Al-Qaida training camps move to the Philippines

Officials say remote bases like ones under Taliban

May 31, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MANILA, Philippines - The southern Philippines has become the training center for al-Qaida's Southeast Asia affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, drawing recruits from a number of countries, according to Western and Philippine officials.

For the past six to nine months, recruits mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, but also a few from as far off as Pakistan and the Middle East, have received training at inaccessible, rough-hewn sites - basically a few huts and some tents - in a marshy region on the island of Mindanao, officials said.

The training is similar to what their older colleagues in terrorism received in Afghanistan when that served as al-Qaida's base, they added.

In Mindanao, though, the training appears to include more of a emphasis on the use of sophisticated explosives, the officials said.

"We've closed the camps in Afghanistan, but they're still operating in the southern Philippines," said an Australian official in Canberra.

More broadly, intelligence officials say there is a constant movement of international terrorists across an area that includes Mindanao, islands in the Sulu Sea, the Malaysian state of Sabah and northern Indonesia.

A joint American-Philippine military exercise scheduled to begin in a few weeks will have its locus on Sulu, a group of islands in the middle of that zone.

"I'm convinced that Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaida and fellow travelers are able to move around Southeast Asia fairly freely," a Western diplomat said.

Jemaah Islamiyah has been linked to the nightclub bombings that killed more than 200 people last year on the Indonesian island of Bali. The group's leader is Abu Bakar Bashir, American and Indonesian officials have said. He has not been charged in the Bali case but is now on trial on treason charges and in the bombings of several churches in Indonesia in December 2000. He has denied the charges.

The training camps are in an area under the control of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been waging a guerrilla war for an independent state for 25 years, officials said.

Hundreds of Qaida recruits trained at Moro camps in the late 1990s, including some of the men being tried in the Bali bombing, Western officials said. But those camps were destroyed by the Philippine Army in 2000, and Moro rebels have steadfastly denied any links to al-Qaida.

A new round of training began at several sites six to nine months ago, officials said. Similarly, in recent months, al-Qaida has reorganized bases of operation in a number of other places, including Kenya, Sudan and Chechnya, according to senior counterterrorism officials in Washington, Europe and the Middle East.

At the Moro camps, courses vary in length from two weeks to three months, instructors are Indonesians and Arabs as well as Filipinos, and graduates receive a certificate, a Philippine intelligence officer said. There are 30 to 40 students in a class, most of them Filipinos joining the Moro rebels, along with the foreigners sent by Jemaah Islamiyah, he said.

In one class, students learn to take apart a watch, then put it together again as a timer for an explosive device, he said. There is also a heavy dose of Islamic religious teaching.

The number of Jemaah Islamiyah recruits who have gone through the recent training might be considered relatively small - perhaps not more than 50, one intelligence official said - but officials point out that a terrorist attack does not require a great number of men.

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