9/11 and the black flag movement

Maria A. Ressa
12 years after 9/11, the ties that bind the same social network are stil behind the latest bombings in Mindanao

12 years ago, al-Qaeda attacked and destroyed the Twin Towers, killing nearly 3,000 people. 9/11 was al-Qaeda’s coming out party: a group that harnessed Muslim anger of distinct, disparate groups and framed the battle against the West. 

While there have been victories, the battle continues, and events in 2012 show how al-Qaeda central has morphed into a social movement that’s making it difficult for military and law enforcement groups globally to reframe a changing threat.

One year ago, a mob stormed the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and killed 4 Americans, including US ambassador Christopher Stevens, and raised the black flag associated with al-Qaeda — the same flag that appeared in violent Muslim protests around the world.

That week, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, protests spread to more than 20 countries, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 people. Black flags were raised by angry mobs in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), said the attack in Libya was to avenge the killing of its Number 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and urged Muslims to kill US diplomats in Muslim countries.

Abu Sayyaf and the black flag

It was also in September last year that Philippine police discovered a black flag in the Abu Sayyaf camp of Khair Mundos, who carried a US$500,000 reward from the US Department of Justice. Mundos managed to escape.

As early as 1988, al-Qaeda’s financial network in the Philippines was established by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. By then, Al-Qaeda leaders, including the architect of the 9/11 attacks, had trained members of the Abu Sayyaf.

Mundos escaped from a provincial prison in 2007 and headed the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan. During the raid in 2012, intelligence sources told Rappler that inside the camp, they found the black flag, along with training manuals from Jemaah Islamiyah, once al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia.

It wasn’t the first time the black flag surfaced in the Philippines, the symbol used by the group behind the latest spate of bombings in Mindanao. 

Following the black flag shows how the threat posed by al-Qaeda has evolved since 9/11.

BLACK FLAG. Filipinos carry the black flag in the southern Philippines. Sourced by Rappler

Symbol of unity 

The black flag taps into a secret motivation of al-Qaeda: a “narrative that convinces them that they’re part of a divine plan,” according to former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Ali Soufan in his book, “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.”

Al-Qaeda believes its black banners herald the apocalypse that will bring about the triumph of Islam.

It’s based on what they believe is a hadith or a saying of the prophet Muhammad: “If you see the black banners coming from Khurusan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them, and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.” Khurusan is a name for a historical region covering northeastern and eastern Iran and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.

This is where al-Qaeda believes the Islamic version of Armaggedon will emerge. Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the United States ends with the dateline, Friday, Aug 23, 1996, in the Hindu Kush, Khurusan, Afghanistan.

Local sighting

The first time the black flag appeared in the Philippines was on Nov 6, 2011: a masked Filipino jihadist identified as Commander Abu Jihad Khalil al-Rahman al-Luzoni uploaded a video on YouTube exhorting Muslims around the world to support the jihad in the Philippines. He gave his Arabic message in front of al-Qaeda’s black flag.

Authorities have since identified him as Khalil Pareja, the leader of the Rajah Solaiman Movement or RSM, a group which worked with JI and the Abu Sayyaf on the Superferry bombing in 2004 and the Valentine’s Day bombings in 2005. 

Using YouTube and Facebook, Pareja took the jihad online and began to work on Facebook with alleged members of al-Shabaab in Somalia and AQAP in Yemen. According to classified documents obtained by Rappler, soon after Pareja was arrested in early 2012, he told authorities he planned to join the jihad in Yemen, along with other Filipinos. His Facebook page used the black flag.

PAREJA. Screengrab from the first video of the black flag in the Philippines.

The black flag appeared again a few months later in August 2012, after authorities found the laptop of Malaysian Mohammed Noor Fikrie, identified by Philippine police as a member of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Intelligence documents shown to Rappler state the laptop was recovered after a raid targeting the two most wanted Southeast Asian terrorists, JI leaders Marwan and Muawiyah — the targets of the first US smart bomb attack in the Philippines in early 2012. Both escaped and fled to central Mindanao.

Fikrie was killed by Philippine police at the end of 2012 after he threatened to detonate a backpack bomb.  Marwan and Muawiyah remain at large. All 3 used the black flag and were in touch with their families through Facebook.

Now one of the men who trained with them in that central Mindanao camp, Ren-ren Dongon, is accused of masterminding the July 26 bombing in Cagayan de Oro City that killed 8 people and wounded at least 40 others.

Khilafah Islamiyah not new

Much has been written about a supposedly new group, the Khilafah Islamiyah, which some members of the military and police say, is behind the recent bombings in the southern Philippines, including that on July 26.

A lot of conflicting details have been released:

A Rappler investigation involving intelligence and security officials from at least 4 different countries show how isolated facts have been woven together into a murky narrative and an erroneous conclusion.

“Khilafah Islamiyah is a figment of the imagination,” a senior Philippine intelligence official said. “It was a name given by an intelligence asset. It isn’t what they call themselves.”

When we put the facts verified by 4 different nations together, we get the picture of an evolving threat that is difficult for authorities to explain because they continue to look for top down command and control leadership – a mistake, because the ideology is moving through social networks and harnessing recruits for attacks bottom up.

This isn’t a new group but the resurgence of the same ideology through the same social network.

Paradigm for analysis

Much like the US declared al-Qaeda dead, and yet was forced to shut down its embassies and consulates around the world in August, Philippine security and intelligence officials are struggling to define a paradigm for analysis of today’s evolving threat. 

Around the world, 9/11 took most security and defense officials by surprise largely because they were still stuck in a Cold War paradigm, the US and the Philippines included.

