MANILA, Philippines - Philippine police discovered a black flag in an Abu Sayyaf camp in Zamboanga City last week, the same black flag that has appeared in violent Muslim protests around the world.
The black flag taps into a secret motivation of al-Qaeda: a “narrative that convinces them that they’re part of a divine plan, ” according to former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Ali Soufan in his book "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda."
Al-Qaeda believes its black banners herald the apocalypse that would bring about the triumph of Islam.
It’s based on what they believe is a hadith or a saying of the prophet Muhammad: “If you see the black banners coming from Khurusan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them, and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.” Khurusan is a name for a historical region covering northeastern and eastern Iran and parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.
This is where al-Qaeda believes the Islamic version of Armaggedon will emerge. Osama bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the United States ends with the dateline, “Friday, August 23, 1996, in the Hindu Kush, Khurusan, Afghanistan.”
Symbol of Victory
After a mob stormed the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and killed 4 Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, they raised the black flag. US officials named an al-Qaeda-linked group which they said took advantage of an anti-Islam film protest to launch an attack.
In a little more than a week, protests spread to more than 20 countries with more than 30 people killed. Black flags were raised by angry mobs in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has said the attack in Libya was to avenge the June killing of its number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and urged Muslims to kill US diplomats in Muslim countries.
Last Thursday, September 20, authorities in the Philippines stormed an Abu Sayyaf training camp in Zamboanga City and freed Chinese hostage, Yuan-Kai Lin.
During the 20-minute battle, police forces said they wounded Abu Sayyaf leader Khair Mundos, who carries a US$500,000 reward from the US Department of Justice. Mundos managed to escape however.
Mundos was captured in 2004 and confessed he arranged funds for terrorist attacks in Mindanao. Working with his brothers, they funneled money from Saudi Arabia to the Abu Sayyaf, which has had a historical link to al-Qaeda.
As early as 1988, al-Qaeda's financial network in the Philippines was established by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, and al-Qaeda leaders, including the architect of the 9/11 attacks, have trained members of the Abu Sayyaf.
Mundos escaped from a provincial prison in 2007 and headed the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan. During last week's raid, intelligence sources tell Rappler they found the black flag as well as training manuals from Jemaah Islamiyah, once al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia, inside the camp.
This is not the first time the black flag surfaced in the Philippines.
On Nov 6, 2011, a masked Filipino jihadist identified as Commander Abu Jihad Khalil al-Rahman al-Luzoni uploaded a video on YouTube exhorting Muslims around the world to support the jihad in the Philippines. He gave his Arabic message in front of al-Qaeda’s black flag.
Authorities have since identified him as Khalil Pareja, the leader of the Rajah Solaiman Movement or RSM, a group which worked with Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf on the Superferry bombing in 2004 and the Valentine's Day bombings in 2005. Using YouTube and Facebook, Pareja took the jihad online and began to work on Facebook with alleged members of al-Shabaab in Somalia and AQAP in Yemen. According to classified documents obtained by Rappler, soon after Pareja was arrested early this year, he told authorities he planned to join the jihad in Yemen, along with other Filipinos. His Facebook page used the black flag.
Other websites and video messages around the world, including the Middle East, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen prominently display the black flag. In the Philippines, authorities are monitoring a website called Islamic Emirate of the Philippines: The Black Flag Movement.
One post titled “The True Islamic Hero,” shows a picture of former AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki as well as other al-Qaeda operatives with Arabic titles and translations. It includes links to other extremist websites, including those run by al-Qaeda and its proxies. The site includes news updates as well as photographs of a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front led by Ameril Umra Kato, who sheltered leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah or JI.
While all public measuring systems show activity on the site isn’t alarming, it provides a gateway for radicals: there’s a “Contact us” portion, an online poll and a donation portal. Although it’s unclear whether there’s any real world link to al-Qaeda, it’s clearly inspired by al-Qaeda lore and subculture.
In August, authorities in the Philippines recovered video explaining the black flag inside the laptop of a Malaysian jihadist during an attack targeting the two most wanted Southeast Asian terrorists, JI leaders Marwan and Muawiyah – the targets of the first US smart bomb attack in the Philippines last February in Jolo. Both escaped and fled to central Mindanao.
The Malaysian who owned the laptop with the black flag video arrived in the Philippines in April 2012 and found his way to the central Mindanao camp of Marwan and Muawiyah. Both escaped again.
Among the weapons and rocket launchers recovered by authorities, they also found a hardcover book written in English. Its title is "Islami Emirate Afghanistan." Below that was the logo of the Islamic Emirate of the Philippines.
The centralized command structures of both al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah collapsed in the decade after 9/11, but old networks and cells remain continuing to spread its virulent ideology. Now smaller, more ad hoc and less professional cells carry out attacks without central coordination. The challenge for authorities is how to contain a social movement that simmers just beneath the surface. - Rappler.com
(Editor's note: This is the second part of a Rappler series and includes excerpts of Maria Ressa’s upcoming book, "10 Days, 10 Years: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK." Set to be published in October, it includes research done for the International Center for Political Violence & Terrorism Research in Singapore and the Naval Postgraduate School’s CORE Lab in the US.)
Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won countless awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.