Southeast Asia after 9/11

Maria A. Ressa

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Southeast Asia after 9/11
On September 11, 2001, planes crashed into the World Trade Center. What's happened since then and what lessons have we learned?

This was a piece first published in 2015, 14 years after the September 11, 2001 attacks. This year, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the ideology remains just as vibrant, evolving into even more violent and vicious attacks with ISIS.

This iconic attack 15 years ago ripped off the veneer and exposed the terror networks. It changed the global security framework and forced authorities to break barriers and work together.

Still, with each success, the network evolves.

Many of us will never forget that day (or night for us in Asia).  I was on a treadmill in Jakarta when I saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Center.  I thought it was a movie so I made sure I was watching CNN. I was.  

Something bothered me because this felt like a memory. I turned up the sound and called Lynn Felton, my minder at CNN’s International Desk. It sounded like chaos over the phone as she told me what little we knew – some of which I was hearing echoed on television half a world away. Then the second plane crashed, and it clicked.

I heard this before – and read it in a police interrogation report in the mid-90s in the Philippines. I told Lynn about it, and she put Eli Flournoy on speakerphone.  I talked about a dim memory.  By the time we finished our call, I had my marching orders: get on the first flight to the Philippines and get to the bottom of what authorities in the Philippines would call the ‘blueprint for 9/11.’

That night before I left the gym to run home, change and pack, I called my sister and my mother – both of whom worked in New York City. My mom worked uptown on Park Avenue (thank God, because a few years back, her office was at the World Trade Center), and my sister worked downtown.  Our family monitored them as they found each other and walked through a devastated New York City across the George Washington Bridge.  From 8:30 in the morning, they walked to safety, and my father picked them up – along with strangers they walked with – after midnight on the New Jersey side of the GW Bridge.  Until today, Dad talks about the kindness of strangers and how stores gave away sneakers to women walking to safety.

9/11 changed my life as a journalist. In those first few days, I found the documents, talked to officials on this side of the ocean while Kelli Arena worked the FBI and sources in Washington, DC. It took nearly a week to get legal clearance to publish the first of many exclusive reports.

Since then, I’ve spent most of my career tracking how 9/11 happened: documenting the links from Southeast Asia to al-Qaeda, pulling together information to help chart the growth and evolution of this virulent ideology that is at the core of some of the most worst terrorist attacks in the world.  I wrote two books: Seeds of Terror chronicled the links and showed how seemingly random attacks and fiery clashes between Muslims and Christians were fueled by this network; and From Bin Laden to Facebook looked at how the jihadi virus spread in the virtual world and anticipated the enormous potential to spread on social media now exploited by the Islamic State also known as ISIS, ISIL or Da’esch, a loose Arab acronym.

14 years later, we see an open, public fight between leaders of al-Qaeda, which is a shadow of its former self, and ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria, which is taking center stage as the global threat.  ISIS accomplished what al-Qaeda never did: fight and win land for the Islamic Caliphate both are trying to build.

On the eve of this year’s anniversary, al-Qaeda released a 45 minute audio tape of its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took over in 2011 after the death of Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri openly attacks ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a fight for supporters. He accused al-Baghdadi of “sedition” for declaring himself the 4th Caliph last year.

“We have endured a lot of harm from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers,” said al-Zawahiri, “And we preferred to respond with as little as possible, out of our concern to extinguish the fire of sedition.  But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his brothers did not leave us a choice, for they have demanded that all the mujahideen reject their confirmed pledges of allegiance, and to pledge allegiance to them for what they claim of a Caliphate.”

Still, there’s a caveat: al-Zawahiri leaves the door open for cooperation against the West in Iraq & Syria, recognizing a common enemy and perhaps wanting a share of ISIS’ victory.

On the 14th anniversary of 9/11, ISIS issued a broad threat triggering increased security in Japanese embassies around the world, including in Jakarta.  Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and was the operations base of Jemaah Islamiyah, once al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia.  That network, like al-Qaeda, has been degraded, but the ideology remains in home-grown groups, some of which have thrown their support to ISIS.

Luhut Panjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs, told Rappler that although hundreds of Indonesians have joined ISIS in the past year, its threat is “manageable.”

“We are working very hard in order to contain the influence of ISIS within the country,” said Luhut.  “It’s a manageable threat for now, but if we don’t do something, this can also become bigger in the future.”

Sidney Jones, founder of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, talks about how Malaysian members of ISIS communicate on social media, enabling easier recruitment of their networks below.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg told Rappler that countries should watch social media and use it to fight ISIS. In a wide-ranging interview this week, Goldberg talked about how “lone wolves” influenced on social media has expanded the threat.

“What we need to do, obviously – and it’s true in the Philippine context, the Southeast Asian context, and the global context, certainly true in the United States – is redouble our efforts to work together in law enforcement and intelligence,” he told me.  “And watch the social media to see what’s happening out there. Try to counter the message but also be very vigilant.”

He said: “I think what we need to think about in a global sense is how social media presence generates lone wolves and attacks that have really no organic relationships, but instead have a relationship that is one of trying to inspire people to act on their own.”

Social network analysis, however, can trace the spread of the message.  Authorities must learn to upgrade from physical link analysis of people to social network analysis in the virtual world because social media has become terrorism’s new batteground.  (READ: How to fight ISIS on social media)

Rohan Gunaratna gives a good primer here of the relationship between ISIS and al-Qaeda as well as the priorities and dangers ahead.  “Al-Qaeda is a kindergarten group compared to ISIS,” he told me.

