To Catch a Terrorist

Mark Bowden, author of "Jihadists in Paradise," on hunting down the story of Abu Sabaya.

How did the decision of the CIA not to share certain information with marine intelligence play into this? Was this a good decision? Should we have taken more direct steps to assist the Philippine forces?

I think the division of opinion in Washington over how to proceed is an illustration of the complexity of this problem. The fact that one agency is willing to do something and the other is not says to me that we don’t have a clear enough sense of policy and direction to dictate a uniform response. In the case of Abu Sabaya, in my opinion the CIA should have been able to share lethal information [that could lead to a target’s death] as it pertained to the hostage takers, the kidnappers themselves. I don’t see the logic of the CIA’s decision not to share that kind of information, and I think it proceeded mostly from a bureaucratic tendency to protect the agency’s methods.

This is foolish. The idea that we were somehow going to be giving our capabilities away to the Philippine marines and that this would somehow compromise us doesn’t make any sense at all. A scene in the story that got cut, unfortunately, because of length described the U.S. response when Colonel Sabban asked the CIA to provide him with a satellite phone. They originally provided him with a government-issue suitcase-size phone. And he said, “What’s this?” All he wanted was the kind of phone you can buy at Circuit City, which is ten times more sophisticated and more effective and can fit in your pocket. He was mortified that this was the best the United States had to offer. So this notion —particularly when you’re working in Southeast Asia —that the United States is so far advanced technologically that we have capabilities that no one else knows about —is just ludicrous. In fact, they’re ahead of us in most cases. They don’t have the means to actually put a satellite into orbit and employ global positioning, but they certainly are aware of the capabilities of global positioning. I think the CIA’s decision not to share this information didn’t make any sense at all.

Did some of the disagreement or uncertainties in Washington have to do with the U.S.’s attitude toward the Abu Sayyaf? Was the decision to pursue the group mainly symbolic—We have no tolerance for terrorists—or were they really perceived as a large-scale threat?

I think they were perceived as a large threat after 9/11. In general, we as a country have probably overestimated the level of threat posed by Islamists because 9/11 was such a spectacular success and so far beyond even the expectations of the people who did it. It led to speculation that their capability was even greater than that. In fact, 9/11 was far off the scale of what they’re actually capable of doing. We are, in my opinion, understandably overreacting. The thugs wandering around Basilan in the Southern Philippines were basically more like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight than a serious threat to the civilized world. But they’re a very ugly, terrible people, and we’re right to go after them. I think that the potential in the present world climate for them to become a more serious threat is definitely there, which is why I favor the low-key approach that we see in the story. This approach isn’t going after a flea with a sledge hammer. It’s using power in the way that a judo master uses it—a minimum application of force to accomplish the purpose you want.

One thing I noticed when reading the piece was that the excerpts from Tilao’s radio messages seem fairly devoid of any actual religious fervor or of any pointed political message. Do you think that Abu Sayyaf has an authentic ideological cause or any real grievances?

Yes, I do think that there are legitimate political differences and concern about levels of funding. I didn’t explore this heavily, but clearly the movement in the Southern Philippines would not have lasted for generations and gone through all these permutations if there were not some legitimate underlying political grievances. But the religious aspect is part of what I consider to be—the word “fad” doesn’t seem serious enough—a phase or trend of the global jihad idea, which I don’t personally believe will last very long. Terrorism will be with us forever, but the global jihad is a passing phenomenon.

Could you talk a little bit more about your understanding of the emergence of the Abu Sayyaf? How did what seemed to be primarily a secular, socialist cause, became a religiously motivated jihad? To what extent was the Abu Sayyaf Group connected to a broader militant Islamic cause?

They aspired to join the global jihad, which was a concept that Osama bin Laden has successfully sold to portions of the world. The truth of it is that there is no global al-Qaeda. There is no global organization plotting the destruction of Western society. What you have is what we see in the Philippines: a small, supposedly Islamist movement that saw an opportunity to hitch its star to the wagon.

You note that Tilao wanted Martin Burnham to identify his kidnappers as “the Osama bin Laden group.”

Bin Laden has been very, very successful in creating an umbrella, a rhetorical umbrella, for a lot of disparate groups, all of them Islamist. They believe they are part of something much bigger than their own local struggle. And that’s a major accomplishment. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that because they wish to be called the Osama bin Laden group they’re somehow taking orders from Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri or anybody else. Sabaya was a Filipino first and last. He had a little bit of experience in the Middle East and saw an opportunity to make himself appear to be more important than he really was.

As far as you know did al-Qaeda ever acknowledge the Abu Sayyaf?            

I don’t know. I think they have. If not them then possibly Jemaah Islamiya, a very dangerous group in Southeast Asia that is responsible for bombings in Bali. So to that extent there is a loose linkage, but it’s much more of a franchise than a branch.

I can see the value of mutually acknowledging each other without actually sending orders back and forth or coordinating.

