Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Six weeks after the rescue of the last American hostage held by Muslim terrorists in the southern Philippines, the U.S. Justice Department has filed criminal charges against five leaders of the group, which law enforcement agencies have linked to al Qaeda.
The five leading members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) are charged with five counts, including kidnappings that resulted in the deaths of two Americans.
Kansas-born missionary Martin Burnham was killed during a June 7 rescue bid by Philippine forces after more than a year in captivity. His wife, Gracia, was wounded but freed.
A third U.S. citizen, California tourist Guillermo Sobero, was decapitated by the terrorists shortly after the three were abducted along with 17 Filipinos from an island resort in May 2001.
The federal indictment also deals with the earlier kidnapping of a fourth American, Jeffrey Schilling, who was rescued by Philippine troops 16 days before the resort raid. Schilling, a 25-year-old Muslim convert from Oakland, Calif., was held for 228 days.
The indicted Filipinos are the same five who prompted the U.S. to offer a $5-million reward for information leading to their capture. None are in custody, and one is believed to be dead.
They include Khadafi Janjalani, the ASG's "spiritual leader," whose brother Abdurajak Janjalani founded the group in the early 1990s and was killed in a 1998 clash with security forces.
Also named is the group's flamboyant spokesman Aldam Tilao, better known as Abu Sabaya, who was apparently killed in a shootout with the Philippine Navy last month. His body was never recovered from the sea, where he fell during an armed ambush on his boat.
"With today's indictment the United States sends a signal we will work to track down and prosecute all those who commit barbaric acts of terrorism against Americans here, at home, and abroad," Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said in Washington Tuesday.
In the southern Philippines, a six-month joint military exercise involving almost 1,000 U.S. personnel and aimed at wiping out the ASG is drawing to a close. The Americans trained and advised Filipino troops, and U.S. intelligence was credited with helping in the mission to track down and kill Abu Sabaya.
A further round of joint counter-terrorism exercises are planned to begin in October, Manila officials said Tuesday.
According to a national public opinion survey several months ago, 75 percent of the Filipino public supported the idea of U.S. troops going into combat zones in the south of the country, and 60 percent said the Americans should stay in such areas as long as was needed.
Even in the southern Mindanao region, where a large Muslim population has some autonomy, 68 percent of respondents approved of U.S. presence in the combat zones.
Last week, the ASG said in a statement that Allah would help it to mete out "punishments" against the U.S., which it accused of "kidnapping and killing innocent civilians" and helping Manila to annex Muslim areas.
Demands, threats, sexual assaults, murder
The ASG claims to be fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the predominantly Catholic Philippines, but it became better known for violent raids and ransom kidnappings.
The indictment against its five leaders says the hostages were questioned about their background and financial resources in a bid to determine how much ransom should be demanded for their release.
In Schilling's case, Abu Sabaya not only forced the hostage to leave a message on his mother's voice-mail system in California saying he would be freed for $10 million, but the bandit himself phoned Schilling's mother and threatening to kill her son if she did not comply with the ransom demand. He suggested she seek help from the YMCA to raise the money.
At various times the ASG demands included large ransoms, an end to the Philippine military operation against it, and the release of prisoners in U.S. jails.
The indictment does not elaborate, but in 2000 Abu Sabaya offered to free Schilling in exchange for the release of three terrorists jailed in connection with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, including Ramzi Yousef.
Providing another glimpse of the ordeal suffered by the hostages, the indictment cites numerous threats to kill them - including one to behead Schilling "on CNN" in an attempt to embarrass the U.S. and Philippines governments.
In Sobero's case, the threat was made good. The ASG announced in a message to a radio station on June 12, 2001, that they had beheaded the American.
"Abu Sabaya stated that, in honor of Independence Day in the Philippines, he and his co-conspirators had released Guillermo Sobero without a head," the indictment reads.
It also says -- in an allegation not made public before - that Janjalani, Sabaya and others had "sexually assaulted female hostages" during their 12 months in captivity.
Apart from the missionary couple, the ASG also held Filipina nurse Deborah Yap, who was killed in the same gun-battle, which cost Martin Burnham his life.
The indictment also refers to other Filipino hostages. Most were freed for ransom late last year, but two were beheaded shortly before Sobero.
Gracia Burnham does not intend to give interviews before next spring, when she plans to publish a book about their experiences, the New Tribes Mission (NTM) organization said Tuesday.
It quoted her as saying: "I want to tell the real story of our captivity - about our ordeal, about how it affected our relationship with each other and with God, about the terrorists who held us, about the actions of the U.S. and Philippine governments and about our wonderful friends and family who worked so hard and prayed so faithfully for our release."
She is scheduled to meet President Bush in Washington this week.
Tormentor Of US Missionary Hostages Reported Killed (Jun. 21, 2002)
Rescued Missionary Widow Heads Home (Jun. 10. 2002)
Philippine Terrorists Taunt US, Threaten To Kill American Missionaries (May 2, 2002)
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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