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Special Edition: Terrorism in the Philippines

Aired February 23, 2002 - 22:00:00   ET


MARIA RESSA, HOST: Hundreds of U.S. troops in the Philippines, the single largest deployment since Afghanistan, here to help the Philippine military finish a mission which began months before September 11th.

But troops could be chasing the wrong group according to hundreds of top secret documents obtained by CNN.

All this while residents -- Muslims and Christians -- say all they want is to live in peace.

Hello from Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines. I'm Maria Ressa. Welcome to this week's special edition of "INSIDE ASIA."

Joint military operations between U.S. and Filipino troops have begun. Troops are here. They will use live bullets, hit live targets -- training while actual military operations are taking place in a particularly volatile part of the country.

That is causing controversy.


RESSA (voice-over): They are here -- the first of 160 U.S. Special Forces on the island of Basilan. Five hundred more U.S. troops are here to support them in a six-month joint training exercise.

The goal -- to help the Philippine military finish a mission which began months before September 11th -- to wipe out the al Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf and rescue their last three hostages, Americans Martin and Gracia Burnham, and Filipina Deborah Yap.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Number (ph) one (ph)!

RESSA: But not everyone wants them here in America's only former colony, host to the largest U.S. bases in the region for half a century.

That ended in 1992 when a wave of nationalism kicked out the bases.

But these are new times, says Philippine President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo, and allies must help each other in the war against terror.

GLORIA MACAPAGAL-ARROYO, PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT: We've been fighting terrorism in southwestern Philippines for a long time now.

And when September 11th happened, and the responses of September 11 happened, then, in fact, I felt that now we have allies.

RESSA: Informal surveys show up to 84 percent of Filipinos want the equipment and aid the U.S. military will bring.

For the U.S., this is the next phase of its war on terror, the single largest deployment of U.S. troops since Afghanistan.

These outfits are the best of the best, crack commando units, unable to speak openly to their families and friends about exactly where they are or what they're doing.

This serviceman told his wife he was leaving. Another's girlfriend contacted CNN to find out if her boyfriend was the man she saw on her TV screen.

Major Larry Redmond (ph) missed his first wedding anniversary, and will probably miss the birth of his first child. They know they have to be diplomats.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we expect to be walking into an area with our friends where we can try to help them out as much as possible.

RESSA: Most have trained here before in past exercises, and many can speak the native language, Tagalog. In whatever language, they are on message.


INTERPRETER: Our mission here is to help the Philippine soldiers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... train, advise and assist ...

INTERPRETER: Train, advise and assist ...


INTERPRETER: In their operations on Basilan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... terroristic activities (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Basilan.

RESSA: Train, advise and assist. That is all they can do, because it's against the Philippine constitution for any American soldier to go into actual combat.

But they are armed and can fire back in self-defense.

This is what they're walking into -- a guerilla war in foliage so thick you can't see three feet in front of you.

The soldiers here see men with guns, they fire. Otherwise, they run the risk of being ambushed.

Aside from the Abu Sayyaf, there are also rebels from the largest Muslim separatist group, the MILF, and renegade members of the MNLF, which staged a rebellion last year.

Add to that mercenaries, criminals and vigilantes, and you can see why it's hard to tell friend from foe.

Here, Filipino Marines thought they attacked the Abu Sayyaf. The group turned out to be civilian volunteers armed by the military.

"We thought the Abu Sayyaf was firing at us," says this volunteer from the military hospital. "We just ran."

Twenty-six-year-old Monchin Constancio (ph) was killed in friendly fire.

His mother believed soldiers deliberately targeted her son, she says, so they can get promotions. It's a charge the military denies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I can't accept what they've done. We're going to hunt them down, kill them all. All of them killed my son.

RESSA: That cycle of violence has spiraled out of control on Basilan, turning some civilians against the military, helping create more supporters for the Abu Sayyaf.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It adds to our difficulty, because the civilians do not help us.

