10 Years After 9/11: Lessons from the Philippines

The catastrophic attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ripped off a veneer and exposed what was growing beneath the surface: al Qaeda’s successful efforts to tap Muslim grievances around the world and infect disparate, home-grown groups with its global jihad. Al Qaeda has helped groups like Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia target the “Near Enemy” – their governments, and the “Far Enemy” – the United States.

Ten years after the event, it appears that 9/11 was the peak of al Qaeda’s strength, when it reached from its caves in Afghanistan to destroy symbols of modernity, forcing governments around the world to change outdated paradigms of Cold War defense structures. Bin Laden’s victory was short-lived: 9/11 was a strategic error for his forces because now they were exposed and vulnerable. In the next decade, they would never be that strong again.

Since 9/11, there has been no other al Qaeda attack on US soil or any other al Qaeda attack of a similar magnitude anywhere. Osama bin Laden is dead, and most of al-Qaeda’s ‘legacy leaders’ have been killed and replaced. More than 40 plots have been foiled in the last decade, according to the Heritage Foundation. Some officials have declared all of this a “victory,” but lessons from the Philippines show that the next defeat can come from the jaws of “victory.”

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“The Power in Your Hands”

Keynote speech delivered during the Tatt Awards night on Aug. 26, 2011, at the Peninsula Hotel in Manila, Philippines. I was part of a panel of judges called the Tatt Council, which selected the winners. This was first posted on Move.PH. Visit and like the Facebook page to see the evolution of this social media experiment.

Peninsula Hotel, Manila, Philippines, Aug. 26, 2011

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight about the big ideas that have brought us all together. The Internet and new media technology is changing the way we think, changing and playing with the plasticity of our brains, actually rewiring our synapses – and, consequently, changing the way we act. It’s changing power structures around the world – I’ll give you both positive and negative examples. And finally, as many of you here already know, it is giving you power the generation before us never had. We live through it every day and take it for granted, but make no mistake. The changes are cataclysmic.

I’ll begin with you. The first change is physiological. How many of you have Facebook accounts, Twitter? How much time do you spend on social media? Are you addicted? Chances are to some degree, you are. Your dopamine levels, the chemical that causes addiction, increases when you’re using twitter or facebook. It’s proven in FMRI imaging studies. Remember, our emotions are really just chemical reactions and social media is tweaking your emotions by changing the chemical levels in your brain. Because your emotions are heightened, your expectations and the way you behave shifts. I first studied this because I wanted to know how people consumed news. Academics complain about tabloid journalism, but the reality is that it’s now become the norm globally. That’s largely because that’s the way people in general want to get their news.

Why? Because the technology we use has kept us on a perpetual emotional high. This is not just social media but all the interruptions in the modern day world – flooding our brains with dopamine – helping condition us to like “sensationalism” over “objectivity.”

Anyway, the way you think is different. The reason I’m writing a book now is because I wanted to find out how the Internet has affected my brain. And BOY, it has. As a reporter, you tend to live on adrenalin, but this constant dopamine fix of social media has a downside. We are creating a generation that can’t focus, is bad at multi-tasking and lacks concentration. The upside is we’re more engaged. We’re more social. We can decide – with minimal costs – to act TOGETHER. A recent study came out that showed that students on Facebook don’t do as well in school but they’re more developed socially.

So here you are – being changed by the media you consume. While one person can spark or tip towards meaningful change, one person can’t do much on his or her own. You need to harness a group. And for much of human history, scientists realized that the most number of people we could hold together socially or for any meaningful endeavor is 150. It’s called Dunbar’s number. Not coincidentally, that’s the average number of friends people have on Facebook. It requires effort and money to get beyond that number.

For most of human history, there only existed two ways we can harness human capabilities. You either create a company or a bureaucracy – which requires a lot of capital, money to hire, create a hierarchy and communicate internally so you can get the group to achieve a shared purpose. It’s the principle behind companies and governments.

The second way is to create markets, which also requires institutions to set rules, maintain and regulate. That also costs money.

