Jailbreak a Blow Against Philippines' Anti-Terror Fight

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - More than 50 prisoners, including members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, escaped from a jail in the southern Philippines at the weekend, as reports emerged that the U.S. recently expressed strong dissatisfaction with the way President Gloria Arroyo's government was tackling terrorism.

The jailbreak comes as a blow to Arroyo, who late last week was celebrating the news that a top Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) leader wanted by her government and Washington had been shot and killed.

U.S. and Australian media reported at the weekend that Western diplomats held a late-night meeting with Arroyo three weeks ago, to voice concern that the government was not cracking down sufficiently on terrorists.

Just days later, on March 30, police arrested six ASG members and seized 80 kilograms of high explosives, thwarting what Arroyo said at the time had been a planned "Madrid-style" attack on railways and shopping malls in the capital, Manila.

Last Thursday, ASG leader Hamsiraji Sali was killed in a fierce firefight with Philippine troops. Sali was one of four surviving top ASG fugitives with a five million dollar U.S. reward offer on their heads.

They are wanted for a series of crimes, including the kidnapping and murder of American hostages.

In the weekend jailbreak, about 24 ASG members escaped together with some 29 other prisoners from a jail in Basilan, one of several jungle-covered southern islands that have been hotbeds of Islamic terrorist activity.

According to the office of the Basilan governor, prisoners had managed to get hold of a firearm and overpowered their guards.

In pursuing operations, security forces said they had killed eight of the escapees and recaptured another 14. It was not immediately clear how many of those caught or killed were ASG members.

Armed forces spokesman Lieut. Col. Danilo Lucer was quoted as saying the escaped terrorists included some awaiting trial in a series of kidnapping and murders in the south, including the beheading of at least 10 villagers in 2001 and a Catholic priest in 2000.

Adding to the embarrassment for the authorities, Philippine military officials said Sunday they had warned local officials in Basilan that detained terrorists were plotting to escape.

Last July, a top bomb maker for another terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), managed to escape from police headquarters in Manila. Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi bolted on the day Australian Prime Minister John Howard arrived to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation.

He was shot dead in an exchange with troops in the south three months later.

Emphasizing the roller coaster nature of the Philippine government's fight against terrorism, the Basilan jailbreak came amid reports about U.S. and allied concerns about security in a country that prides itself as a front-line ally in the war on terrorism.

An Australian daily reported Monday that U.S., Australian and British diplomats had approached Arroyo on March 22, to discuss the situation.

The meeting was reportedly prompted by the government's response to a disaster on Feb. 27, when more than 100 people died in a fire on a ferry.

The ASG claimed it had started the fire with an explosive device, but the government appeared reluctant to acknowledge that the deadly incident was a terror attack.

It only did so after one of the six suspected terrorists arrested on March 30 claimed responsibility for planting a bomb in a television on the ferry.

Arroyo, who is campaigning for re-election next month, issued an order Sunday for a full investigation into the Basilan escape.

Her office said in a statement she wanted the probe to look into the possibility of collusion and make any collaborators "answerable for their offenses."

Arroyo said despite the incident, the government's anti-terror campaign remained on track. A police chief director was personally overseeing the manhunt.

Growing threat

Western officials and researchers say the southern Philippines is not only a source of terrorists but also provides a training ground for those of other nationalities in the region.

Considered most dangerous is JI, described as a South-East Asian front proxy or affiliate of al Qaeda, and comprising extremists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere.

JI, the group responsible for the Bali bombings in October 2002 and an attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta last August, is believed to be training in the southern Philippines, in collaboration with the ASG and factions of another Philippine group, the Moro Independence Liberation Front (MILF).

Another Filipino gang about which less is known is the Rajah Solaiman Group.

While the MILF and ASG say they want to carve an Islamic state in the south of the predominantly Catholic Philippines, the Rajah Solaiman Group reportedly has more ambitious plans.

According to a report on an Islamic website in June 2002, the group was described as a "back to Islam" movement that sought to emphasize an Islamic revival throughout the country.

It promoted the idea that much of the Philippines' main island in the north, Luzon, was Muslim before the 16th century arrival of the Spaniards, who introduced Catholicism.

Named for a Muslim leader who fought the Spanish colonizers, the Rajah Solaiman Group focused on converting Christians to Islam, and apparently received financial support from sources in the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, the report said.

It added that the movement was growing rapidly, facilitated by poverty and a sense of Muslim identity.

A member of the group, Mariano Lomarda, was captured in March 2003 by police who said they had foiled a plot to plant bombs in Manila in response to the then imminent U.S. war against Iraq.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow