Sign Up

Southeast Asia and the Seeds of Terror

What role did fundraising in Southeast Asia’s play in the rise of al Qaeda?

August 15, 2006

What role did fundraising in Southeast Asia's play in the rise of al Qaeda?

Long before the United States was ever aware of it, Osama bin Laden had declared war on America in Southeast Asia — his first attempt to expand his influence.

In 1988, he sent his brother-in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa to the Philippines to set up a financial infrastructure of charities and other organizations.

Khalifa married a local woman and integrated into Filipino society, often asking politicians and Manila's elite to sit on the boards of his charities.

In fact, he had the help of the Saudi Arabian embassy to establish his first charity. That was phase one. A few years later, in 1994 — when the financial support network was in place — bin Laden activated phase two by sending in several cells of expert terrorists.

It is no coincidence that every single major al Qaeda plot since 1993 has had some link to the Philippines: from the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 to the 1995 Manila plot to bomb 11 U.S. airliners over Asia and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

And from the attack on the U.S. naval destroyer, the USS Cole in 2000, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001 to the plot to truck-bomb U.S. embassies and Western interests in Southeast Asia in 2002, the Bali blasts later that year and the J. W. Marriott Hotel attack in August 2003.

In 1994, one Filipino investigator picked up the underground movements and began to warn of an alarming trend he had discovered.

Colonel Rodolfo "Boogie" Mendoza had combined hundreds of wiretaps and countless man-hours of surveillance into a 175 page report on the infiltration of local Muslim groups by international terrorists.

It documented the dramatic 150% rise in terrorist acts from 1991 to 1994. It also tracked the boom of madrassas — or Muslim religious schools and mosques — and a watch list of Arab nationals Mendoza believed were involved in spreading radical, jihadist ideas from the Middle East.

The statistics were alarming. His watch list alone — those names he believed were connected to international terrorist groups — had more than 100 names on it.

The countries with the largest Muslim populations are in Asia: Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. More than 230 million — nearly 25% — of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia, influenced by its history, traditions and cultures.

Locked between giants India and China, with one billion people each, Southeast Asia's 500 million people have often been ignored in recent history.

But this region may hold the key to the future of Islam — and they certainly hold the key to the future of al Qaeda. Unlike the Middle East or South Asia, Islam in Southeast Asia is moderate, malleable and adaptable.

Islam here is relatively new. It was brought in by traders in the 13th century rather than imposed by conquest. Islam has merged freely with local cultures.

Like most other religions in Southeast Asia, what lies underneath is still visible at times. Strains of animism and Buddhism peek through.

Islam here has coexisted for centuries with other religions. In fact, Indonesia's 220 million Muslims are abangans — Muslims who fused Islam with Buddhism, Hinduism and other beliefs, like animism.

Consequently, many hardliners in the Middle East patronizingly dismiss Islam in Southeast Asia as "not real" or "the fringes."

That is a mistake. Islam here is a work in progress and as such has responded, often successfully, to the challenges of the modern world. 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. Radical Islam's entry into the region coincided with a growing demand for democracy.

Most nations in Southeast Asia have a colonial past: Indonesia was ruled for 350 years by the Dutch. The Philippines was ruled by Spain for 250 years.

Singapore and Malaysia were ruled by the British. In the 1970s, these countries developed strongman leaders: Suharto, Marcos, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir. By the late 1980s, the cry was for democracy.

Ironically, democracy — the nemesis of radical Islam — helped create the conditions under which the radical ideology could spread in Southeast Asia.

It began with People Power in the Philippines in 1986. The ensuing chaos, reorganization of the political landscape and shifts of power helped al Qaeda infiltrate the MHF — the largest Muslim separatist group in the country — and the more extremist Abu Sayyaf.

More than a decade later, the same thing happened in Indonesia, when massive, violent protests forced President Suharto to step down.

During times of sweeping change, people look for meaning, creating boom times for religion. Radical Islam in Southeast Asia was growing by leaps and bounds, spurred by the oil boom of the early 1970s.

After the price of oil quadrupled, Saudi Arabia poured massive amounts of cash into Southeast Asia, building mosques and religious schools and spreading the austere version of Wahhabi Islam.

That was followed by the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, a revolution that had a profound effect on Muslims' belief in Islam as a form of political power. Finally, there was jihad, the first modern holy war in 1979.

The call to jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was highly appealing in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines alone, more than 1,000 Muslims made the trip.

They were joined by hundreds more from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. When they returned home, they brought back the radical ideas — and terrorist techniques — they learned from the camps of Afghanistan.

The network al Qaeda set up in Southeast Asia is not just its new center of training and operations. It is also a model for other regions, such as Chechnya and East Africa.

Harnessing local groups, al Qaeda has encouraged them to carve out autonomous Islamic areas that can be linked together worldwide.

"He was able to tap different youths in different regions on different issues," Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, told me, "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."

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."

From SEEDS OF TERROR by Maria Ressa. Copyright © 2003 by Maria Ressa. Reprtined by permission of The Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.