Monday, May 16, 2011

Bin Laden and the Philippines (FilAm Star, May 13, 2011)

The killing of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden is certainly one of the more defining moments in the history of post-Cold War America. The long quest that led up to the killing was marked by endless fits and starts, unceasing struggle, underlying frustration, and painstaking intelligence gathering and analysis that always seemed to come up short in finding where Bin Laden was. But on the evening of May 1, 2011, the entire world was captivated as it listened to US President Barack Obama announce the demise of the most wanted man in the world.

I joined the nationwide chorus in treating Bin Laden’s death as a shining moment for all America to savor. However, it is not my intent here to add to the lengthy inventory of adulatory narratives that have been composed on the recent events in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Instead, what I would like to do here is give an abridged idea of Osama Bin Laden’s association with the Philippines in the context of international terrorism as we have since come to know it. It is not something to be proud of, but it is something important for Filipinos to know.

Bin Laden’s connection to the Philippines has been underrated. I do know of Filipinos who have contemptuously dismissed any significant link between the greatest terrorist of all time and their beloved home country. I have also read professed accounts by other Filipinos—chances are that they were Filipino Muslims, many of whom trained in Bin Laden’s Afghanistan camps during the 1980’s to fight in a holy jihad against the Soviets, and in the 1990’s to foment terrorism for the establishment of an independent Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines—that claim they had seen Bin Laden with their own eyes. Anyhow, there are indeed interesting links between Bin Laden and the Philippines that many Filipinos may not be aware of.

Saudi-born Mohammed Jamal Khalifa is not a household name, but he was Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law and the founder of the Philippine-based Benevolence International Corporation. By the early 1990’s, the corporation had been turned into a front for terrorist financing. Khalifa was also married to a Filipina by the name of Alice Jameelah Yabo. During his marriage to Yabo and his stay in the country, Khalifa was able to funnel a great deal of money to the brutal Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines from Bin Laden and other Middle Eastern sympathizers to his global jihadist cause.

As a fascinating side note, Bin Laden is said to have visited the Philippines in the winter of 1993—this was before he was widely recognized as a terrorist figure—ostensibly as a foreign investor for the welfare of Filipino Muslims. This is according to Yossef Bodansky, the author of “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America”.

Another Bin Laden link involves the aborted 1995 Operation Bojinka terrorist plot, which was intended to destroy up to 12 airliners crossing the Pacific from Asia to the United States. The Bin Laden-financed plot, which was originated in the Philippines by two of his lieutenants, Ramzi Yousef and the architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, only narrowly failed to come to fruition. Had Bojinka succeeded, as many as 5,000 people could have perished.

It was also in 1994 that Bin Laden authorized Yousef to murder US President Bill Clinton during the latter’s visit to Manila. Although Yousef was eager to conduct the operation, his concern over the president’s tight security caused him to think twice about undertaking it (a 2010 book by Ken Gormley, “The Death of American Virtue”, recounts how close Bin Laden actually came to killing Clinton in Manila).

To go back to the Abu Sayyaf and their Bin Laden ties: the group cut a wide path of death and destruction through the island of Mindanao and other parts of the southern Philippines as a result of Bin Laden’s financing and the terrorist training that Abu Sayyaf members received at his camps in Afghanistan. Without doubt, the Filipino Muslim trainees used the deadly skills and knowledge they acquired at the camps to sow bloody chaos in the Philippines.

I have only scratched the surface of Osama Bin Laden’s relationship with the Philippines. There are many other historical details, facts, and contentions that I had to leave out here but that are nonetheless, intriguing and in some cases, revelatory.


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