July 22, 2009 / 1:26 PM / 10 years ago

Manila says Muslim rebels reach out to Middle East

MANILA (Reuters) - Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines are attempting to rebuild links with militants in the Middle East after suffering heavy losses against the military, officials said on Wednesday.

The small Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf remains dangerous despite sustained military pressure in the last three years, officials and analysts said, warning of a potential resurgence of violence in the south.

“The Abu Sayyaf remain very dangerous,” Rear Admiral Alexander Pama, navy commander in the southern Philippines, told Reuters. “Like a cornered animal, it would fight back more violently and resort to all possible means just to survive.”

Since 2002, about 300 U.S. troops have trained Filipino soldiers in guerrilla warfare, and in May the U.S. government offered rewards of up to $2.5 million for the arrest of three of Abu Sayyaf’s top leaders.

Yasser Igasan, a Saudi Arabia-trained Islamic preacher, has taken over the leadership of the loosely structured group, tapping his network in the Middle East to raise financial and material support for the rebels, said Major General Ben Dolorfino, military commander in southern Philippines.

Based on Jolo island, Igasan played a role in the kidnapping of three Red Cross workers early this year. The last captive, Italian engineer Eugenio Vagni, was freed on July 12 after nearly six months in captivity.

On nearby Basilan island, a unit of the militant group is led by Khair Mundos, caught in 2004 for funding bomb attacks in the south using money solicited from Saudi Arabia. He escaped from a prison on mainland Mindanao in 2007.

Mundos is one of three leaders hunted by the United States.

In the early 1990s, Mohammed Khalifa, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was instrumental in setting up links between al Qaeda and the Abu Sayyaf, through the charity group International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO).

Igasan had also worked with the IIRO.

Intelligence officials said Abu Sayyaf’s connections to the IIRO were severed when the Islamic charity group came under U.S. investigations for terrorist financing.

Igasan and Mundos are believed to be trying to contact “old friends” in Saudi Arabia to raise funds to recruit militants as well as acquire weapons, intelligence officials said, adding they are seeking donations from sympathisers in the Middle East.

MILITARY SUCCESSES

Pama said the military has wiped out almost 80 percent of the Abu Sayyaf leadership, with the militants now down to about 350 in the first half of 2009 from a high of 5,000 in early 2000.

The government has sent about 5,000 military and police personnel to Jolo and Basilan islands since early this year.

Mars Buan, senior analyst at the security consultancy Pacific Strategies and Assessments, said the rebels had lost most of their skilled fighters and the new recruits were poorly trained.

“Certainly, the Abu Sayyaf’s capability has been drastically reduced,” Buan said, but added the group remained a security threat, scaring away potential investors in the oil, gas and mineral-rich south.

Apart from kidnapping and extortions, the Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for the country’s worst militant attack, the bombing of a ferry near Manila Bay in February 2004, killing about 100 people.

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