(CNSNews.com) - The radical Islamic organization behind the Philippines hostage drama is linked to Osama bin Laden, according to a leading American terrorism specialist.
And rumors persist that bin Laden, the Saudi-born militant accused by the U.S. of masterminding the 1998 bombings of American embassies in East Africa, may be responsible in some way for the escalation of Islamist militancy in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Bin Laden helped finance the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in its formative days, says Yossef Bodansky, the author of a biography on the wanted terrorist.
The U.S. State Department, too, believes the ASG maintains ties with Muslim fundamentalist organizations elsewhere, including bin Laden's al-Qaida network.
Abu Sayyaf ("Father of the Executioner" or "Father of the Sword" in Arabic) is the smaller of two groups fighting for an independent Islamic state in southern Philippines.
It formed in 1991 out of a split over strategy within the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which entered talks with the government and signed a peace deal in 1996.
Like bin Laden, ASG's first leader, Abduragak Janjalani, was a veteran of the Muslim war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, a breeding ground for fundamentalist militancy.
Having studied in Saudi Arabia, trained in Libya, and fought in Afghanistan, Janjalani returned to the Philippines, where he sought to establish a pure form on Islam, which would outlaw such "western evils" as television and dancing.
He attracted younger Muslims unhappy with the relatively cautious campaign being waged by the MNLF for an Islamic state.
The organization has been involved in numerous attacks against Christians in recent years, including a hand-grenade attack on a Catholic cathedral that killed seven worshippers, and the murder of 52 people in a raid on a Christian village in 1995.
Among victims either seized, murdered, or both in its anti-Christian campaign were a Catholic bishop, a Catholic monsignor, a Belgian priest, an Italian priest, a Protestant pastor, an Episcopalian priest, as well as other church workers and nuns. A missionary ship was bombed in port.
According to a report in the Manila Bulletin, Abu Sayyaf militants "repeatedly demanded the removal of Christian crosses atop churches and schools."
Janjalani was killed during a firefight with police in 1998, leaving a leadership vacuum. It is reported that his younger brother, Khadaffy, now heads up the group's operations. He is reputed to be even more militant, and an explosives expert.
The group finances its operations through robberies and ransom kidnappings, the State Department says. It remains small - with only some 200 men under arms - but highly effective.
In his book Bin Laden: The man who declared war on America, Bodansky says the Philippines insurgency was the first major Islamic network supported by bin Laden, a millionaire businessman who turned his back on a life of wealth and privilege to bankroll a holy war against Christians and Jews.
"Bin Laden traveled to the Philippines in winter 1993," says Bodansky, who heads the U.S. Congress' taskforce on terrorism and unconventional warfare.
"He presented himself as a wealthy Saudi investor eager to help fellow Muslims in the country's southern islands." There he bought property and opened bank accounts.
From early 1994, groups of mainly Arab "Afghans" - veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan - began to arrive in the Philippines and establish operational cells around the country.
According to Bodansky, one of the most senior commanders involved in this process was Ramzi Ahmed Youssef, an Arab who is now serving a prison term in the U.S. for planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.
(Youssef is one of three Arabs whose release from American prisons the ASG group demanded in exchange for the safe release of another group of hostages, mostly Catholic schoolchildren, seized in March.)
Bodansky writes that Youssef was involved with the ASG in plans - subsequently aborted - to assassinate US President Bill Clinton during a 1994 visit to Manila, and Pope John Paul II a year later.
The plot to kill the Pope was aborted when Youssef and his colleagues had a work accident while mixing explosives in Manila. His cover and safehouse blown, Youssef fled to Pakistan, where the government - under massive pressure from Washington - handed him over for trial in the US.
Despite the accidental collapse of the operation, "Osama bin Laden proved his ability to establish a comprehensive and resilient support and finance system, which survived the subsequent Filipino and American investigations," says Bodansky.
"In early 1995 bin Laden put the Philippine operations behind him and began preparing for a marked escalation of direct confrontation with the Islamists' Mideast archenemies."
But the latest upsurge of violence in the Philippines - including the seizure of mostly foreign hostages - may be a sign that bin Laden has renewed his interest in the Philippines jihad.
The Manila Bulletin daily recently quoted senior military officials as saying bin Laden had paid a secret, one-day visit to the southern Philippines last month, arriving on "an unidentified foreign submarine" on March 18 and leaving the following day on a fishing boat.
The report claimed bin Laden had brought in weapons from Indonesia and held talks with senior Islamist figures.
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