Finally, let me end with lessons learned from the Philippines in 1995.  I wrote what you’ll read below in 2011 for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 partly because I was disturbed that authorites had declared victory over al-Qaeda. Today, the same ideology, in a more brutal reincarnation, powers ISIS. The lessons below remain relevant today.  


10 years after 9/11: Lessons from the Philippines

The catastrophic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ripped off a veneer and exposed what was growing beneath the surface: al Qaeda’s successful efforts to tap Muslim grievances around the world and infect disparate, home-grown groups with its global jihad. Al Qaeda has helped groups like Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia target the “Near Enemy” – their governments, and the “Far Enemy” – the United States.

It now appears that 9/11 was the peak of al Qaeda’s strength, when it reached from its caves in Afghanistan to destroy symbols of modernity, forcing governments around the world to change outdated paradigms of Cold War defense structures. Bin Laden’s victory was short-lived: 9/11 was a strategic error for his forces because now they were exposed and vulnerable. In the next decade, they would never be that strong again.

Since 9/11, there has been no other al Qaeda attack on US soil or any other al Qaeda attack of a similar magnitude anywhere. Osama bin Laden is dead, and most of al-Qaeda’s ‘legacy leaders’ have been killed and replaced. More than 40 plots have been foiled in the last decade, according to the Heritage Foundation. Some officials have declared all of this a “victory,” but lessons from the Philippines show that the next defeat can come from the jaws of “victory.”

In 1995, the architect of 9/11, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (known in intelligence circles as KSM), evaded arrest in the Philippines in what was then lauded as “the greatest counterterrorism victory.” US and Filipino officials foiled “Bojinka,” a plot for midair explosions on 11 US airplanes flying from Asia. If KSM’s plot had succeeded, more people would have died in the planned “48 hours of terror” than in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The terrorist cell headed by KSM in the Philippines included his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993; Abdul Hakim Murad, perhaps the first commercial pilot recruited by al Qaeda; Wali Khan Amin Shah, who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan; and bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa.

KSM powered al Qaeda’s drive as a learning organization, taking many of the cell’s plots from that time, incorporating them into training at al Qaeda’s camps, and resuscitating them through the years:

  • Shoe bombing: First tested by Yousef in the Philippines, this technique resulted in a successful midair explosion on Philippine Airlines in 1994, and was later taught by KSM to his recruit, Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, in 2001.
  • Cyanide: Discussions in the Philippines on the use of cyanide for terror attacks with the Abu Sayyaf would resurface again in the early 2000s in Great Britain.
  • Attacks on nuclear reactors: Plots discovered in the Philippines would resurface again in 2002.
  • Liquid bombs: This tactic was tested three times in the Philippines in 1994, including exploration of methods for getting bomb elements through airport security. It would resurface again in 2006 during the London liquid bombs plot – a later version of Bojinka.

Finally, there was one plot so fantastic no one paid attention, neither law enforcement and intelligence agencies, nor journalists closely following terrorism. Murad, the pilot trained in the United States, told his Filipino interrogators about a suicide mission involving planes:

[H]e will board any American commercial aircraft pretending to be an ordinary passenger …. There will be no bomb or any explosive that he will use in its execution. It is simply a [suicide] mission that he is very much willing to execute.

Among the targets he named: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The interrogation report was from January 1995. Authorities in the Philippines have called it the blueprint for 9/11.

Six years after the pilot told authorities about the plans, the World Trade Center Towers were attacked again. What his nephew started in 1993, KSM finished in 2001. Jet fuel from two planes that slammed into the buildings weakened the structures at a molecular level, causing the towers to collapse hours after the impact. Nearly 3,000 people died that day, exactly 10 years ago.

The lesson from the Philippines in 1995 is simple: Don’t underestimate the power of one person and one idea.

Aside from KSM, one other man escaped the 1995 dragnet: the Indonesian cleric Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali. He did exactly what KSM did for al Qaeda, except he did it for its Southeast Asian arm, Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI. Hambali built JI’s network and became its operations chief, planning and carrying out the region’s deadliest attacks, including the Bali bombing in 2002 that killed 202 people.

The fierce reaction from law enforcement agencies around the world to the Sept. 11 attacks has affected al Qaeda and JI similarly: their centralized command structures have been hit hard, and their operational capabilities have been degraded.

Still, the old networks remain and continue to spread al Qaeda’s virulent ideology. Let’s call it the jihadi virus. Smaller, more ad hoc and less professional cells carry out attacks without central coordination. These cells also continue to recruit, and they have caused the development of the networks to grow in a more haphazard pattern.

The central core of both al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah have been weakened, but their ideology has sparked a movement. The networks have been degraded, but it is now more difficult for law enforcement to predict when and where the next attack will occur. This can result in smaller, disparate attacks happening more frequently, as has been seen this year in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The danger is that these isolated cells and/or individuals may spontaneously regenerate some form of a network around them to carry out larger plots, something that occurred in Indonesia with the return of the Bali bomber, Dulmatin, and the discovery in 2010 of the Aceh training camps.

All this shows that despite counterterrorism successes, it’s hard to declare victory given the viral nature of al-Qaeda’s ideology. All it takes are the right leaders to spark a regeneration that can allow the network to carry out larger-scale attacks.

Remember the Philippines in 1995. –

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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.