Abu Sayyaf

3 minute read
Nelly Sindayen/Manila

Another movie-star-handsome young man was nabbed on terrorism charges last week, and he had a story almost as chilling as Amrozi’s in Indonesia. Abdulmukim Edris, a 30-year-old computer school graduate, was arrested in Manila and charged with last month’s bombing of a shopping mall in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga. Police said Edris was planning more mayhem, this time for the country’s capital, including an attack on the U.S. embassy, shopping malls and the stock exchange, apparently by using truck bombs. “He’s the top bomber, the No. 1 bomber, of the Abu Sayyaf,” crowed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at a press conference at which a silent Edris was displayed to the media.

Abu Sayyaf gained notoriety as a kidnap gang, snatching Filipinos and foreigners for no greater cause than cash. But the allegations against Edris suggest it may have morphed into a more dangerously political outfit. Why else would a bunch of kidnappers be blowing up buildings and people? Last week, Edris provided some troubling answers.

According to Philippine armed forces Chief General Benjamin Defensor, Edris admitted heading the group’s “urban special operations and explosives team.” In late August 2001, two alleged al-Qaeda operatives from Yemen sneaked into the southern Philippine island of Basilan to train Edris and two other members of the gang to use explosives triggered by clocks or cell phones, according to the military. After the training, Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy (Daf) Abubakar Janjalani told a Zamboanga radio station that the group was being renamed Al Harakatul al Islamiya, or the Islamic Movement. The change of name was accompanied by a new mission: international jihad. Janjalani called upon all Muslim faithful to launch attacks against the U.S. and other foreign interests.

Abu Sayyaf once had an anti-Western ideology — and links to al-Qaeda. Ramzi Yousef, who tried to destroy the World Trade Center in February 1993, spent time in the southern Philippines training the group, and involved it in an aborted 1995 plot to blow 11 airliners out of the sky over the Pacific. But in the following years, the lucre of kidnapping was Abu Sayyaf’s chief interest. “For the Abu Sayyaf to transform to a regional Islamic movement is not a big step,” says Rex Robles, a security consultant and a former domestic intelligence chief. “They’re just going back.”

Manila television journalist Arlyn de la Cruz went to Basilan last December to interview Janjalani, and one of her three escorts through the jungle was Edris. En route to the interview they were ambushed by a rival gang, who stabbed the three escorts and left them for dead. When De la Cruz saw Edris on television last week, she shrieked, “What? He managed to live?” He did, and investigators say he has told them that 20 other bombers from Abu Sayyaf have been dispatched around Manila. Philippine authorities say they cannot confirm that Edris is working for al-Qaeda, but according to Defensor, “We believe there is some link somewhere.” In Zamboanga last week, two men were arrested for alleged possession of more than 50 kilos of ammonium nitrate, blasting caps and detonating cords. In Manila, police say, four more Filipinos — including an army sergeant — were arrested with explosives, a rocket-propelled grenade, two pipe bombs and a fuse buster hidden in crates of bananas. They, too, police say, had plans to bomb the U.S. embassy. The Philippines caught one alleged bomber last week — it better keep looking for the rest.

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