AsiaViews, Edition: 21/I/June/2004
In late January, a Filipino was arrested in Belfast, accused of helping the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asia-based terror group. Jaybe Ofrasio, whose wife works as a nurse in Northern Ireland, was charged in court with providing JI a safehouse in Cotabato, where Ofrasio comes from, and raising money for the terror network. He has been denied bail.
A couple of months later, in March, Mario Barrientos was arrested after the police seized explosives and firearms?an M16 rifle, pistols, and anti-personnel mines, among others?in his house in Nueva Ecija, as well as a van with a false floor. Barrientos told the police that he was supposed to deliver the weapons to a buyer whom he identified as ?Khalid? in Quiapo, Manila. Barrientos?s links to the Abu Sayyaf or other terrorist groups have not been established. He is out on bail.
In the same month, Walter Villanueva, Marvin Vincent Rueca, and Redendo Dellosa were arrested in Metro Manila. All are suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf?and they were reported to have been in possession of explosives meant for what President Arroyo described as a ?Madrid-level? attack in Metro Manila.
What do Ofrasio, Barrientos, Villanueva, Rueca, and Dellosa have in common?
They?re all converts to the Muslim faith and they belong to the militant Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM) formed in the mid-1990s, according to Col. Romeo Ricardo, head of Task Force Sanglahi, which is involved in counter-terror intelligence and operations. RSM is a clandestine organization of Filipino Muslim converts, a number of whom worked in Saudi Arabia, where they changed religions. (Rajah Solaiman is a historical figure, a Muslim warrior who fought the Spanish colonizers in Luzon.)
The Nueva Ecija-based Barrientos is linked to the rest. The military has, so far, found two clues. Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said that the cell phone number of Barrientos was in the address book of Dellosa?s cell phone. A ranking intelligence said Barrientos attended a conference of converts last year held in an office known to be part of the radical Muslim network.
What are all these men up to?
In a paper written in November last year, ?Radical Islamic Reverts in the Philippines and Their Networks,? police superintendent Rodolfo Mendoza Jr. said that the RSM?s aim is to ?conduct terrorist activities within Luzon?to distract the attention of the government from? Mindanao.? By opening a new front in the terror war, the RSM wants to keep the military away from Mindanao. The RSM thinks it will do the Muslim rebels a favor by turning the heat away from them so they can pursue their battles?the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the extremist Abu Sayyaf. At the same time, there appears to be the bigger goal. A ranking intelligence officer says the RSM is aiming at ?better targets to get bigger attention.?
And the RSM is not doing this alone. Although autonomous from other Islamic rebel groups, it has forged tactical links with the Abu Sayyaf. Former Abu Sayyaf hostages identified Dellosa, Rueca, and Villanueva as among those who were with the bandit group. They were also arrested with Abu Sayyaf members.
But, as the case of Ofrasio shows, the Muslim converts keep a network beyond the Philippines. A senior intelligence officer says there is no evidence showing that Ofrasio belongs to the RSM but most of those who were arrested knew him. His cell phone number was in the address book of Barrientos?s cell phone.
Most of the converts belong to legitimate organizations that may not know the involvement of some of their members with the RSM. The aboveground organizations usually accept donations from foundations in the Middle East meant for mosques and charity projects. ?But there are persons who are co-opted to re-channel the funds [of these legitimate groups],? the senior intelligence officer said.
What is surfacing, according to intelligence officials, is that the JI taps into existing militant Islamic groups in various parts of Southeast Asia, including the Abu Sayyaf, MILF, and RSM. The JI may have a cell in a country, working with like-minded individuals and groups.
David Wright-Neville, a terrorism expert at Monash University and formerly with Australian intelligence, said that the new coalitions that are emerging ?share common anger against the West.? Wright-Neville delivered a lecture on counter-terrorism in Manila recently. The links of these new networks, he said, transcend religion. These groups are inspired by Al-Qaeda and tend to pick their own targets. Thus, Wright-Neville referred to them as ?baby Al-Qaedas.?
On the part of the RSM, the phenomenon of radicalism among Islamic converts can be attributed to the fact that converts have more zeal for their new faith than those who were born into it. Luis Lacar, a sociologist at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology who has studied Balik Islam, says that converts tend to identify more with their newfound faith.
Beyond this extra fervor, though, what is worrisome, says a senior Western diplomat, is that the tracking down of militants becomes more difficult because converts carry Christian names. ?Alarm bells go off,? the diplomat said.
Ermita points out that converts are not easily suspected ?because no one would know that they are Balik Islam.? In addition, they know the terrain of Metro Manila.
Could the Superferry explosion in February have been the handiwork of the RSM and Abu Sayyaf? So far, the investigation has yielded inconclusive results. During interrogation by the military, Dellosa said he planted a bomb. But he later cried torture and recanted his testimony. Before this, the Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility.
The new administration faces a sophisticated terror threat from groups that just don?t get orders from Al-Qaeda or JI but who act on their own.
By: Marites Da?guilan Vitug
Newsbreak Vol.4, no.11, June 7, 2004