Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines Analysts say renegade elements of the al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah who have fled a crackdown in Indonesia are turning up in the Muslim region of the southern Philippines. They appear to be forming new alliances with domestic militant groups such as Abu Sayyaf.
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Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines

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Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines

Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This week we're examining the terrorism threat in Southeast Asia. We heard yesterday about the al-Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia. Today we look at Indonesia's neighbor, the Philippines. It's a country familiar with international terrorism. Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, began developing a network there in the early '90s. It included the Abu Sayyaf organization.

NORRIS: Other groups have also been active. Some are bent on achieving independence from Muslim-dominated areas in the south. And as NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from the southern Philippines, new extremist alliances seem to be forming that could lead to large-scale terrorist attacks.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN reporting:

The southern island of Mindanao is the front line in the Philippines' war on terror.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

SULLIVAN: Vietnam-era Huey helicopters fly seemingly round-the-clock missions hunting terrorists in the dense jungle of central Mindanao and nearby islands. The US-backed effort is several years old and has, by all accounts, done serious damage to the militant Abu Sayyaf group. But intelligence officials say some 400 to 500 Abu Sayyaf members are still out there, including the group's leader.

(Soundbite of ferry terminal activity)

SULLIVAN: In the port city of Zamboanga, security guards watch as several hundred passengers disembark at the local ferry terminal. The guards are on the lookout for would-be terrorists and not just Philippine terrorists, according to the country's national security adviser, Norberto Gonzales.

Mr. NORBERTO GONZALES (National Security Adviser): In recent weeks we were alerted by our counterparts in Indonesia about the possibility that up to 10 Indonesian suicide bombers may have infiltrated the Philippines.

SULLIVAN: Indonesia's ongoing crackdown against the group Jemaah Islamiah has left it badly mauled and left many senior JI members on the run. They come here, Gonzales says, because of long-standing ties to local militant groups, relationships often forged in Afghan training camps run by al-Qaeda.

Mr. GONZALES: They blend. They blend with the MILF, they blend with Abu Sayyaf, the blend with the communities. I mean, we have 50,000 Indonesians in Mindanao--no passport, no papers. You know, there are about 26,000 sea vessels crisscrossing the sea between Indonesia and the Philippines. Every day there are hundreds of vessels because there are 26,000 of them flying back and forth. This is a major headache for us. That's why we don't mind our people moving back and forth, but we mind terrorists moving back and forth.

SULLIVAN: And they have been moving back and forth. Jemaah Islamiah has operated terrorist training camps in Mindanao since the late 1990s, mainly in remote areas controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF has now entered peace negotiations with the Philippine government and says JI is no longer welcome in its territory. Many intelligence officials, diplomats and analysts are skeptical of this claim.

Mr. ZACHARY ABUZA (Terrorism Author): I don't believe the MILF will ever fully cut off ties to JI.

SULLIVAN: Zachary Abuza is the author of a recent book on Southeast Asian terrorism.

Mr. ABUZA: These people are fellow mujaheddin. They go back to the Afghan period. The ties are deeply entrenched. And JI will always need the MILF for that rear area, a place to train. At the same time the MILF don't want to cut ties to JI because they are the link to the international Islamic movement.

SULLIVAN: Either way JI is in the process of expanding its ties with other militant groups, especially the Abu Sayyaf.

(Soundbite of parade music)

SULLIVAN: This school parade through Zamboanga's central business district looks normal enough with marching bands, baton twirlers and children in colorful uniforms. But the security is anything but normal. Dozens of heavily armed soldiers carefully scan the crowd gathered on the sidewalks on alert for any would-be Abu Sayyaf bombers. The Abu Sayyaf has carried out dozens of bombings here over the past decade, but their most recent efforts, police say, have been qualitatively different.

Mr. JOSE GUCELA (Police Superintendent): In our experience here, we have noticed that there is already an increase in technology insofar as the fabrications of the bomb into an explosive device. Before, they are just using the mechanical system, but now they're using now an electronic system whereby it is becoming more sophisticated for bomb technicians to disrupt.

SULLIVAN: Superintendent Jose Gucela of the Zamboanga bomb squad says Jemaah Islamiah bombers are now helping the Abu Sayyaf hone their bomb-making skills. Terrorist technology transfer, he says, means more and more lethal bombings to come.

Ms. GUCELA: The teaching that they had been doing to these local guys is ongoing, so that is our anticipation--is that we must have to prepare for more.

SULLIVAN: With JI on the run in Indonesia and the Abu Sayyaf weakened by the ongoing Philippine army offensive, it's no surprise the two groups have decided to work together. Some even suggest JI may be shifting its operational focus from Indonesia to the Philippines. Colonel Domingo Tutaan is chief of staff for the Philippine army Southern Command.

Colonel DOMINGO TUTAAN (Philippine Army Southern Command): You can see they're dealing with a depleted force, but it's still a terrorist organization that we have to contend with in the sense that when one's back is really against the wall, they can do anything practically in order to project that they are still a big force to contend with. And I think that is the very essence or the very reason why they are in connection with IESG to expand, probably evade arrest in Indonesia and be able to undertake their plans in this part of southern Philippines.

SULLIVAN: The Abu Sayyaf gets training and money. Jemaah Islamiah, authorities say, gets access to locals recruited by Abu Sayyaf, locals who can help stage high-profile attacks farther north in and around the capital. Again, Zachary Abuza.

Mr. ABUZA: If JI wants an attack, they don't want bombings in Mindanao. That doesn't even make news anymore. They need bombings up in Manila.

(Soundbite of mall activity)

SULLIVAN: And bombings in Manila are the government's worst fear, bombings against targets like this one, a crowded mall in the center of the city. Small-scale bombings earlier this year killed 12 people. National security adviser Norberto Gonzales worries about something even bigger, on the scale of the Bali bombings carried out by Jemaah Islamiah in October 2002.

Mr. GONZALES: They were planning to detonate a 1,000-kilogram bomb in Manila. We were able to pre-empt that. We were able to capture 600 kilos of their materials. But their plan is talking about 1,000 kilos. Now we were not able to really determine whether they have the complete 1,000 kilos or they just had 600, and we're looking for that.

SULLIVAN: And looking for the JI bombers, who authorities fear arrived from Indonesia last month. JI and Abu Sayyaf may be weakened, Gonzales says, but together they are still dangerous.

Mr. GONZALES: They have the people, they have the money, they possibly have the materials and they have the motivation to do it.

SULLIVAN: `Terrorism isn't something we want to get used to,' national security adviser Gonzales says, `but it's a phenomenon that will be with us for a long time to come.' Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow, a report from Thailand. You can hear part one of our series at npr.org.

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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