Terror threat against Pope Francis in the PH

Is the Philippine government right to ask telecommunication companies Globe and Smart to block cellphone signals over Metro Manila (affecting about 12 million people) during the visit of Pope Francis?  

It all depends on how you view the security threat and the capability of our security forces.

Exactly 20 years ago this month, I was covering the 1995 visit of Pope John Paul II to the Philippines. Events from that time determined much of the investigative work I’ve done as a journalist.

Fast forward 6 years later about 2 weeks after the September 11 attacks. I was sitting in CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta wading through 251 videotapes from Osama bin Laden’s private collection looking for connections to Southeast Asia.

Al-Qaeda used these for motivational propaganda to woo potential recruits.  The bulk were how-to videos on the basics of chemical weaponry, urban guerrilla warfare, assassinations, hostage-taking, and other terrorist tactics. 

The tapes spanned nearly a decade and chronicled the interests and growth of al-Qaeda. All of them were recorded before the 9/11 attacks, except for one, a recording of news reports from different media organizations after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

Like he did with 9/11, bin Laden monitored the news to see how al-Qaeda operatives and plots were doing around the world – and to get an idea of how much the authorities knew. I skimmed taped news coverages of the Middle East, the USS Cole bombing in 2000, Chechnya and so many more.

It was nearly 2 in the morning when I picked up tape 106 on the al-Qaeda registry. I pressed the PLAY button and began watching news coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Philippines in 1995. Then I froze because I heard my voice and watched my own report. 

I tried to picture bin Laden watching me, and it was chilling. Did he laugh at my naiveté? Was he relieved at the simplistic picture my reports created?

Few had any idea then about the terrorist plot to assassinate the Pope, much less another plot the terrorists refered to as Bojinka. Scheduled two weeks after the Pope plot, it would detonate bombs for mid-air explosions on 11 US airplanes. If successful, it would’ve killed more people than the 9/11 attacks.

It’s no coincidence that every single major al-Qaeda plot from 1993 to 2003 had some link to the Philippines: the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; the 1995 Manila plot to bomb 11 US airplanes over Asia; the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa; the attack on the US naval destroyer, the USS Cole, in 2000; the 9/11 attacks in 2001; the plot to truck-bomb US embassies and Western interests in Southeast Asia in 2002; the Bali blasts later that year, and the JW Marriott Hotel attack in Jakarta in 2003.

What held them together? Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks and his nephew, Ramzi Yousef, who tried and failed to bring down the World Trade Center in 1993. In the mid-90’s, they lived in the Philippines, had Filipina girlfriends, and tested many elements of terror plots which would appear again and again in al-Qaeda plots.

Until his arrest in 2003, Mohammed powered al-Qaeda’s drive as a learning organization: he funneled the tactics and lessons they learned in the Philippines into al-Qaeda’s training camps and continued to try to perfect them over the years. Some examples I can’t forget:

The blueprint

And then there was 9/11.

When I saw the plane crash into the first building, it triggered a memory. I quickly sifted through Philippine intelligence documents I kept in a box in the closet and pulled out an interrogation report from January 1995 of a Pakistani pilot named Abdul Hakim Murad, a pilot trained in the United States.

He told his Filipino interrogators about a suicide mission involving planes: “he 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 Philippine police shared that report with the FBI, a story I broke for CNN days after 9/11. In succeeding years, officials around the world began to refer to that plot discovered in the Philippines as “the blueprint” for 9/11.

Given the little we knew in 1995, I couldn’t help but worry the same thing could be happening today during the visit of Pope Francis.

Changed landscape

The threat landscape has changed: in the decade after 9/11, authorities around the world captured or killed al-Qaeda’s top and middle-rank leaders, but the cells below continued to grow and mutate. What was once a centralized group is now a decentralized global social movement spreading a virulent ideology. 

Since then these threat groups have harnessed the power of the Internet and social media, spreading the ideology without boundaries of time and space. They’ve gained traction in Southeast Asia, helping funnel fighters to the new battleground in Syria.

ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, began as al-Qaeda in Iraq but was, at one point, disowned by al-Qaeda for its brutal tactics. Regardless, al-Qaeda’s same ideology runs through its networks, and ISIS leverages off the oil revenues in lands it has seized.

Another al-Qaeda affiliate, AQAP or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for the massacre of 12 people in Paris over cartoons in satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. That sparked a global reaction of solidarity with the victims. This happened just a week before Pope Francis landed in Manila on January 15.

On Friday, January 16, the Pope’s second day in the Philippines, counter-terrorism operations sparked the arrest of more than 20 suspected Islamist militants across Belgium, France and Germany, pushing Europe into high alert.  Police in UK are warned an attack against them is “highly likely.” On the same day, Indonesian anti-terror police killed a suspected Islamist militant accused of deadly attacks against policemen. (On January 6, Indonesian authorities went on heightened alert after a security warning from the United States and a travel advice message form Australia.) 

Authorities around the world worry about “lone wolves,” people who are radicalized and carry out attacks on their own. I see them as part of the social networks that powered al-Qaeda, both online and in the real world. This is the logical evolution of the threat, and I wrote a book about it in 2011.

World dominion

Let’s be clear. This is not about religion. Former Philippine immigration commissioner Andrea Domingo told me: “Their goal is world dominion, and they are using religion as the battle cry.”

What Pakistan’s former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, told me decades before her death formed my paradigm for analyzing al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden: “He was able to tap different youths in different regions on different issues 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.”

Remember the brothers behind the Boston bombings? They were radicalized on the Internet, pushed to violence by Anwar al-Awlaki from AQAP – the same group that claimed responsibility for sending another set of brothers against Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

In the Philippines, this is how the threat has evolved: in the 90's, JI or Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia, set up training camps with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF. After 9/11, the MILF distanced itself and by 2005, it had severed its relations. However, the more extreme elements splintered away from the MILF after it closed a deal with the Philippine government for peace. Now known as the BIFF or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, it's a loose group incorporating, at times, former JI members and members of the Abu Sayyaf who have joined what some here call the black flag movement (which may or may not link them to ISIS fighters, who also use the black flag).  

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research and author of Inside al-Qaeda, said the threat today against Pope Francis could come from sub-groups of the BIFF. Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma said, "Our security agencies are considering every possible source of threat or danger."

Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol, told the BBC: “We’re dealing with multiple thousands of potential terrorists” who are “working in a self-radicalised way very often, not necessarily under any command and control structure.”

So was the Philippine government justified in shutting down cell networks that can trigger explosives? Yes, it’s a logical move in a country that’s still discovering how vestiges of the al-Qaeda network have evolved. – Rappler.com

This documentary, outlining global terror links to the Philippines, was aired on September 11, 2006. It is posted with permission from ABS-CBN.

Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 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 and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.