Philippine Gov't Embarrassed by Escape of Top Terrorists

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Police in the Philippines said the escape from a Manila prison of three leading Muslim terrorists was likely facilitated by several police officers.

President Gloria Arroyo has vowed that heads will roll, and at least one senior officer has already resigned.

In a major blow to the regional war against terrorism, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi and two other men managed to walk out of a high-security cell inside national police headquarters at Camp Crame early Monday.

Al-Ghozi, an Indonesian national, is described as an explosives expert for Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the Southeast Asian proxy of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. Full Story

He has confessed to his involvement in five bombings in Manila in 2000 - in which 22 people were killed - and has also been linked to JI plots to attack Western targets in Singapore.

Al-Ghozi escaped with two other terrorist suspects, both members of the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the target of joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises last year.

One of the two, Abdulmikim Edris, has been named as the ASG's main bomb-maker, whom Philippine police said at his arrest last November had been planning to detonate truck bombs at the U.S. Embassy and other buildings in the capital.

Among the 12 warrants for Edris' arrest before his capture was one for a raid on a beach resort in May 2001, in which three Americans, tourist Guillermo Sobero and missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, were taken hostage. The gang subsequently beheaded Sobero, and Martin Burnham was shot dead in a rescue attempt more than a year later.

Monday's escape came on the same day Arroyo was hosting Australian Prime Minister John Howard, with the campaign against terrorism high on their agenda.

Philippines national police chief Hermones Ebdane conceded that the trio could not have escaped without inside help and described the incident as a black mark against the reputation of the force.

Officers responsible for the prisoners have been ordered to stand down, and investigations are underway. Ebdane has also accepted the resignation of the head of the police intelligence group.

Arroyo's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, said officers responsible for the three would face charges including gross negligence and dereliction of duty.

A police and military manhunt has been launched, and Ebdane said he had issued officers hunting the terrorists a shoot-to-kill order for the "very dangerous" al-Ghozi.

Singapore plot

Al-Ghozi was seen as an important link between various terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, JI and the southern Philippines-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim separatist force.

He was arrested in January 2002 and sentenced three months later to 17 years' imprisonment for possession of a large quantity of explosives, allegedly destined for a bombing campaign planned for Singapore.

That plot had been exposed a month earlier, when authorities in Singapore arrested a dozen suspects. They said the group had planned to bomb the U.S., Australian, British and Israeli embassies, as well as other facilities in the city-state.

At the time of his escape, al-Ghozi was also facing charges relating to a series of deadly bombings in December 2000 of a train, a bus, an airport and other targets in Manila.

He was reportedly being held at Camp Crame rather than a penitentiary, as investigators were continuing to interrogate him about JI activities.

JI's deadliest act was the bombing last October on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. More than 200 people, mostly Western tourists, were killed.

A number of suspects are currently on trial in Bali in connection with the attack, and an Indonesian cleric accused of being the group's spiritual head, Abu Bakar Bashir, is facing unrelated terrorism charges.

Al-Ghozi once studied at a religious school headed by Bashir.

War on terror

The Philippines has been waging a long-running battle against terrorists in the southern Mindanao region.

Just hours before the escape was announced, Howard and Arroyo oversaw the signing of an anti-terrorism agreement, which makes Australia the second-largest outside contributor to defense training in the Philippines, after the U.S.

The pact makes provision for joint training between Australian and Filipino police officers, covering crime scene investigation and forensics, as well as port security.

The two governments, both close allies of the U.S., are at the forefront of regional efforts to wipe out Islamic terrorism in the region.

Australia was the country hardest hit by the 2002 Bali bombings, with 88 of its citizens killed.

According to local media reports, other dangerous prisoners have escaped from Camp Crame in the past.

They include Khadaffi Janjalani, who escaped in 1995 and subsequently took over leadership of the ASG after his brother, Abdurajak - who founded the group with funding from bin Laden - was killed in a shootout with police.

Khadaffi Janjalani remains at large, one of four surviving ASG leaders on whose heads the U.S. government has placed large rewards.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow