi Yousef, who tried to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993, whose uncle Khalid Shaikh Mohammed actually succeeded in bringing down the [Twin] Towers in 9/11.”
Teary-eyed, the author made the crowd laugh when she quipped, “It’s less than 6 degrees of separation between Osama bin Laden and Ces Drilon!”
Photo from Ces Drilon's Twitter account
‘The evil has not ended’
In “Bin Laden to Facebook,” Ressa weaves the narrative of the kidnapping with the backdrop of the global spread of terrorism and its shift to a new battleground: the Internet and social media.
It follows her book, “Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia.” A journalist for over 25 years, Ressa is now CEO and executive editor of Rappler.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas said the book took on another significance, launched just days before the historic signing of the Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
“We have to commend President Aquino, [Malaysian] Prime Minister Najib [Razak] and others who work closely on this,” Thomas said. “I’d like to congratulate [Government Peace Panel Chairman] Marvic [Leonen] and his team in reaching this great success.”
Thomas, however, said much work is still needed to fight terrorism and to ensure peace in Mindanao. Beyond military solutions, he stressed that long-term economic, social and legal reforms are key.
The ambassador reiterated the US’ commitment to help the region, especially by investing in education.
“What we can say is that the Framework Agreement, as hard as it was to cobble together, that’s the easy part. As we’ve seen around the world, agreements come together, that’s the easy part. Following through, year after year, to build from nothing is what is going to make effective and sustained change.”
Thomas said, “I have to say that terrorism is an evil that has not ended. It’s only been blunted.”
Ces Drilon's most difficult ordeal
For Drilon, the book was much more personal.
“When I went over Maria’s manuscript for the book, the memories of our abduction 4 years ago kept flooding back and I couldn’t help but shed some tears, make that a lot of tears. [It was] the most difficult ordeal I have ever gone through in my life.”
At the launch, she shared an excerpt from a journal entry she wrote while in captivity, “During the day when you gaze at the deep blue sky or at night as you look up to the darkness dotted with stars and a crescent moon, you wonder how the Sulu sky can shelter such cruelty.”
While negotiating with the crisis team on behalf of her kidnappers, Drilon said the Abu Sayyaf tried to make her lose hope. “But my faith never wavered in my network’s ability to get us out and the book for the first time gave me a picture of those harried days in the crisis center as Maria, Glenda, Charie, our families raced against time to get us out.”
Ultimately, Drilon said the experience and the book made her reflect on her profession and why journalists do what they do.
“Courage is not just about going to dangerous places to cover conflict. It is about the strength, the diligence, the persistence and firmness of mind to discover and investigate.”
“Maria in her book displayed qualities we journalists try to aspire for: the tenacity and perspicacity to pursue an issue, in her case, terrorism. Her work will be valuable in understanding and helping stem the spread of terrorism which is now taking advantage of new technology available to all,” said Drilon.
Terrorism in the time of Facebook
Ressa said that in the book, readers will see the next phase of terrorism after authorities worldwide successfully broke down old terror groups. The battle now shifts to cyberspace, she said.
“The people they recruited are still there and they continue to grow in much more sporadic ways. Some people call them lone sharks, lone wolves. They’re not lone wolves if you follow social network theory.”
She cited the case of the son of a Jemaah Islamiyah leader who put up a website and a Facebook page with more than 54,000 followers.
“When you have 54,000 followers, ComScore says your reach is up to 86% more than the number of Facebook likes you have so that reach goes to millions. And now, that JI leader's son who has the same radical ideology can sit in his room and reach millions of people. That is the danger ahead.”
Ressa explained her motivations for the book. “If we continue to be vigilant, we will be able to anticipate the trend that’s why I don’t turn away from it.”
Looking at the characters of her book in the room, Ressa said that ultimately, terrorism hits home. “We need to see it as a personal battle because it really is personal.”
“It is all about people. I have studied this for a long time. The reason I get emotional about it is this instance reminded me that terrorism is not about ideas. It is about people you love. Terrorism is actually about a clash in values, an exclusionary view of the world that we need to fight.” – Rappler.com