And they can convert to become civilians, to become MNLF. In fact, they are Abu Sayyaf.

RESSA: But the Abu Sayyaf is particularly brutal. Last year, the group beheaded 14 people including one American. Most of those beheaded came from this Catholic community.

Beneath the surface of life here there is deep sorrow. You walk down the road and it's hard to find someone without a tragic tale to tell.

In one home a woman picks up the picture of her grandson, 26-year-old Elmer Natelarai (ph).

RESSA: His aging parents describe unspeakable violence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They brought them to the river. Then they started beheading them. Every five meters, one by one, they cut off their heads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We did nothing wrong. They pulled off his teeth, cut off his ears. We were lucky because we were able to find his head. They threw the rest of the body parts into the river.

RESSA: Next door, Glenda Esteban (ph) was kidnapped and raped by the Abu Sayyaf. Her two brothers and uncle were beheaded. She says she's glad American troops are coming in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I want them to come, because the Philippine military could not rid of the Abu Sayyaf.

RESSA: It's not for lack of trying, say Filipino soldiers on the front lines. They blame antiquated equipment, lack of helicopters and trucks, lack of intelligence and support.

American troops may be walking into more than they bargained for. When asked how they can tell friend from foe, they had similar answers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, again, we have our counterparts with us, and they know the people better than we do, and we will learn from them and be able to identify people maybe (UNINTELLIGIBLE), or people who have a legitimate right to carry a gun.


RESSA: It's not that easy on Basilan.

Choppers like this, ferry troops back and forth from the island of Basilan.

There's another danger for the U.S. troops there. Their very presence could shift the nature of conflict on the island, making them the primary targets of the many armed groups there.

When we return, we'll speak with the men who command these troops, Brigadier-General Donald Wurster from the Americans, Colonel Frank Gudani for the Filipinos.

We'll be right back.


RESSA: Welcome back to this special edition of "INSIDE ASIA."

The presence of U.S. troops in this particularly volatile area brings up some tricky questions for the men in command and the soldiers on the ground who have to make it work.

Recently I spoke with Brigadier-General Donald Wurster from the Americans. His Filipino counterpart, Brigadier-General Emmanuel Teodosio (ph), was not available. Speaking for him, his deputy, Colonel Frank Gudani.


RESSA: The statements from Washington and from Manila, starting January going until now, seem to show different visions in what was originally intended here.

How are the two militaries putting this together on the ground?

COLONEL FRANK GUDANI, PHILIPPINE MILITARY SPOKESMAN: We have made it very clear our -- the mission of the -- our U.S. friends will be to observe, to assist and to train us on our weak points and to enforce our strength.

I think the only difference that they are mentioning is in terms of legalities, you know. The terms, the semantics, the use of the English words, it has to be acceptable to the U.S. laws and here also.

And there are some constraints on legal terms.

BRIGADIER-GENERAL DONALD WURSTER, U.S. MILITARY SPOKESMAN: There's no question that President Bush and President Arroyo had a common vision of American assistance to assist them to defeat terrorism in the southern Philippines.

And that is what we are here to do.

My job is to bring to them the things that they need that support their president's vision and our president's command.

RESSA: How have your men on the Philippine military, how have they been affected by the political controversy these exercises have stirred?

GUDANI: Well, our troops are, I believe, you know, on the professional enlisting of our troops may be as professional as our U.S. friends, and like good soldiers, you know, they will only obey what is told to us by higher headquarters.

RESSA: General, when they walked in, how did the American soldiers react to the political controversy your presence has caused?

WURSTER: I believe that all professional soldiers recognize that they are an instrument of national policy. And there are political agendas and more political realities that we recognize, that are a part of employment of our forces.

So, I don't believe that the soldiers have any difficulty with it.

RESSA: Has your planning been affected by any of the domestic controversy here?

GUDANI: Not at all. Not at all, Maria.

Operations continue. And I think we are -- we -- the end state of this is for the field, and armed forces will be benefited by what our U.S. friends are doing.