9/11 triggered a fierce reaction from law enforcement agencies around the world. Al-Qaeda and its arm in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah, were affected the same way: their centralized command structures collapsed and their operational capabilities were degraded.

Still, the old networks remained and continued to spread a vicious ideology, what I call the jihadi virus. My latest book, “From bin Laden to Facebook,” mapped the spread of terrorism by tracing its spread through social networks — from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Southeast Asia – both in the physical and virtual worlds.

We’ve lived through one cycle of evolution of al-Qaeda, and analyzing that gives us an idea of what is happening now.

TWIN TOWERS. A hijacked commercial plane crashes into the World Trade Center 11 September 2001 in New York. Seth Mcallister/AFP file photo

Coopting Filipino groups

In 1988, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, came to the Philippines and began to fund charities, non-governmental organizations and to build mosques. He also laid the foundations for a terrorist cell that galvanized against Pope John Paul II in 1995, among other plots. 

The cell included 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He and his nephew, Ramzi Yousef (who was behind the 1993 World Trade Center attacks), trained members of the Abu Sayyaf in bomb-making and terrorist tactics.

The Arabs saw the Abu Sayyaf as puppets they could manipulate and grow, but it was with the MILF that they found sanctuary and created training camps in the southern Philippines. 

Then MILF chairman Hashim Salamat was steeped in the ideology of radical Islam. One of the founders of the Philippines’ largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF, he splintered away because the MNLF was too secular. He led an MILF that wanted a state fully governed by the Koran and Islamic sharia law.

The ties to al-Qaeda and its associate groups around the world were formed in Afghanistan in 1980 when Salamat began sending Filipinos to train and fight against the Soviets. They were aligned in their goals (fight the government and the West) and forged a camaraderie that helped lead to Southeast Asia’s 9/11 – the Bali bombings in 2002 and some of the region’s worst terrorist attacks.

After the Bali bombing, key Indonesian and Malaysian terrorists fled to the southern Philippines and helped train and strengthen Filipino rebels, who used their new-found skills not just for terrorist attacks but also for criminal acts to raise money, extortion schemes, and political assassinations.

By 2005, the MILF had a new more moderate leader, Ebrahim Al-Haj Murad, who wanted peace in the truest sense of the word. According to the diary of the head of the Abu Sayyaf’s propaganda arm, the MILF kicked out the leaders of JI, the Abu Sayyaf and the Rajah Solaiman Movement (a group of Christian converts to Islam who joined forces with the Abu Sayyaf) from their camps in 2005.

Cycles of regeneration

In the decade after 9/11, Al-Qaeda and JI weakened significantly. Each was affected the same way: its central leadership was decimated, and while it had the intent to mount attacks, it no longer had the same capability. Over the years, it evolved: much smaller attacks continued, carried out by less professional, more ad hoc, uncoordinated groups.

Al-Qaeda adapted and gave greater power to semi-independent affiliates like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP and to more loosely connected groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Security forces in the West dismissed these groups as local, irrelevant to the global war against al-Qaeda, but they were wrong. They said since al-Qaeda no longer had command and control, it was dead. They failed to realize that at a certain point in time, attacking their own government was all these groups could do but as they gained strength, it was inevitable they would go back to their global jihad.

In Southeast Asia, JI’s top and middle-rank leaders were either killed or captured. At one point, the small group in JI which was behind the terrorist attacks splintered away and changed its name to Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), but the ideology spread through the same social network, which has regenerated 3 times spreading Islamist terrorism through 3 generations.

IN EGYPT. Bedouin protesters wave an Al-Qaeda-affiliated flag near a watch tower in Egypt's Sinai on Sept 14, 2012 after they stormed a compound of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) to protest against a film mocking Islam. AFP file photo

Dongons’ ties to Abu Sayyaf

So where are we today in the Philippines? 

Military and police officials identified Reneer Lou “Ren-ren” Dongon as the head of Khilafah Islamiyah, said to be behind Mindanao’s latest bombings. Yet they failed to look at the family ties which show a different, clearer context.

His sister, Zainab, married the brother of the founder of the Abu Sayyaf and later led the group, Khadaffy Janjalani. Another sister, Amina, was married to Janjalani’s second-in-command, Abu Solaiman. A 3rd sister, Nurain, married Ahmad Santos, the founder of the RSM (Rajah Solaiman Movement) and the leader of Abu Sayyaf’s propaganda arm. Another brother, Jaffar, helped carry out the Valentine’s day bus bombing on Feb 14, 2005, a joint Abu Sayyaf-RSM-JI operation.

Ren-ren Dongon was in the camp targeted by the 1st US-smart bomb attacks in the Philippines on Feb 2, 2012.  In August that year, authorities raided another camp and recovered Fikrie’s computer (with the black flag). Ren-ren had just left the camp shortly before the attack.

There’s a good reason why Ren-ren is always near ground zero of counter-terrorism operations: he worked very closely with the main target – JI leader Marwan, the alias of Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, a US-trained engineer who also headed the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia or KMM. He comes from a family of jihadists: one brother was arrested in Indonesia; another was arrested in the US. The US has a $5 million reward for Marwan’s head.

It turns out that Marwan is now Ren-ren’s brother-in-law, according to intelligence reports obtained by Rappler. 

12 years after 9/11, these are the ties that bind the same social network that has long been behind bombing attacks in the southern Philippines.

12 years after 9/11, a global social movement using the black flag is trying to lash back. It did so with limited success last year, enough to kill a US ambassador. This year, a month before 9/11, the US closed 22 embassies and consulates and issued a global travel alert because of al-Qaeda.  

This threat is far from over. – Rappler.com

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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 and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.