I don’t believe that Tilao or Khaddafy Janjalani ever met with Khalid Sheik Mohammed or any of the other organizational leaders of al-Qadea, but they represented an aspiring faction in Southeast Asia. And given the presence of a very large, restive Islamist community in the Southern Philippines, it had the potential to become a serious threat to the Philippines. That alone made the country very concerned. Our concern joined with theirs after 9/11 when we made it our business to target these small groups wherever we found them.

The Abu Sayyaf seems to have lost its prominence. I recently read that another member of the Abu Sayyaf had been killed.

Yes, someone named Abu Solaiman, who became a spokesman for the group when Tilao was killed. He was apparently involved with the group when they kidnapped the Burnhams. He was killed; Khadaffy Janjalani is also believed to have been killed. Movements like these that adopt violent, militant Islam as their banner are like the Ebola virus. They are terribly frightening because they’re so vicious. But they can’t be effective in the long run because they burn themselves out. The vast majority of people cannot stomach that kind of extremism or that kind of violence. And so they become holy terrors for a brief period of time and then they burn themselves out. They’re either killed or they wander off and try to start living a normal life.

You give the example of Alvin Siglos who might have been the ideal ally but instead became an agent for the Philippine marines.

As I said in the piece, the idea of political violence sounds good until it’s someone you love who gets killed. And then it’s not an abstract idea any more. Then it’s something very real and you begin to realize how horrific the notion of killing someone for a political reason is. It can only stay abstract as long as it doesn’t touch you. In a small community like those islands in the Philippines, it didn’t take long before it touched Alvin Siglos personally.

Do you know if the U.S. is still involved in supporting Philippine efforts to take out Abu Sayyaf members?            

Yes. In fact, when I visited Jolo, the little island where General Sabban is stationed, a fairly significant detachment of U.S. Special Forces was there. They weren’t there just to give community pep talks. One of the smart things that our military is doing, and Bob Kaplan has written about this, is we are establishing a presence, a very small presence, of special operators and special forces, throughout the globe —and in some cases in very obscure places because we have an interest in what’s going on there. I think that’s a very low-key but effective way of dealing with these small cells of Islamist terrorists who pop up throughout the world.

Do you think that the Philippines is a good example of what the United States can expect in other parts of the world in terms of the level of cooperation and the talent and capabilities of the local intelligence forces?

Yes, in many places it is a model because these Islamist cells often pose even more of a threat to the local authorities than they do to the United States’ interests or to the world, so it behooves us to work with local authorities even when—and this is not true of the Philippines—even in places where we don’t necessarily have friendly relationships, or where we don’t necessarily even approve of the government. In a war you take your allies where you find them. So within limits I think it may be necessary for us to cooperate with unsavory elements to accomplish a larger goal.

I do think it’s a model for how to proceed. And I think that it’s not something the United States has been very good at throughout our history. We’re a very cocky and very arrogant country militarily. We believe that we have better soldiers and better equipment and better tactics, and our tendency is to ask the locals to stay out of the way. Whereas I think in this war, the smart thing to do is to take a back seat, to offer to help and give up a little control over the operation, but accomplish more by doing so.

Would military exercises be the logical first step if we were working with a country or group that shared a less similar ideology?

I don’t think so. I don’t think they’re necessary. And I don’t think that it was even necessary in the Philippines. The American presence in Southeast Asia and those military exercises serve a larger military purpose than going after al-Qaeda. The presence doesn’t have to be that visible—in fact, in some cases it’s better if it’s less visible.

Do you think other areas would be receptive to U.S. support?

They would be if it served their interest. And in many cases, as I said, the existing authorities are more threatened by these little groups than is the United States. So they would, if approached correctly, welcome American assistance to help find these people.

I understand you ran into Atlantic national correspondent Robert Kaplan in the Philippines while you were reporting this piece.

I should start by noting that when this happened there were only five national correspondents for the Atlantic. It’s hardly a major media outlet covering the world. I traveled initially to Manila and then took a plane down to Zamboanga City and made arrangements to get on a small plane to fly to Jolo, which is one of the more obscure places in the world.

I called ahead just to tell Colonel Sabban that I was arriving, and he said, “Oh, do you know Bob Kaplan?” And I said “Yeah,” and he said, “He’s here right now.” And I thought what are the chances of two of us being in Jolo at the same time. We had Southeast Asia covered! Bob was actually leaving Jolo the day that I arrived, and I didn’t see him there, but eventually we hooked up in Zamboanga City and had a nice night out on the town.

We seem to have the area covered!

TheAtlanticMonthly is heavily into Southeast Asia.

Are there other parts of the world you’re interested in exploring, or other projects for the Atlantic that you’re working on?

I’m working on one story right now that happened in Iraq. And I’ve also potentially got in the works a series of stories about efforts to extract the last drops of oil from the planet. There are huge pipelines and underwater drilling platforms and very ambitious engineering projects going on in far flung places around the globe. In keeping with my general policy of being fascinated by anywhere I’ve never been, I’m always looking for an excuse to go someplace new.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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