RESSA: American soldiers walking into this could shift some of the nature of the conflict in the Philippines. For example, the MP (ph) -- the Communist rebels now say they'll target American soldiers.

Some of the MILF in Basilan also say -- are you concerned, Colonel Gudani, about the American soldiers perhaps becoming primary targets?

GUDANI: Typical Filipino mentality, you know. We don't want our visitors to be, you know, in a dangerous situation.

But I don't think we have to be overprotective of the American friends, you know. You know, they -- you know, we know their might, you know. We know who they are.

And I think the MILF, the other lawless elements are committing a big mistake if they do what they are saying, that they are going to harm our friends.

RESSA: I'm going to ask you about the command responsibilities of both military -- both militaries, where their sovereign rights.

Who is going to be in command when they go into combat areas?

WURSTER: General Cimatu, the commander of Southern Command, has an established command line that goes through JTF command to his task groups, down to his battalion levels.

And he is the commander of that force, and those commanders are executing his tasks in the prosecution of their mission to defeat terrorism.

The Americans that are here under my command are assigned tasks and given orders by me to support, at each level of command, General Cimatu's desires.

It's as simple as that. They work for me. His soldiers work for him. My soldiers are under orders to do the things and support the commander of South Command in a way so will achieve victory.

RESSA: How much lateral leeway does each individual commander have?

WURSTER: If an American soldier sees a pop-up threat, he will defend himself. And the Philippine soldier next to him will do the same.

And that is how -- that is exactly the types of arrangements that are most appropriate on the battlefield where we don't talk about the wrangling of the wording.

RESSA: For the Philippine military it's difficult to tell friend from foe. The Abu Sayyaf change clothes. They're MILF one second. They're a villager the next second.

What are going to be your instructions to those soldiers who are going to be meeting these people? I mean, meeting people who -- it may be an enemy that is going to be very difficult to pinpoint.

WURSTER: That's why they're with their Philippine counterparts.

And there will never be an American walking up to a guy that doesn't have a Filipino there as here, in the media.

We do not want there to be the wrong impression at all about what we're doing.

RESSA: That was Brigadier-General Donald Wurster for the Americans, Colonel Frank Gudani for the Filipinos.

When we return, we'll tell you about hundreds of top secret documents filed six years ago with information which may have prevented September 11th.


RESSA: Welcome back.

Could troops be chasing the wrong group?

Last week I was able to get hundreds of top secret documents which showed Osama bin Laden's main contact in the Philippines is not the Abu Sayyaf, but the MILF.

Here's another twist. A foiled terrorist plot six years ago may have served as the blueprint for the September 11 attacks.

No one believes that more than the policewoman who made the first arrest six years ago.


RESSA (voice-over): Sixty-two-year-old Aida Fariscal spent more than a quarter century in the Philippine police force. She's suspicious of strangers asking questions, and told me, before she did an interview, she wanted to make sure I was not a member of al Qaeda.

She has reasons to be afraid. In 1995, the middle of the night, one of her officers was called to investigate an apartment fire here.

He came back to the station saying it was caused by Pakistanis playing with firecrackers.

AIDA FARISCAL, FORMER POLICE SUPERINTENDENT (through translator): I didn't believe that. I told him to wait. I got dressed, I said we're going to find a bomb and a terrorist.

RESSA: She did. That arrest led to one of the major breakthroughs in counter-terrorism investigations today.

In the end, three men would be convicted in the U.S.: Ramzi Yousef, considered the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Wali Khan Amin Shah, a financier, a business partner then of the man who still is believed to run al Qaeda in Southeast Asia today; and Abdul Hakim Murad, trained as a commercial pilot in the U.S.

Under questioning, he admitted he was recruited for what was supposed to be a suicide mission.

ABDUL HAKIM MURAD: Thus we start, how he confined it to me, the proposal of Mr. Yousef to use or hijack commercial planes and dive it into the Langley, Virginia structures -- the CIA headquarters -- and the Pentagon.

