The Philippine branch of terror

Al Qaeda is believed to have given initial funding to the now-independent Abu Sayyaf militant group.

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

There are so many links between the Abu Sayyaf Group of the Philippines, which beheaded an American hostage a few months ago, and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, that on paper they look like the route map for a Peshawar-based airline.

The links run from that high, bleak border city in Pakistan to terrorist dens in Afghanistan and Yemen; to murders and bombings in the Philippines; to the first attack on the World Trade Center; to a foiled attempt to assassinate the pope during a 1995 visit to Manila.

A captured Abu Sayyaf guerrilla, Edwin Angeles, told Philippines investigators that year that a brother-in-law of Mr. bin Laden, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, played a crucial role in founding Abu Sayyaf.

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In his debriefing, Mr. Angeles, who has since been assassinated, reportedly said Mr. Khalifa channeled bin Laden money to Abu Sayyaf through charities he was running in the Philippines.

These threads, taken together, provide the impetus for the claims of some US officials that the group is an annex of Al Qaeda. And they explain why, over the past week, US military advisers have been arriving in the southern Philippines to open America's first non-Afghan front in its war on terrorism. The US officers will provide intelligence assistance, training, and equipment to a Filipino rapid-reaction force.

But interviews with diplomats, intelligence sources, government officials, and militants show that while the group may have received seed capital from bin Laden, it has long since moved out on its own, making their separate activities all the more difficult to combat.

"The Abu Sayyaf isn't going to go away if bin Laden is captured," says Marithes Vitug, author of "Under the Crescent Moon," a book on radical Islamic politics in the Philippines.

Different motives and methods

Today, Abu Sayyaf has evolved into a self-funding and self-reliant criminal organization that terrorism experts say has radically different methods, means, and motivations from Al Qaeda.

The group favors wrap-around sunglasses and Levis instead of flowing Arab robes. Philippines officials describe Abu Sayyaf as a kidnap-for-ransom racket, more in the tradition of the pirates who have plagued the region for centuries than warriors fighting for bin Laden's dream of a pan-Islamic state.

"The Abu Sayyaf takes hostages for money, and that is not what international terrorists do," says Philippines Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes. "Did you ever hear of bin Laden blowing something up and then demanding $30 million from the US?"

Fighting alongside bin Laden

Abu Sayyaf began with the vision of one man: Abdurajak Janjalani. Investigators and acquaintances of Mr. Janjalani say that as a boy, he was captivated by the puritanical version of Islam that, fueled by Saudi petrodollars, was blowing like a sirocco across the Muslim world in the 1970s. In the mid-'80s, he studied in Libya and Saudi Arabia.

By late 1988, he was in Peshawar, Pakistan, training as a mujahideen, or holy warrior, to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Along with other Filipino militants inspired and led by the Afghan intellectual Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Janjalani fought alongside bin Laden, learning to field-strip a rifle, make bombs, command troops, and win friends in the Islamic world. Janjalani brought those skills home in 1990.

"He was this charismatic, almost magical guy to his troops, and when he came back I think he was sincere in his intentions to found an Islamic state," says Ms. Vitug. Philippines and foreign investigators allege that Khalifa, the bin Laden brother-in-law, funneled money to Abu Sayyaf, and that Muslim mercenaries were brought in from Yemen and Afghanistan to train insurgents.

"The record is pretty firm that Osama and the people who followed his line of thinking were involved in the formation of the Abu Sayyaf," says a Western diplomat in Manila.

Vitug says Janjalani was very close in his thinking to bin Laden, but that his death in 1998 cost Abu Sayyaf "their ideologue. It's more about the money now." The group is now run by Abdurajak's brother, Khadafy, who does not have Afghan ties.

In April 2000, Abu Sayyaf committed its first international crime, seizing 20 Asian and European hostages from a Malaysian resort. It later released them for more than $20 million, in a deal brokered by Libyan officials. Abu Sayyaf used the ransom to recruit new members, swelling its ranks to about 1,000, up from a few hundred.

The money may have other uses. In June, after a 12-hour standoff in which Abu Sayyaf forces were pinned down at a hospital by tanks, helicopters, and 3,000 soldiers, commanding officers called troops away from the rear of the building. The guerrillas melted quietly into the jungle. The senate has launched an inquiry into allegations that the militants bribed their way to freedom, which commanders deny.

Abu Sayyaf took its first American hostages earlier this year and beheaded one of them in June. On Oct. 15, Abu Sabaya, an Abu Sayyaf leader, threatened to execute the other two in retaliation for the US-led bombing of Afghanistan. Mr. Sabaya also bragged about ties to Al Qaeda.

Still, officials in the Philippines insist that these "ties" are in the past. Rigoberto Tiglao, spokesman for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, says the government is "frustrated" by US contentions that there are active Al Qaeda cells in the Philippines and that Abu Sayyaf is a part of that network.

"Of course there are historical ties, but our investigations have yielded no signs that these international terrorists are at work here," he says.

Such signs would not be easy to detect, however. While Abu Sayyaf was growing in the south, an Al Qaeda cell was digging into Manila. Its existence was only uncovered by chance in 1995, when a bomb that cell members were making in their apartment exploded.

Police arrested two men, Ali Murad and Wali Khan, and found a laptop computer and documents that Philippines investigators say showed ties between Khalifa, the cell, and Abu Sayyaf. The laptop reportedly contained plans to blow up 11 US airliners and to assassinate Pope John Paul II. The cell's leader, Ramzi Yousef, was later apprehended in Pakistan. He, Mr. Murad, and Mr. Khan are now serving life sentences in the US for their roles in another plot: the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

"In a way, we're a victim of our success in breaking this cell up," says Mr. Tiglao. "It's created the lasting impression that bin Laden is at work here."

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