Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
How do they convince these converts that they should join up? By appealing to the Qur’an and Sunnah. But of course, the group involved claims it is being unfairly targeted by the government.
“When they use converts, it means they are using people who are familiar with Manila, with Cebu, with the Christian-dominated centers,” National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales warned at a recent forum.
Muslim converts landed in the spotlight when at least seven were arrested in March in and around Manila with caches of explosives. Police said one, Redendo Cain Dellosa, confessed that he planted a bomb on a ferry that caught fire two months ago, killing more than 100 people. Dellosa’s lawyer called it a false confession extracted under torture.
Government officials estimate the Philippines has about 200,000 Muslim converts, many who worked as migrant laborers in the Middle East before returning to join the nation’s 8 million-strong Islamic community.
Philippine Muslims are dwarfed by the sheer numbers of Christians in this nation of 84 million, but convert groups get by on funds from Arab benefactors and tithing from Muslims in the Middle East.
The government intelligence report identified the Fi Sabilillah Da’wah and Media Foundation as the main local advocate of a radical Muslim convert movement in Christian-dominated Manila and Luzon island.
The group has been headed since 1998 by a man authorities suspect is a terrorist, Ahmad Santos, who is now in hiding. Police and soldiers recently raided the foundation’s mosque and office in suburban Quezon City, seizing firearms, explosives and videotapes of jihad activities.
Police arrested Santos’ two wives, but they were released on bail.
The March report links Fi Sabilillah officers to bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Fi Sabilillah also has been tied to the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, other fundamentalist groups and a network of foundations set up by bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa.
Santos refused to meet with AP. But a Fi Sabilillah officer, Yusuf Ledesma, denied charges of terrorism and said the Muslim group is being unfairly targeted by a government attempt to whip up anti-Islam hysteria.
“They really have no proof that Fi Sabilillah has ever been involved in any terrorist act,” Ledesma told AP. “They seem to be using us as props in a propaganda war.”
Ledesma accused police of planting guns and explosives in the Fi Sabilillah office and torturing converts into admitting terror activities.
The intelligence report claims that two Islamic schools, or madrassas, in the northern provinces of Pangasinan and Tarlac, were run by Santos and provided paramilitary training for Muslim converts.
Eight converts — including the alleged ferry bomber, Dellosa — were arrested in a 2002 raid on the madrassa in Pangasinan, but were released.
Dellosa was among six alleged terrorist cell members from the brutal Abu Sayyaf group arrested last month when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said officials had foiled major terror attacks in Manila.
The intelligence report said the men arrested in 2002 admitted membership in a group known as the Rajah Sulaiman Movement, whose primary objective is to establish Islamic cities on Luzon island in the Christian-dominated north. A secondary goal is to carry out terror attacks in the north, taking attention away from predominantly Muslim areas of the south.
The report cites meetings and contacts between Santos, his two brothers and Muslim groups in the south, including with Salamat Hashim, the late chairman of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The report says Santos and four Fi Sabilillah converts received special military training from the Liberation Front, including the use of explosives, in December 2001 and January 2002.
When government forces attacked a Liberation Front complex last year, Santos purportedly received instructions from Salamat to carry out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of high-ranking officials in Manila, the report said, though the plot was never carried out.
Liberation Front spokesman Eid Kabalu acknowledges Santos visited the group’s training camp and interviewed Salamat for a TV-radio program, “Discover Islam,” which Santos used to run. But Kabalu denied any contacts with Santos were related to bombings or other terror activities.
Santos is linked to Abu Sayyaf through Omar Lavilla, a classmate of Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani at a school allegedly established and funded by bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Khalifa, the report says. Khalifa, a Saudi businessman, has a Filipina wife and used to visit the Philippines often.
Three sisters provide another connection: one married to Lavilla, one to Janjalani and another to Abu Sayyaf senior officer Abu Solaiman.
Before raids on the madrassas in Pangasinan and Tarlac, Santos sent Lavilla to Mindanao in the south to get $180,000 from Janjalani, according to arrested members of the Rajah Sulaiman Movement. The cash was intended for development of bases in Luzon, buying weapons and carrying out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, the report said, but preparations were suspended because the money did not arrive in time.
The report outlines Fi Sabilillah links with Jemaah Islamiyah through Santos; a slain Jemaah Islamiyah officer, Fathur Roman Al Ghozi of Indonesia; and Jaybe Ofrasio, a Filipino Muslim convert arrested early this year in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Some contacts may have been involved in providing bank accounts used in transferring suspected Jemaah Islamiyah funds from domestic and foreign bank accounts to Ofrasio’s local account, where substantial deposits and withdrawals continued after he left in July 2003 and even after his arrest, the report said. The report gave no figures but called the transfers “huge.”
A Fi Sabilillah officer was also allegedly one of the contacts of suspected Jemaah Islamiyah finance officer Taufic Rifqi, an Indonesian arrested in Mindanao last October, and Abdulmukim Edris, an Abu Sayyaf member slain after escaping from jail last July with terror suspect Al Ghozi.
Al Ghozi, accused of supervising a bloody Dec. 30, 2000, train bombing in Manila that killed 20 people, later was killed in a shootout with soldiers.
Ledesma denied any knowledge of the Rajah Sulaiman Movement or its military arm. Ledesma also denied any links between Fi Sabilillah and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf or Jemaah Islamiyah.
But he said Fi Sabilillah members sometimes encounter Liberation Front members in forums and Abu Sayyaf detainees during jail visits as part of charity work. And he acknowledged that as Muslims, Fi Sabilillah members are interested in making Luzon island a fertile ground for Islamic conversions.
“For us to want a return to our Islamic roots through da’wah, or missionary work, or peaceful means is not out of the question,” Ledesma said.
The report said Santos recently arranged explosives procurement through Muslim convert Mohammad Barrientos, who was arrested in April north of Manila with a cache of explosives and a utility vehicle with a false bottom. Although authorities have alleged Barrientos dealt with Santos’ group, he has not been identified as a member of any terror networks.