RESSA: Among other proposed targets, the World Trade Center. Fariscal says six years later she was shocked when she saw the television on September 11.

FARISCAL (through translator): They should have prevented it, because the plan then, and what was going to happen in the future is there in the disks.

RESSA: Four disks and a laptop computer belonging to Ramzi Yousef were found in that apartment detailing the complex network of an organization now linked to al Qaeda.

In hundreds of classified documents obtained by CNN, the name Konsi Jaya (ph) appears. It's Wali Khan's Malaysian company, which funded Yousef's plots.

One of its directors was Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali. He is an Indonesian cleric wanted today by Malaysian and Singaporean authorities who suspect he is al Qaeda's main operator in the region.

Intelligence officials say he may have helped plan September 11, videotaped meeting with two of the hijackers in Malaysia in January 2000 -- Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

Later that year, Hambali's aide met with Zacarias Moussaoui, now in custody facing charges in the U.S.

That's not all. Authorities say Hambali may also have been behind a series of bombings in Southeast Asia in 2000 -- outside the Philippine ambassador's house in Indonesia, a bombing two months later at the Jakarta stock exchange, a foiled attempt in Malaysia, another bombing at this light-rail transit station in Manila.

Intelligence officials in the region now suspect these were practice runs for al Qaeda's larger plans in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Southeast Asia, Philippines provides the trainers and the training base, while the leadership is based in Malaysia.

RESSA: The training base was Camp Abubakar, the stronghold of the MILF, the Moral Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines' largest separatist group.

There, the MILF trained fighters from the region and beyond.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are also few foreign nationals like -- for instance Algerians, Egyptians and Pakistanis who were trained by Filipinos inside Abubakar.

RESSA: The links began to unwind with the January arrest in Manila of Indonesian Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi. Filipino officials say al-Ghozi is a demolitions and explosives expert for the MILF.

He told police money was funneled through him to finance this December 2000 bombing in Manila. His cell phone number was identified by authorities after he called the newspaper and the police station to claim responsibility.

Al-Ghozi's phone records show he called Malaysia often in the days before the bombing, speaking to suspected al Qaeda leaders arrested recently in Singapore and Malaysia, and to the main al Qaeda operator, Hambali.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had the report that Fathur, who we caught recently, met Hambali before the December 2000 attacks here, also ...

RESSA: His confession led to the arrests of three more men -- one an MILF commander. And the recovery of one ton of explosives which police say were slated for targets in Southeast Asia.

Terrorisms links to the MILF is not unknown to Philippine authorities. Dated 1994, this top secret report obtained by CNN methodically outlines links between the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF to international terrorist groups.

Its introduction says, this package for overseas support initiative is coordinated by a Saudi citizen who has close ties with a prominent financier based in Khartoum, the Sudan.

That man is Osama bin Laden, and the man who funneled money to the Philippines is his brother-in-law, Saudi citizen, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, who lived here from about 1987 to 1993.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were able to establish that all alone, bin Laden has been directly supporting the Abu Sayyaf through Khalifa, his brother-in-law.

RESSA: His business is in charities were charted by intelligence officials, outlined in this report.

Its conclusion -- the main recipient of al Qaeda funding in the Philippines was the MILF.

Fariscal, now retired from the police force, says the growth of this network could have been prevented if authorities in the Philippines, the FBI and CIA followed through on the information she discovered in 1995.

All that, she said, 200 pages of top secret documents were ignored.

FARISCAL (through translator): How were those papers lost? Maybe in the change of administration. Maybe vested interests. If they hide it, they can be heroes. They didn't pay attention. That's why September 11th happened.


RESSA: That ends our special edition of INSIDE ASIA.

From Zamboanga City in the southern Philippines, I'm Maria Ressa. Thank you for joining us.

We leave you now with some of what we've seen and heard over the past month.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. troops will not participate in combat operations. But they'll have the right for self-defense.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're up there to train, advise and assist the Filipino ...






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