Bali attacks revive concerns over Philippine terror camps

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The latest deadly terrorist strike on the Indonesian resort island of Bali has revived concerns the Philippines has become Southeast Asia’s breeding ground for al-Qaida-linked extremists who have set up training camps here.

Two Malaysian fugitives suspected of masterminding Saturday’s suicide bombings as well as the Bali nightclub attacks of 2002 are believed to have trained or once taken refuge in the Philippines’ southern Mindanao region, according to Indonesian and Malaysian police.

The two have been tied to the al-Qaida-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, also blamed in the Bali attacks three years ago that killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.

Since U.S.-led forces took out most of al-Qaida’s camps in Afghanistan in late 2001, Mindanao has become a key training area for Southeast Asian militants. The tropical region is a vast jungle sprawl of largely unguarded islands, mountains and marshes where Muslim separatist guerrillas hold sway in far-flung villages.

An editorial cartoon published Tuesday in the widely circulated Philippine Star newspaper featured an Islamic militant holding two lit bombs and wearing a shirt labeled “Bali bomber” and a button that read “proudly RP-trained.” RP is shorthand for Republic of the Philippines.

With militant concerns on the rise, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called Wednesday for Congress to swiftly pass a tough anti-terrorism law that would, among other things, allow longer detention of suspects for interrogation.

Indonesia’s top anti-terrorism official has identified two Malaysian fugitives -Azahari bin Husin and Noordin Mohamed Top -as the suspected masterminds of Saturday night’s attacks on three crowded Bali tourist resort restaurants, which killed 22 people and the three bombers. The two suspects were not among the suicide attackers.

Jemaah Islamiyah, which wants to establish a hard-line Islamic state across Southeast Asia, is also suspected in at least two other bombings in the Indonesian capital Jakarta _ one outside the Australian Embassy in 2004 and the other at the J.W. Marriott hotel in 2003.

Philippine police plan to show photographs of the heads of the three suspected suicide bombers to captured Jemaah Islamiyah militants, hoping to learn whether the attackers belonged to the al-Qaida-linked group or had trained in Mindanao.

Jemaah Islamiyah, although battered by arrests of key leaders and members, appears to have adapted to Southeast Asia’s crackdown by linking up with other regional militant groups or individuals.

Since the group established camps in mid-1998 in Mindanao territory controlled by the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front, at least three batches of recruits, each containing 17-18 Indonesians, have completed 18-month-long courses in bomb-making, combat skills, weapons handling and concepts of jihad, or holy war, according to a confidential report in August by the Philippines National Security Council and intelligence officials, obtained by The Associated Press.

There were also shorter courses for recruits from Malaysia and Singapore “who because of their work (some are civil servants) could not be absent for long periods of time,” said the report.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting for a Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines for decades and is now in peace talks with the government, has denied links with terror groups.

Still, the roster of graduates, trainers and visitors to Mindanao’s terror camps listed in the report reads like a Who’s Who of Jemaah Islamiyah:

_ Osama bin Laden’s Southeast Asian pointman, Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, and convicted 2002 Bali bomber Ali Ghufron, also known as Mukhlas, were instructors to the first batch of graduates in February 2000. Hambali is now in U.S. custody.

_ Suspected Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Bashir attended the graduation ceremony.

_ Two other suspects in the 2002 Bali attacks _ Indonesians Dulmatin and Umar Patek _ who fled to Mindanao to be with Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani, among Washington’s most wanted al-Qaida-allied terrorists. Abu Sayyaf is a brutal al-Qaida-linked group in the Philippines on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

A flurry of e-mails between Dulmatin and Patek and a recently captured militant in Indonesia, Abdullah Sunata, indicated they were seeking funds in the Middle East for future attacks, according to another Philippine security assessment report obtained by AP.

The militants find many sympathizers in impoverished Mindanao, where at least three groups, along with a growing number of Islamic converts, have been engaged in the region’s bloody separatist war since the early 1970s.

“The network continues to thrive in the southern Philippines owing to the support it receives,” the Aug. 9 report said.

Although the Filipino military and police say that known Jemaah Islamiyah camps have been overrun and U.S.-backed offensives disrupted training, the report says the presence of about 25 Indonesian militants in Mindanao could lead to a resumption of the stalled courses.

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