A terror suspect on Wednesday said the southern Philippines has become a major training ground for regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah – graduating 23 bomb experts just days ago – and a refuge for Indonesians involved in major attacks, including the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.
Rohmat, arrested last week as an alleged Jemaah Islamiyah operative in the Philippines, told The Associated Press that he had trained new recruits of the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf group and said its leaders were plotting more bombings and kidnappings.
Details provided by the 26-year-old Indonesian martial arts expert showed a close but highly compartmentalized relationship between two of the most dangerous groups in Southeast Asia and partly explained why the threat of terrorism has persisted despite years of crackdown.
Rohmat, who only goes by one name, said 23 Indonesian recruits had just finished jungle training – including lessons in explosives, weapons, combat and Islam – when he left a Jemaah Islamiyah camp called Jabal Qubah in southern Mindanao island shortly before being arrested at a military checkpoint.
“There were 23 men who have just finished the courses. I heard they would be sent back home and others would stay behind to train a new batch,” a handcuffed Rohmat said during a 30-minute interview at a military safehouse in the presence of officials.
Training of Jemaah Islamiyah recruits in Mindanao started in the late 1990s, he said.
He said he traveled to the southern Philippines as a trainee with other Indonesians in January 2000 and two years later became an instructor on Islam and martial arts – but not bomb-making as alleged by military officials. He said he taught Indonesians and local Abu Sayyaf recruits in Mindanao’s Maguindanao province and nearby Jolo island.
Around 2002, Rohmat, who assumed a number of local aliases including Zaki, said he was designated by Zulkifli, then the Indonesian head of the Jemaah Islamiyah in the Philippines, as a contact man for dealings with the Abu Sayyaf, including training its recruits and staying close to its leaders, Khaddafy Janjalani and Abu Sulaiman, most of the time.
The group planned attacks on its own, independent of Jemaah Islamiyah, which only provided training, he said.
Rohmat said he joined Jemaah Islamiyah knowing it fostered “pure Islamic teachings” but it was too late when he learned that the group advocated a type of violence that he disagreed with because it victimized innocent people.
“I couldn’t do anything anymore because I was already there,” he said. “I had no money and I didn’t know how to escape because there was no way out. I could go out but I knew that would mean my arrest.”
Rohmat said he was present in a meeting when Janjalani and Sulaiman plotted the Feb. 14 bombings that killed eight people and injured more than 100 others in Manila and two southern cities.
The two leaders also gave orders for new major bombings in Manila and one of two southern cities, probably Davao, during the Easter holiday, he said.
During his five-year stay in the south, Rohmat said he met two Indonesian militants, also from Jemaah Islamiyah, including one he identified as Dulmatin. Both were involved in the bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202, mostly foreign tourists, Rohmat said. He declined to identify the other militant.
Intelligence officials have told AP that Rohmat trained the Abu Sayyaf in bomb making, particularly the use of mobile phones to trigger homemade explosives.
Officials said Monday that three Jemaah Islamiyah operatives are suspected of plotting with the Abu Sayyaf to launch bomb attacks this week.
Soldiers and police have beefed up security in shopping malls, churches and other crowded places to thwart reported bombings threatened by the Abu Sayyaf as revenge for the deaths of 23 inmates killed by police in a botched jailbreak last week. Among them were three prominent guerrilla commanders.
A recent intelligence report said Jemaah Islamiyah gave Abu Sayyaf militants at least $18,500 last year for explosives training.
Jemaah Islamiyah also has been blamed for the August 2003 bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, which killed 12 people.