The world outside
There's a fascinating article in the Weekly Standard which grants a glimpse into the shadow war between state-sponsored terrorists and their pursuers. The accounts, based on documents captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, describe Saddam Hussein's support for the Abu Sayyaf terror group in the Philippines.
Up to this point, those materials have been kept from the American public. Now the proverbial dam has broken. On March 16, the U.S. government posted on the web 9 documents captured in Iraq, as well as 28 al Qaeda documents that had been released in February. Earlier last week, Foreign Affairs magazine published a lengthy article based on a review of 700 Iraqi documents by analysts with the Institute for Defense Analysis and the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Plans for the release of many more documents have been announced. And if the contents of the recently released materials and other documents obtained by The Weekly Standard are any indication, the discussion of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq is about to get more interesting. ...
The documents indicated that Iraqi support for the Abu Sayyaf was handled through an Iraqi Embassy cell consisting of Ambassador Salah Samarmad, Third Secretary Ahmad Mahmud Ghalib , most likely an Iraqi intelligence officer and author of the "security report"; and Iraqi intelligence informers Muhammad al-Zanki aka Abu Ahmad, and Omar Ghazal among others. Their reports record a roller-coaster relationship with the Mindanao-based terrorist organization. The Iraqis supported the Abu Sayyaf up until they kidnapped twenty civilians from a beach resort in Palawan in June 2001, an operation which netted three Americans: Guillermo Sobrero and the couple Tim and Marcia Burnham. Sobrero was subsequently beheaded; Tim Burnham died in the rescue attempt. The Iraqis briefly suspended their support and covered their tracks as the kidnapping became international news but resumed their assistance shortly thereafter. As the Weekly Standard put it: "Why did the Iraqis begin funding Abu Sayyaf, which had long been considered a regional terrorist group concerned mainly with making money? Why did they suspend their support in 2001? And why did the Iraqis resume this relationship and, according to the congressional testimony of one State Department regional specialist, intensify it?" The post-September 11 stages of Saddam's relationship with the Abu Sayyaf are exemplified in a 2002 operation which successfully killed an American soldier and attempted to kill Filipino children in a school playground.
... a young Filipino man rode his Honda motorcycle up a dusty road to a shanty strip mall just outside Camp Enrile Malagutay in Zamboanga City, Philippines. The camp was host to American troops stationed in the south of the country to train with Filipino soldiers fighting terrorists. The man parked his bike and began to examine its gas tank. Seconds later, the tank exploded, sending nails in all directions and killing the rider almost instantly. The blast damaged six nearby stores and ripped the front off of a café that doubled as a karaoke bar. The café was popular with American soldiers. And on this day, October 2, 2002, SFC Mark Wayne Jackson was killed there and a fellow soldier was severely wounded. Eyewitnesses almost immediately identified the bomber as an Abu Sayyaf terrorist.
One week before the attack, Abu Sayyaf leaders had promised a campaign of terror directed at the "enemies of Islam"--Westerners and the non-Muslim Filipino majority. And one week after the attack, Abu Sayyaf attempted to strike again, this time with a bomb placed on the playground of the San Roque Elementary School. It did not detonate. Authorities recovered the cell phone that was to have set it off and analyzed incoming and outgoing calls.
As they might have expected, they discovered several calls to and from Abu Sayyaf leaders. But another call got their attention. Seventeen hours after the attack that took the life of SFC Jackson, the cell phone was used to place a call to the second secretary of the Iraqi embassy in Manila, Hisham Hussein. It was not Hussein's only contact with Abu Sayyaf. "He was surveilled, and we found out he was in contact with Abu Sayyaf and also pro-Iraqi demonstrators," says a Philippine government source, who continued, "[Philippine intelligence] was able to monitor their cell phone calls. [Abu Sayyaf leaders] called him right after the bombing. They were always talking."
