Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Investigators in the Philippines are looking into claims made by men suspected of bombing a shopping area in the south of the country earlier this week that they have links to al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Regional police chief Simeon Dizon told a local radio station Wednesday that three suspects arrested in connection with the bombing in Zamboanga City made the admission under police interrogation.
But police in Manila stressed that the claims could not be confirmed, warning that the suspects could be trying to mislead officers investigating Sunday's bombing of a busy food hall, in which five people were killed and dozens hurt.
Dizon said the three were apparently members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an Islamic terrorist organization operating in the southern Philippines, understood to have been established in the early 1990s with the support of bin Laden.
American military counter-terrorism advisors recently arrived in the area to advise the Philippines military engaged in an operation to flush out and destroy ASG militants holding two American missionaries among around a dozen hostages on nearby Basilan island.
The gunmen reportedly have sustained heavy losses during skirmishes with government forces in recent weeks.
Claiming to be fighting for an Islamic state in the south of the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, the ASG was formed in the early 1990s as the result of a split with a larger Muslim separatist group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Abdurajak Janjalani, its founder and leader until his death during a clash with police in 1998, was described as a fundamentalist preacher who fought during the 1980s alongside Bin Laden and other mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
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. He attracted younger militants frustrated with the MNLF's tactics.
Bin Laden visited the Philippines in 1993, according to biographer Yossef Bodansky, and the following year, groups of mainly Arab veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan - began to arrive in the Philippines and establish operational cells around the country.
A comprehensive report by Jane's Intelligence Review last August said bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, who handles much of al-Qaida's financial network, manages "significant investments" in the Philippines, and still funds the ASG.
Before Janjalani's death, according to the Philippines police, he admitted that the ASG regarded itself as falling under bin Laden's umbrella.
The setting up of the group, according to experts, falls within the apparent pattern adopted by al-Qaida - to finance and help establish militants in their home countries, then step back and leave them to cause mayhem.
"Bin Laden's generosity with funds and, more importantly, words of praise, has enabled him to cement strong working relationships [with terrorist groups] at both leadership and operational levels," said Jane's.
"Although conceptualized, planned and even financed by Al-Qaida, the targeting end of terrorist operations will be by constituent groups such as ... ASG. Attributing individual attacks and finding the perpetrators will be a long process."