MANILA, Philippines – Two of the most dangerous al-Qaida-linked groups in Southeast Asia are working together to train militants in scuba diving for seaborne terror attacks, according to the interrogation of a recently captured guerrilla.
The ominous development is outlined in a Philippine military report obtained Thursday by The Associated Press that also notes increasing collaboration among the Muslim militants in other areas, including financing and explosives, as extremists plot new ways to strike.
In the past year, the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah has given Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines at least $18,500 for explosives training alone, the report said.
The report comes a month after the U.S. Coast Guard (news – web sites) announced it is seeking to better protect the nation’s ports from terrorist attacks by scuba divers by developing a sonar system that can distinguish human swimmers from dolphins.
Concerns about terrorist strikes by scuba divers were raised three years ago after the FBI (news – web sites) announced it was investigating whether al-Qaida operatives took scuba training to help blow up ships at anchor, power plants, bridges, depots or other waterfront targets.
Authorities fear scuba divers could target ships with more accuracy than a small explosive-laden boat like the one used in the USS Cole (news – web sites) blast that killed 17 sailors in 2000 in Yemen.
According to the Philippine report, an Abu Sayyaf suspect in a deadly bus bombing in Manila on Feb. 14 — Gamal Baharan — described how he and other seasoned guerrillas took scuba diving lessons as part of a plot for an attack at sea.
Abu Sayyaf leaders Khaddafy Janjalani and Abu Sulaiman initiated the training, Baharan said, adding that Janjalani claimed to speak directly with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden (news – web sites) via satellite phone. Authorities couldn’t verify any such conversations and said Janjalani may have been boasting, according to Philippine military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Baharan, 35, said he was told in October to undergo the scuba training in southwestern Palawan province, where he periodically received cell phone messages from Janjalani and Sulaiman “asking him how many fathoms he would be able to dive,” the report said.
The training was in preparation for a Jemaah Islamiyah bombing plot on unspecified targets outside the Philippines that require “underwater operation,” Beharan is quoted as saying.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for a string of attacks in Southeast Asia starting in 1999. Major strikes include the Aug. 5, 2003, bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, which killed 12 people, and the Oct. 12, 2002, bombings on Bali island that killed 202, mostly foreign tourists. Three dozen alleged members were convicted in the Bali bombings and more than a dozen in the Marriott bombing.
Abu Sayyaf is known more for its kidnap-for-ransom schemes — including many involving Americans and Western tourists — and conducting deadly raids against Christian towns.
More recently, Abu Sayyaf has been accused of more spectacular explosive attacks, including the almost simultaneous bombings in Manila and two southern cities Feb. 14 that killed eight people and wounded more than 100. Those attacks came a year after a bomb blew up on a ferry in Manila Bay, killing 116 people in the Philippine’s worst terrorist strike.
Although the Abu Sayyaf’s ranks have been largely depleted by U.S.-backed military assaults, the government still considers the group a major threat.
Such concerns were highlighted by a botched jailbreak Monday in which Abu Sayyaf suspects seized guards’ weapons in a melee that left five people dead. A 29-hour standoff ended when police stormed the prison in a hail of gunfire Tuesday and killed 22 inmates, including 19 Abu Sayyaf members — three of them prominent commanders — who faced charges for kidnappings and bombings.
The inmates were buried Wednesday in a mass grave in a large Muslim community in Manila’s Taguig suburb. Their bloody remains were not cleaned and were wrapped in white cloth — a local practice that indicated they were regarded as martyrs.
Many relatives of the dead have criticized the government, believing the inmates were killed in cold blood and falsely made to appear to have put up a fight with smuggled weapons.
Abu Sayyaf leader Sulaiman has warned of revenge, leading police to tighten security.
Baharan claimed Janjalani is alive — contrary to speculation that he was killed in a military airstrike — and he said bin Laden would only speak to the Abu Sayyaf chieftain.
The interrogation report said: “Subject averred that Janjalani has a direct contact to Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Jamal Khalifa,” bin Laden’s brother-in-law and a Saudi businessman accused of helping establish al-Qaida’s terror cell in the Philippines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Janjalani is using a satellite phone in contacting both leaders. Subject further averred that bin Laden would … talk to no one except Janjalani. They conversed in Arabic.”
Baharan is one of three suspects captured and charged last month in connection with the Feb. 14 bombings. Abu Sayyaf said it launched the bombings to retaliate for military assaults on Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines.
He told interrogators he and another militant, Khalil Trinidad, were ordered by Sulaiman to bomb a bus in Manila to divert the military’s attention from an offensive against rebels.
During a court hearing, a bus conductor identified Baharan and Trinidad as passengers who left the bus shortly before the blast. Both suspects pleaded innocent in court Monday.