“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”
- George Orwell
The proof that a different Islam thrives in the lush sultry jungles of Southeast Asia than in the Middle East is perhaps best described through the eyes of American soldiers who’ve been stationed there. While in Yemen “women were walking sacks and after a few weeks you found yourself staring at ankles,” in Southeast Asia “the main tourist attraction squirms up and down on your lap.
“It’s as if the women are kids at a toy store, and we’re the last Cabbage Patch dolls on the shelf.”1
This aspect of Southeast Asian social life is only one of the reasons being stationed in Southeast Asia isn’t much of a hardship post for the thousands of American troops who’ve rotated through. It’s a post that’s been part of the informal American military empire since the turn of 1900s when Commodore George Dewey and his nine ships staged a nighttime raid on an inky Manila Bay, using the cover of darkness to sink the Spanish flotilla occupying the harbor.
Following that easy victory came a series of events that uncannily echoes the events which have followed what is only our second attempt in a hundred years to conquer and occupy a large overseas territory – the Second Gulf War. After seizing control of Manila Bay the American military used the help of Filipino insurgents to displace despotic Spanish rule from the archipelago, in the eyes of the Americans “freeing” the natives. However, as is the case in Iraq today, freedom “was understood in different ways” and then as now America “pursued the quest of empire in the name of freedom to civilize the world.”2
Just as in Iraq, as soon as the despotic power was removed from the lives of the natives, tensions began to increase between them and their liberators turned occupiers. As the new national Philippine government began to lose control of its faction-ridden armed forces, the troubles worsened. And in a specter that would occur again a hundred years later and an ocean away “anarchy and misplaced American idealism ignited into a full-scale war between American troops and a host of indigenous guerrilla armies.”3
In what’s now known as the Philippine War over 200,000 people lost their lives. And as is usually the case in guerrilla conflicts, the majority of the deaths were civilian. Unlike the war that’s been wracking Iraq with spasms of worsening violence for over seven years, the Philippine War lasted only three years. America’s success there was likely due to “paying attention to the rudiments of counterinsurgency strategy,” which included “cutting of the guerrillas from civilian assistance and garrisoning the countryside.”4 It was in the Philippines that the American army first practiced the tactics of counterinsurgency en masse, successfully rooting out and quelling a native guerrilla insurgency.
The Philippines are located entirely within what geographers call the Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that traces across the globe wherever tectonic plates collide, spurting up volcanoes and shivering with earthquakes. And so the mountainous islands of the Philippines are what remains above water from the ancient volcanic eruptions and tremors that shot land above the waves thousands of years ago.
This mountainous nature forced the American soldiers stationed there to become well acquainted with the mutinous peoples whose violence they were attempting to suppress – they were cut off from the rest of the world. And so they became very familiar with the culture, language, and in short time the women of their temporary mountain homes. These soldiers were unaware that a century later their brothers-in-arms would be returning to these sharp isles to do battle against men motivated by a different take on a different tradition.
One particular word of the Filipino language has made its way into the modern American vernacular.
The word in Tagalog for “mountains” is bundoks, which has been Americanizied into any a word that’s used for any remote area of land on which an often backward people make their home: the boondocks. And although it’s a word that has a rather homey, buck-toothed connotation for your average American, the boondocks of the Philippines would serve as a crucial side-stage for the most destructive act of terrorism ever performed on American soil.
It is here that we return back to the start of our story, so that some of the background behind how we got to that start can be more fully understood and so that some of the loose-ends that’ve emerged can be tied-off.
And so it was not even a year after his casual departure from the scene of the 1993 World Trade Center van-bombing that Ramzi Yousef made his way to the Philippines. He went to meet with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, affectionately referred to as KSM by CIA spooks and State Department wonks, at the corner of a busy intersection. They didn’t choose a busy intersection for it’s spy-movie anonymity, but because it was where they were waiting to meet two young women who’d just been rehearsing for jobs in Japan as “cultural dancers.”
The quotation marks here are as much for citation as they are for pointing out the titular euphemism of their job. Yousef was lucky in that his uncle, who went by “Sheikh Mohammad” at the time, had already laid much of the groundwork for snagging some supple Filipino companionship. He’d already finagled one girl into opening a bank account and buying a cell phone for him in exchange for paying for her food, transportation, some free clothes, and a round-trip ticket across the country.
Not only was KSM throwing money at the young women he was wooing into helping him establish a logistical presence, but he made sure to stay in the poshest hotels to further his projected image of wealth. Despite catching a few meals at a less than high-class restaurant – a local Wendy’s – the girls all seemed to buy into the front. Once Yousef met up with KSM they upped their pimping to the next level, at one point going so far as to rent a helicopter so they could fly over the dental office one of their girls was working in, call her up, and have her come out and wave to them as they soared overhead.
The Archbishop Don “Magic” Juan didn’t have shit on Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
But all of this game-kicking had a much bigger purpose than merely attempting to cash-in early on the seventy-two virgins that were promised them in martyrdom. By enlisting the assistance of local females both men were able to use the girls’ identities instead of their own, and so leave as small a law-enforcement footprint as possible.
The attention they paid the girls didn’t arouse too much suspicion as Arab men have a well-known reputation for being a bit unreputable when it comes to foreign gender relations. To anyone watching, Yousef and KSM were just two of many wealthy Arabs throwing money at pliable young Filipinas.
With the logistical network put in place in the Philippines thanks to the unwitting aid of the young local women, planning and plotting began to pick up momentum. Yousef made forays to KSM’s apartment in Karachi where he instructed the high school classmate who would ultimately prove to be his undoing, Abdul Murad, in the art of bomb-making and placement. An expert in the field, Yousef used his laptop to explain in detail how to mix which chemicals in what proportions. Some chemicals were to be avoided since they’d be picked up by X-ray machines at the airport because of their high density. In addition to this potential snag, he went over other strategies for passing through airport security, which likely included using an unwitting mule to carry any incriminating paraphernalia in the same way as Yousef used Ahmed Mohammad Ajaj in the 1993 WTC van-bombing.