An analysis of Iraqi embassy phone records by Philippine authorities showed that Hussein had been in regular contact with Abu Sayyaf leaders both before and after the attack that killed SFC Jackson. Andrea Domingo, immigration commissioner for the Philippines, said Hussein ran an "established network" of terrorists in the country. Hussein had also met with members of the New People's Army, a Communist opposition group on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups, in his office at the embassy. According to a Philippine government official, the Philippine National Police uncovered documents in a New People's Army compound that indicate the Iraqi embassy had provided funding for the group. ...
Interestingly, an Abu Sayyaf leader named Hamsiraji Sali at least twice publicly boasted that his group received funding from Iraq. For instance, on March 2, 2003, he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the Iraqi regime had provided the terrorist group with 1million pesos--about $20,000--each year since 2000.
Equally interesting are revelations that the Iraqi intelligence cell and their contacts feared something called "The Office", which was apparently a counter-terrorist cell tasked with hunting them down. One conversation with an Iraqi informer went this way:
As the conversation begins, Abu Ahmad tells his embassy contact that he doesn't know where Omar Ghazal is and would have told the embassy if he did. He then tells the embassy contact that when he called Omar Ghazal's aunt to check on his whereabouts, she used a word in Tagalog--walana--which means "not here." But Abu Ahmad says its connotations are not good. "That word is used when you target one of the personnel who are assigned to complete everything (full mission). Then they announce that he is traveling and so on, and that's what I'm afraid of." The Iraqi embassy contact asks him to elaborate. "I have been exposed to that same phrase before, when I asked about an individual, and later on I found out that he was physically eliminated and no one knows anything about him."
The embassy official assures Abu Ahmad that Iraqi intelligence has also lost track of Ghazal, and became alarmed when he abruptly stopped attending soccer practice at a local college. Abu Ahmad fears the worst. "I'm afraid they might have killed him and I'm very worried about him," he says, according to the report. "The method that those people use is terrible and that's why I refuse to work with them."
The Iraqi embassy official interrupts Abu Ahmad. "Who are they? I would like to know who they are."
"Didn't I tell you before who they are?"
"The office group," says Abu Ahmad.
"Which office?" asks his Iraqi embassy handler.
"A long time ago the American FBI opened up an office in the Philippines, under American supervision and that there are Philippine Intelligence groups that work there. The goal of the office is to fight international terrorism (in the Philippines of course) and they have employees from various nationalities that speak of peace and international terrorism and how important it is to put an end to terrorism. The office also has other espionage affairs involving Arab citizens to work with them in order to provide them with information on the Arabs who are living in the Philippines and also for other spying purposes."
Abu Ahmad had plans to strike back at America in his own way.
Abu Ahmad tells his Iraqi embassy contact, Ghalib, that "the office" was trying to recruit an Arab to monitor Arab citizens in the Philippines. The Iraqi embassy contact suggests that Abu Ahmad volunteer for the job. Abu Ahmad says he had other plans. "I am leaving after I finish selling my house and properties and will move to Peshawar [Pakistan]. There I will be supplied with materials, weapons, explosives, and get married and then move to America. Do you know that there are more than one thousand Iraqi extremists who perform heroism jobs?" The speaker presumably means martyrdom operations.
There's more in the Weekly Standard article about how Iraqi intelligence had long been in contact with members of the Saudi "opposition" -- including a certain Osama Bin Laden. But that's another story.
The normal Tagalog for "he is not at home" is something along the lines of "umalis siya". However, the words "wala na", spoken in hollow tones with pregnant pauses before and after the phrase can be translated as "he is no more". Whether or not Omar Ghazal is still in the land of the living, or as Abu Ahmad believes, suffered a fate worse than death at the hands of the Office is something left unsettled. But then this is not a glimpse into a gentle world. In this universe people blow up motorcycle bombs in front of cheap cafes where dirt-poor people spend a few American cents drinking beer and plant explosive devices in school playgrounds where kids line up for a pitiful snack of candied banana on a stick. All before the invasion of Iraq.