The third way happened less than a decade ago. We now have the power to harness networks – at almost no cost. Let me give you two concrete examples of this: Wikipedia and A MILLION VOICES AGAINST FARC in Colombia.

The ability to harness networks and move people to action is called crowd-sourcing, and a development that will change businesses and institutions globally. James Surowieki wrote a book called THE WISDOM OF CROWDS where he wrote that “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions.” He listed the four criteria you needed to make that happen: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, aggregation.

This is the idea behind the citizen journalism program I led at ABS-CBN. Now every news organization in the Philippines has one, but when we started in 2005, it was a novel idea since most journalists were wary of mixing with non-professionals. Well, that’s another idea that’s been tossed out the window.

Professional journalists have to redefine their roles today because now everyone is a journalist. Everyone in this room has the power to publish – something only large organizations with money could afford to do in the generation before us.

Let me end with some big examples of the power of crowd-sourcing and social media, new ways of connecting networks of people. Let’s go to the phenomenon of the Arab spring, the huge protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya. It set off a debate about Facebook and Twitter revolutions – with people saying yes it is, no it isn’t. Regardless of what we call it, the Internet – and social media in particular – helped ignite long-standing grievances, broke walls of fear, spread courage and fast-tracked what may have taken months and years without instant communications – all this leading to the downfall of dictators.

The medium that carries the message shapes and defines the message itself. Social media’s instantaneous nature pushed the speed at which these revolutions unraveled and spread discontent – and courage – virally across the region. The first messages created ripple effects, amplified and pushed further by countless, nameless people spreading not just the message itself but their emotions – what psychologists call emotional contagion. It’s extremely powerful, and it created protest movements that were difficult for authoritarian governments to control. Why? Because they were modeled on the networks of the web – loose, non-hierarchical, leaderless. You don’t know whom to arrest, no political parties to tear apart, no underground revolt to dismantle. This is the people, and any government that fights its people will ultimately fail.

On the flip side, it can also make it easier to organize looting and riots as we saw recently in London. British officials actually talked about controlling or shutting down social media.

Every powerful tool can be used positively and negatively. I think the earlier we focus on the positives, the sooner we can think of innovative applications. So the internet can bring down governments, empower its people, help spread democracy. What other things can it do? A lot more. It can help in governance. It can help change behavior and infuse new meaning into political processes. For countries like the Philippines, there’s a great opportunity for journalists and the people to come together and help identify needs and push for solutions. Many of you are doing this now in your areas of influence, but we are envisioning something that puts all our energies together. A group of friends and I are now working on a project that aims to evolve journalism and use new technology to harness citizens for nation-building. We are creating a pilot, scalable model that can be used in countries like ours with weak institutions and weak governance. I want to see change in my lifetime, and technology now gives us the ability to do it ourselves.

If you get a chance tonight, you can see a little of this conversation on Facebook. Visit Move.PH on Facebook and tell us what you think. Be part of the experiment and watch it evolve.

Let me end the way I began. It’s a time of cataclysmic change. The sooner we recognize that and embrace it, the sooner we can begin to think of new applications, new ways of doing things, new systems for harnessing collective efforts … the sooner we step into the future.

Thank you, Tatt Awards, for giving me the opportunity to see the work of so many talented Filipinos who have embraced this brave new digital world. I learned a lot by being part of this process. Remember, we should be at the forefront of this revolution because we are officially the social media capital of the world according to ComScore.

Every day, I wake up and try to assess how the world has changed since I fell asleep. Of course, the first thing I do is look at Twitter and see what others around the world have sent me. Social media connects us globally now. How many of you guys saw Inception? That’s my metaphor for our world today. The Internet is the second level of reality that is quickly changing reality. What we do in the virtual world is changing the real world.

Congratulations to the winners tonight! You all are amazing and already know first-hand the power you wield to influence people. Now we just have to make sure we use it wisely. May the Force be with you!

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“From bin Laden to Facebook” in Garmisch, Germany

Outside the lecture hall at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

Inside hall while staff prepares for lecture

I walked into the room and looked around. It was large. Each desk had a headset. I walked to the front where the podium was. It was flanked by two huge monitors on either side. It was like a mini United Nations.

