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Terrorism Experts Say Philippines Rebels Linked to al-Qaida - 2001-11-17

Worldwide attention on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network has so far focused largely on the group's activities training terrorists in Afghanistan. But, terrorism experts say al-Qaida has long-standing ties with Philippine Muslim rebels who have been terrorizing the country for years.

The Philippines is no stranger to Islamic insurgencies. Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes says Manila has been dealing with what he described as Muslim terrorists for decades. "For more than 30 years now, we have tried to combat this threat," he said.

Secretary Reyes says the Philippine government signed a peace agreement in 1996 with the troublesome Moro National Liberation Front, and is in peace talks with a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

These groups have been recently overshadowed by the radical Abu Sayyaf, which has taken at least 20 people hostage around the southern Philippine island of Basilan over the past six months. The group has freed some hostages in exchange for ransom, but it has also murdered several others, including one American.

The Philippine Defense Secretary says Abu Sayyaf was founded by a Philippine Muslim, who spent time in Afghanistan. "After the Afghan war, he came back to the Philippines and established Abu Sayyaf," Mr. Reyes said.

The Philippine group and the now notorious al-Qaida forged links during the decade-long Afghan war against the former Soviets.

Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network are the key suspects behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, events which Secretary Reyes has said were a wake-up call for countries around the world that face terrorism. "The international community not only has taken notice of the terrorist threat in all countries, more now than before. It's natural, no?" he said.

Secretary Reyes adds that in the current international climate, the Philippines has become increasingly important, along with countries like Pakistan and Indonesia.

According to Heritage Foundation Southeast Asia policy analyst, Dana Dillon, Abu Sayyaf came into existence because it's founders decided other Muslim insurgency groups in the southern Philippines were not radical enough. "Abu Sayyaf was always more radical than any other organization in the Philippines. They started off by slaughtering, massacring a village, a Christian village, in Mindanao," Mr. Dillon said.

Mr. Dillon says the Philippine army has roughly 5,000 soldiers in Basilan to track down about 300 Abu Sayyaf fighters. Besides resorting to guerrilla tactics, which makes Abu Sayyaf fighters more difficult to find, Mr. Dillon says the group simply has more money.

"They've amassed, like last year alone, I think, they earned $20 million from kidnapping foreigners. Kidnapping foreigners has become quite popular in the Philippines because of the success of the Abu Sayyaf. That's a lot more money than the Philippine Army has for their daily operations," she said.

Mr. Dillon says this poses challenges for the Philippine army because the more money Abu Sayyaf has, the more fighters it has. He says he believes the United States will offer substantial aid, but he said U.S. military assistance must be focused on eliminating the Philippine terrorist organization. "Because the money could easily just disappear, get soaked up in daily operations and all kinds of other things that the Philippine Army needs, perhaps, but they should be paid for by the Philippine government, not the American government," he said.

The Head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Dennis Blair, Wednesday visited the Mindanao region in the embattled Philippine south. He said he was pleased with the Philippine military campaign against Abu Sayyaf rebels and promised more U.S. military assistance.

Washington has not given details as to what kind of equipment or training it would provide. Philippine officials say Manila has an extensive wish list of helicopters, transport planes and other equipment to increase mobility and firepower.

Details of the aid package are expected to be hammered out during a meeting between Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and President Bush at the White House Tuesday.