September 22, 2001 Posted:
2:39 PM HKT (0639 GMT)
By CNN's Maria Ressa in Manila
(CNN) -- For most of Southeast Asia, the roots of terrorism started during the Afghan war.
The Philippines sent more than 1,000 Muslim fighters. Indonesia and Malaysia sent hundreds.
Like Osama Bin Laden and other Muslims sympathizers around the world, Southeast Asian Muslims honed their skills and fuelled their militancy in Afghanistan during its war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The largest and most influential cell in the region seemed to have been set up in the Philippines.
Philippine Senator Rodolfo Biazon, former Armed Forces Chief of Staff, points out that the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group which has kidnapped more than a hundred Filipinos and western tourists over the past two years, followed a parallel development with Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, now the prime suspect behind the attacks on the United States.
"About 1,000 Muslim fighters were recruited, reportedly by no less than the CIA," Biazon tells CNN.
"When the war in Afghanistan ended in 1989, everybody went back to where they came from. Osama went back to Saudi. Our fighters went back here. And having imbibed the Islamic fundamentalist sentiments, especially after the Gulf War, Osama Bin Laden decided to fight the Americans. And our Abu Sayyaf started committing acts of terror."
When the Muslim militants returned to the Philippines, most joined the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF.
In 1992, hardliner Khadaffy Janjalani splintered and formed the Abu Sayyaf.
His core group fanatically followed Islamic fundamentalism, but when he was killed several years later, his brother took over the leadership of the Abu Sayyaf and mercenaries joined the group, watering down its Islamic goals.
Today, the military continues its operation against the Abu Sayyaf with the goal of rescuing its latest group of hostages, including two Americans.
Although the Abu Sayyaf demanded the release of international terrorist Ramzi Yousef in exchange for its hostages last year, Filipino authorities dismiss any strong ties to Osama Bin Laden.
"We think the Abu Sayyaf is basically a kidnap-for-ransom gang," Presidential Spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao tells CNN.
"They have some tinge of Islamic militancy, but essentially they've become a bandit group."
But Abu Sayyaf members did receive additional training from Ramzi Yousef, who lived in the Philippines from 1994-1995.
A bomb-making expert, Yousef was one of the masterminds behind the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Soon after that, he began to set up a terrorist cell in the Philippines, exporting friends and relatives from the Middle East.
A chemical fire in his apartment alerted authorities to his hideout and helped uncover three terrorist plots:
-- an attempt to assassinate the Pope during his 1995 visit to Manila;
-- a conspiracy to bomb US airliners in Asia called Operation Bojinka ("loud explosion");
-- and a plan to recruit pilots to hijack US jetliners in the continental United States and slam the planes into government and commercial buildings.
Philippine authorities turned their evidence over to the U.S. government, providing evidence which led to the NY conviction of Yousef and his cohorts for "Operation Bojinka."
While in the Philippines, Yousef traveled to the Abu Sayyaf base in Basilan and trained about 20 members in 1994.
A year later, he gathered about 20 men in Matabungkay, near the capital, Manila, and trained them allegedly to help assassinate the Pope.
Meantime, the brother-in-law of Osama Bin Laden, Mohamad Jamal Khalifa, became a frequent traveler to the Philippines during this time.
Perhaps it was because he had two Filipina wives.
More likely, it was because he had larger goals: authorities believe the Muslim non-governmental organizations he created were front operations for Bin Laden to funnel money to the MILF.
The success of this financial network created by Bin Laden, intelligence officials believe, was the reason Ramzi Yousef chose to operate a cell in the Philippines.
"He came here because of an existing support network and structure," Col. Rodolfo Mendoza tells CNN.
"They can play their games here. Get funds. They can hide under the cloak of Islamic NGO's which have did.
"And with the presence of Mohamad Jamal Khalifa, they can really operate broadly in the Philippines."
That network has been largely shut down in the succeeding years, particularly with the arrest of Ramzi Yousef.
But many in the Philippines believe these organizations continue to operate.
"The old network was dismantled, but we received information that is reliable -- to the effect that it was replaced by another network," Mendoza adds.
Certainly, there is evidence that what Yousef and his cohorts created continued to grow. In recent years, there are signs of increased cooperation among the Muslim fighters in the region.
Investigators in Indonesia believe about 700 fighters were trained by Filipinos in Camp Abubakar, the base of the MILF. Last year, when the Philippine army captured Abubakar, they found Indonesian passports.
Two months later, a bomb targeted, but narrowly missed killing, the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia.
A senior western diplomat tells CNN the detonators used in that explosive as well as the bomb which exploded at the Jakarta Stock Exchange three months later carried the signature of the MILF.
Malaysians have also been arrested in Jakarta over a string of deadly bomb attacks against Christian targets around Indonesia in December and July.
Meanwhile in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian authorities foiled at least one bomb attempt with the arrest of two Indonesians.
"This country network really exists," says Col. Mendoza.
"It is really solid: Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. So I think the investigation and operational systems of these three countries must be improved.
"Increased cooperation must be introduced because of the growing sophistication of this network."