I tested the two microphones. The officer who was briefing me pushed a button and the podium surface descended. The mics were on so everything we said was amplified in the room. It was a good sound system. No echo. I looked above me, and there were three translator booths.

The officer said, “we’re loading the slides and video now. If someone asks a question in a different language, pick up this headset and it will be translated for you.”

He showed me how to work the buttons on the side of the podium for the slide presentation. He took out a slim pen-pointer and said, “if you need a laser, you have to push this hard then point.”

I stood at the podium and realized I was too short. I asked, “would you have anything I can stand on so that even for a short while, I’ll be the tallest person in the room?”

He laughed. Leigh Ann Truly (I really love her name: in Tagalog, Ms Truly is Binibining Tapat!) said, “how about this?” and pointed to the little box that led to the stage. The officer picked it up and brought it. I stood on it. Perfect.

This was my own private FGD (focus group discussion) – a way for me to test and get feedback on some of the ideas I’m including in my new book. The audience, I was told, are top and mid-level officers and officials who focus on counterterrorism.

The title of my presentation is the title of my book: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK. It is my two worlds coming together – terrorism studies and media – more specifically, social networks and how information and ideas spread through a population to win converts.

I study terrorism because I am fascinated by what motivates people to become terrorists. Why is their cause worth killing innocent civilians? Why would they want to kill themselves?

In the past, officials tried to answer these questions by looking at individual people. Analysts say this man was tortured, abused – but if we look broader, often times, we find that terrorists are ordinary people. They could be anyone.

I went from individual psychology to studies of group dynamics – groupthink – and to networks. I looked at the application of these theories to the networks created by Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda. I even applied lessons I learned from running the news organization of ABS-CBN. I focused on the three waves of evolution of the same terror network in Southeast Asia.

They accepted the thesis, were excited and receptive to the ideas in the presentation. An officer from Georgia wanted to focus more specifically on how the Asch experiments can explain radicalism, but another officer from the United States explained that it was only a small part of the experiments focusing on groupthink.

The questions they asked there and in the following seminars were thought-provoking, among them: What is the outlook for mass media in the future? How can we use this from a CT perspective? What do you do when Twitter misinforms and misleads? What is the role of journalists in conflict situations today? How would you rate how governments are using the new technology?

I then asked questions: How many of you are on Facebook? Twitter? How do you use networks in counterterrorism strategies in your countries? What role does media play in your country? How do you think it will change? How has your work changed in the past decade?

After intense discussions, we stepped outside the hall to an amazing view. The Marshall Center is in Garmisch, Germany at the base of its highest point at Zugspitze.

From the top of Zugspitze

It was an amazing week. Now time to write.

View from my Balcony

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Maureen Dowd wrote a really nice, provocative piece the other day – WHY IS HE BI? (SIGH).

I’ve been thinking about leadership for a very long time. These are the sentences that resonate the most for me: “It’s not enough to understand how everybody in the room thinks. You have to decide which ones in the room are right, and stand with them. A leader is not a mediator or an umpire or a convener or a facilitator.”

Those same words could apply to many Filipino leaders, including President “Noynoy” Aquino. No one doubts his values nor his intentions. They just want him to make a decision. Unlike US President Obama, he’s not facing re-election. Mr. Aquino said he won’t run for office again, and he can’t. The Constitution limits the President to one term. I suppose that’s why Filipinos’ hopes are so high that he can and will make the right decisions. Now he just has to tackle the big problems, and take a stand! (Let his popularity ratings be whittled down by substantive decisions that lead to progress rather than trivial matters that degrade his ability to lead).

It’s hard to be a leader. Every decision you make sets policy. Every decision could potentially make you enemies. So if you don’t like that, don’t be a leader. To be a good one, you need to have not just vision, an inner voice that points the way, but most importantly, the courage to make a choice – not just for yourself but for the group you lead. Indecision is the worst trait for a leader.

Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono at Istana, Jakarta, Indonesia

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to many leaders. Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has taken a firm strategic stand on terrorism that’s put both him and his family in harm’s way. Last year, less than a month before it was supposed to be executed, police discovered an assassination plot against him by the Jemaah Islamiyah network. It involved two suicide bombers attacking his convoy outside his home. Police say when they found the safe-house, the explosives and vehicles were there – as well as the suicide bomber!

When I spoke with him last week, he had the most succinct, strategic vision I have heard for fighting this prolonged, generational battle against terrorism. It seems the assassination plot by the JI network only solidified his vision and courage to fight – not for himself or his family, but for the future of the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

Former President (now Congresswoman) Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Manila, Philippines

A week earlier, former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sat with me and gathered her former cabinet officials in charge of security for a conversation at her home. As she pointed out, she recognized the dangers of terrorism and was the first leader to call US President George Bush when 9/11 happened a decade ago. She spoke about how she felt when the MOA-AD collapsed and the difficulties her administration faced dealing with what is largely a poverty-driven problem of terrorism (unlike Indonesia, which is ideologically driven).

In evaluating today’s administration, she had this to say: “It’s really unfortunate that they’re putting so much emphasis on persecuting the past administration when you have problems of FDI [foreign direct investment] reduced to half of what it was, unemployment going up, even the corruption index is worsening. There is a real governance problem today.” (She has since stated these views publicly, eliciting a reaction from the Aquino camp).

MILF Chief Negotiator Mohagher Iqbal, Camp Darapanan, Mindanao

Shortly before meeting Congresswoman Arroyo, I spent time with the Chief Negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Mohagher Iqbal, in the MILF’s Camp Darapanan in Mindanao. He seems outwardly strong, principled – and pragmatic. After all, he has been negotiating for peace for his people for 14 years.

On negotiating with President Aquino’s government, he said: “There is some hope, but objectively speaking, I am neither optimistic or pessimistic.” It’s understandable after more than a decade of negotiations and a scuttled MOA-AD in 2008. From his point of view, the Philippine government has betrayed every agreement it’s made with the Moro people.

He answered questions in a straightforward manner, even if they were pointed, particularly about the MILF’s links to Jemaah Islamiyah: “Sometimes you cannot choose your friends. I am not saying that some elements of the JI were not in Mindanao. We have no organizational link with them. We have nothing to gain.”

He spoke about the root causes of our nation’s problems. “The problem in the Philippines,” he said, “is the system. If you examine the rules and regulations, they’re good, but they’re not implemented. Instead we have pakikisama, utang na loob.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s actually our lack of systems that create failing or failed institutions.

Finally, there are our corporate leaders who push change even if governments can’t seem to do so fast enough. After Mindanao, it was a joy to visit the home of Jaime and Lizzie Zobel de Ayala in Calatagan. It was a rejuvenating day of conversation with leaders who are moving forward, setting agendas, not waiting for governments – or anyone else for that matter – to set the direction. Rodrigo Veloso, the Brazilian founder and CEO of O.N.E. Coconut Water, was so enthusiastic about the Philippines and its potential growth. He compared us to Brazil right before it took off. He gushed about our natural resources and talked about how the coconut in Almond Joy chocolate bars and all Hershey’s bars come from a factory in the Philippines. Just being around him lifted my spirits.

Sheila Marcelo, NY-based founder and CEO of care.com, along with True Value’s Gianna Montinola (who’s also on the board of trustees of Far Eastern University) discussed the future of our country poolside, focusing on development and education as key concerns. Leslye Arsht, former undersecretary of US Dept of Defense and former Reagan press secretary, talked about the year she lived in Afghanistan trying to build schools and help resuscitate their educational system – the real nuts and bolts of rebuilding a society that’s still in conflict with a focus on the future. And there is budding leader-to-be Mariana, Lizzie and Jaime’s daughter, who’s just graduated from Harvard and who did her thesis on the RH bill.

Leaders set their own rhythms. They listen to others but only to check their vision, to check the compass and the tide. Some choose to go against the tide. Others use it to speed them along. The one thing leaders don’t do is stay quiet. In order to lead, you have to be clear where you want to go. You have to state where you stand and why people should follow you. You have to be agile – to have the humility to admit when you’re wrong and change direction. Adapt. You have to have vision and the courage to engage and persuade – to push through no matter what.

