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Philippines Probes Terror Links - 2001-10-03

The Philippines, which has pledged to support the U.S. campaign against international terrorism, has its own extremist Muslim groups, some of whom engage in terrorist acts. Authorities are looking into what links may exist between the Abu Sayyaf group in the Philippines and the organization of Osama bin Laden, suspected of directing last month's terrorist attacks in the United States.

The southern Philippine region of Mindanao is predominantly Muslim, and groups there have conducted a separatist war against the government in Manila for much of the last three decades. In 1996, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) reached a peace agreement with the Philippine government. This year the smaller Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) agreed to a ceasefire and peace talks are scheduled for next week, although sporadic violence continues.

A much smaller, more violent group, the Abu Sayyaf, has been active on islands off Mindanao for the last decade, sometimes kidnapping foreign tourists and Philippine or Malaysian workers and freeing them only after receiving large ransom payments.

Eric Gutierrez, a specialist on Philippine Muslims, says the Abu Sayyaf was founded by people who returned to the Philippines in the early 1990s after fighting alongside Mujahadeen guerrillas against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. He says the returning fighters were disgruntled by the way the more established groups - the MNLF and the MILF - were handling their separatist war in Mindanao.

"They were looking for a type of leadership that was much more militant and that would push their demands for a separate state much more clearly and wouldn't go into political compromises with the Philippine government," said Mr. Gutierrez.

He says these radical Muslims are likely to have kept in contact with fundamentalist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mr. Gutierrez, who is with the Institute for Popular Democracy in Manila and lives in London, has written a book about Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines.

He says that although the Abu Sayyaf has claimed a wider Islamic agenda, they build their support through a local agenda in a very impoverished area.

"A typical family who owns a couple of goats and maybe five heads of cattle, if somebody steals or takes those livestock away from them, they won't be able to get any justice for that theft, because there is no justice system in those areas," Mr. Gutierrez explained. "In that kind of a situation, the only way that people can have security is if they affiliate or ally themselves with any powerful individual or group that can provide basically the threat of coercion or the threat of violence." he said.

The United States has put Abu Sayyaf on its list of 27 individuals and organizations whose assets are to be frozen because of their suspected links with Osama Bin Laden.

Philippine officials believe that, in its early years, Abu Sayyaf received money from individuals and groups associated with Osama Bin Laden. And some news reports have said his brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, who lives in the Philippines with his Philippine wife has provided funding to the Abu Sayyaf.

But Eric Gutierrez disputes those reports, saying the brother-in-law's foundation supports disaster relief and other charitable work in Cotabato, a city on Mindanao, and is not engaged in the Sulu Islands or Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf operates. He says Abu Sayyaf would likely welcome help from Osama Bin Laden, but he says the nature of their military operations in isolated areas, not populated urban centers, proves any links currently are not strong.

A specialist on Southeast Asia, former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Palmer, says the Muslim insurgency in the Philippines is a homegrown, indigenous phenomenon.

"I think it goes without saying that extremist radical Islamic groups such as that of Osama Bin Laden would seek contact with any local groups that would accept their money [or] would accept a connection," said Mr. Palmer. "My sense, however, is that the radicals Abu Sayyaf ... are very much focused on the domestic scene there. They're interested in local power. They're interested in increased autonomy for Muslim areas of the south. And their problems are fundamentally with the government in Manila."

In an interview with The New York Times, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said any links between Abu Sayyaf and Osama Bin Laden did not last past 1995. That year, Philippine authorities arrested several suspected terrorists involved in a plot to kill the pope in Manila and blow up airliners over Asia. President Arroyo told the Times that any international terrorists who might have thought they could use the Philippines as a base then realized it was not a hospitable place for them.

Yet, Ms. Arroyo says her government is going through its files again just to make sure there are no connections with the international terror network. Ambassador Palmer says the countries of Southeast Asia that have large Muslim populations, including the Philippines, have a common cause in cooperating with the United States in fighting international terrorism.