Two Americans have been arrested in the Philippines for alleged ties to al Qaeda. Is it progress in the war on terror or a case of extortion?
11:00 PM, Jan 6, 2004 • By VICTORINO MATUS
LAST MONTH two American brothers, Michael Ray Stubbs, 55, and Jamil Daud Mujahid, 56, were arrested by Philippine authorities just south of Manila in the town of Tanza. Philippine Naval intelligence had been tracking their movements and allegedly caught the two interacting with "known leaders of various terrorist cells in the country with links to al Qaeda."
Just last week, Philippine immigration chief Andrea Domingo held a press conference, announcing the arrest of the brothers for support of "terrorist activities," although neither Stubbs nor Mujahid (who changed his name from James Stubbs after converting to Islam) is charged with any terrorist plots past or present. While this announcement was made, both brothers were standing in the same room, in handcuffs, and wearing yellow shirts that said "detainee." A shouting match ensued, with Mujahid declaring, "It's not true. We're Americans. I have a wife, I have a kid." Domingo was undaunted and continued to explain the charges. But Mujahid continued, "These are all fabricated lies. I don't know any Muslims in the Philippines."
It is unclear if Commissioner Domingo expected the two to stand there politely before the cameras and not say a word. What is clear is that the brothers, deemed "undesirable aliens," will be deported back to the United States sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence is now scrambling to figure out if either Stubbs or Mujahid is to be considered a terror suspect back home. From 1990 to 2000, Stubbs worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, not far from his home in Antioch, California. (Livermore is home to one of the Human Genome Centers and is also known for its nuclear weapons lab.) Stubbs had "Q-Level" security clearance, the highest for employees. But as Livermore spokeswoman Susan Houghton explained, because he had access to top-level areas does not mean he had access to top-level documents, calling that possibility "speculation" at this time. "It's important to focus on the reality," said Houghton, "which is that he left here in 2000." Livermore is now cooperating with the FBI.
ALSO OF CONCERN is who the two brothers saw while they were in the Philippines. The immigration bureau says Stubbs and Mujahid met with members of Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped foreigners for ransom, including three Americans--two of whom died in captivity. The group was funded early on by Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, the brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, meanwhile, is in a major standoff with Manila. Its more than 10,000 members are alternately pursuing an Islamic separatist state and a truce with the government. The group also has strong ties with Jemaah Islamiyah, the al Qaeda-linked network responsible for the Bali nightclub bombings. Philippine authorities claim the two American brothers had bank accounts with "substantial deposits" and that funds were going to the building of Muslim schools and mosques--which could serve as fronts for al Qaeda.
MUJAHID MAINTAINS he was in the Philippines to visit his Filipino wife and that he and his brother did not knowingly make contact with terrorists. (Which is strangely reminiscent of the case of Terry Nichols.*) Mujahid's daughter, Rashida Stubbs, told CNN the ordeal "is a nightmare." When Bill Hemmer asked if she thought her father was being targeted, she replied, "Well, once again, as I stated before, he's a Muslim, and in that country, as my father stated, that's another way for them to fund money to the Filipino government." "So you think it's extortion?" asked Hemmer. "Yes, I do."
Needless to say, U.S. authorities have taken a careful approach to the matter. No charges have been filed against the brothers. Mujahid has been described as often being seen wearing military fatigues and training German shepherds. The San Jose Mercury News reports that "Neighbors who know [Mujahid] described him as a strict Muslim who refused to give Halloween candy to neighborhood children because he believes the holiday has pagan roots. . . . [Mujahid] traveled often and was gone for as much as six months at a time. They last saw him the first week of December, when he returned from the Sudan sporting a long gray beard that replaced his normally trim one. He told his neighbors that he was soon heading to the Middle East."
All of which raises eyebrows in the intelligence community, but is not actual proof that Mujahid or his brother is a terrorist. What remains of chief concern are the identities of the Filipinos they talked with and the nature of their conversations. Were Mujahid and his brother sharing technical bomb-making expertise with terrorists or learning how to bomb a U.S. facility? Did Michael Ray Stubbs share any nuclear secrets? Or are both Americans the victims of extortion by a government deadlocked in a war on terror? Stay tuned.