Key to all of it is courage – the courage to imagine the world beyond what you see; the courage to fail (because that’s what you risk in every decision you make); and the courage to risk your personal and professional life to make your vision a reality.

I have to go back to writing about terrorists again now. It’s been fun. Look for the leader in you, and in your area of influence, make your vision a reality. Happy flying!

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Bali Bomber Umar Patek’s Journey to Meet bin Laden

More details surfacing about Indonesian Umar Patek’s activities:

1. He told authorities he married his Filipina wife, Ruqoyah Binti Husen Luceno, in 1998. She was a teacher at a “primary school madrassah.” She was arrested with him in January this year in the same town where bin Laden was killed – Abbottabad, Pakistan.

2. Top Indonesian officials said Patek was trying to meet bin Laden. One US source says the meeting happened. A well-placed US military source agrees. Still, no other nations who have access to Patek have verified that claim. But if true, this has interesting implications for the coming months. (See below).

3. Patek was in the Philippines from 2002 to 2009. In June, 2009, he and his wife went from Sabah, Malaysia to Kalimantan in Indonesia by ship. They went on to Surabaya and on to Jakarta by bus.

4. On Aug. 20, 2010, they boarded a flight, did a transit stop in Bangkok, and arrived in Lahore, Pakistan.

5. They were arrested about 5 months later after a tip from the CIA. Pakistani authorities were led to Patek after they trailed a known Al-Qaeda operative.


It seems clear that the old JI network has regenerated and had more plots in the works. In 2009, Dulmatin and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir raised money, recruited for and organized a training camp in Aceh, which was discovered by Indonesian authorities in Feb. 2010.

The path there began with the Ritz-Carlton/JW Marriott bombings in 2009. The JI network has evolved. Many of its members had by now joined the latest Ba’asyir reincarnation – a group he named Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid or JAT in 2008.

The bombs in 2009 were created by Noordin’s JI faction (now apparently working with JAT), and they had several plots in the works, including one to assassinate Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono.

Authorities discovered – and foiled – that plot less than a month before it was supposed to have been carried out. They found the vehicle and explosives, say intelligence sources. According to another, the suicide bomber was already in Jakarta.

“They intended to do the attack in September,” Gen. Tito Karnavian, former head of Densus 88 and now the head of operations for the National Counterterrorism Agency. “They also had another plan after that – to attack the American Embassy. It was found in the laptop of Noordin M. Top.”

All this was happening while Dulmatin and Ba’asyir were setting up the Aceh training camp, which intelligence officials say was supposed to train JAT members for Mumbai style commando attacks. (The Mumbai attacks killed 165 people in 2008).

Umar Patek arrived in Indonesia from the southern Philippines in June 2009. Intelligence reports say he stayed with Dulmatin, who helped arrange his trip to Pakistan. (Three months after Patek left Indonesia, Dulmatin was killed in a police raid in Pamulang, Banten).

In 2011, Indonesian police dealt with more attacks of less intensity: the book bombs in March, which led them to the JAT/JI network behind a bomb plot during Easter weekend and others. Each discovery has led to more arrests and convictions.

Increased activity is also happening in the southern Philippines, where US and Philippine intelligence report between 10-12 JI members entered the country soon after the death of bin Laden.

In the past few months, hostels and guesthouses in Basilan have been hit by improvised explosive devices (IED’s). Around 10:30 this morning, another explosion happened in Tulay, Jolo in Sulu, killing at least four people, according to Philippine intelligence sources.

The terror network has not only regenerated, it seems to have set plots in motion. Patek’s trip to see Bin Laden, say some intelligence sources, may have been an effort to green-light another upcoming plot.

A top Indonesian official told me: “We are quite surprised with the resilience of this movement because amidst quite intense operations and raids by us, it still survives and is able to launch a well-planned attack.”

I’ll be speaking with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Friday. He is the last interview for my book, which will chart the cycles of birth, degradation and regeneration of the terror networks in Southeast Asia.

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