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The Philippine branch of terror

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

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"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.

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"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."