Asia-Pacific Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The Philippines looks set to become a key Asian player in the U.S.-led international war against terrorism, with Washington to provide help to Filipino forces battling Islamic militants whom intelligence experts believe have close links with Osama bin Laden.
Philippines national security advisor Roilo Golez told reporters that a "sizeable" group of American military advisors, led by a general, would arrive in the country shortly, to help local troops.
Although the Philippines had seen nothing like the suicide-hijackings in the U.S. last month, Golez said in a radio interview, the government was monitoring any possible threats from Filipino groups sympathetic to Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and to bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Abu Sayyaf, a separatist Islamic group, is one of several fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines. Kidnappings for ransom have become its trademark, along with the brutal beheading of captives on occasion.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) currently holds an American missionary couple, Gracia and Martin Burnham of Wichita, Kan., and more than a dozen Filipino hostages captured last May 27. They are holed up on the southern island of Basilan. A third American seized in May was reportedly killed by his captors.
Western and Filipino security specialists believe the ASG was financed and supplied during the first half of the 1990s by bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, and that contacts have been maintained ever since.
Philippines army chief of staff Gen. Diomedio Villanueva told a European news agency this week he was certain bin Laden was still supplying weapons and training to the ASG.
The ASG has been designated a terrorist organization by the State Department since 1995. On October 5, it was one of 28 foreign terrorist organizations re-certified as such by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Among other effects, the designation aims to cut off any funding to the groups from whatever source, and to deny members visas to enter the U.S.
Golez said the U.S. visitors would discuss with Filipino officials "possibilities where we can help each other with respect to planning, training and adjusting our program addressed to the local [manifestations of] international terrorist problems."
But he denied claims in a U.S. media report earlier this week that U.S. forces would likely themselves conduct military actions against bin Laden-linked terrorists in the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia.
"The Americans shall help by way of extending to us additional special equipment, additional training and probably a sharing of intelligence information," Golez said.
"Any effort that would target these terrorist groups, particularly the Abu Sayyaf, would involve exclusively Filipino troops," he said. "There is no possibility that the Americans could be conducting covert or overt military action using their own troops because this is impossible under the Philippine constitution."
Golez added: "What we are talking about is how they can help - not by dispatching troops, but on providing the equipment we need so we can improve our capability in battling the Abu Sayyaf."
Filipino troops have since Sunday been engaging Abu Sayyaf forces in Basilan.
President Gloria Arroyo's government has come under fire from some local leftist and Muslim groups for its support for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Arroyo has granted the U.S. permission to overfly Philippine airspace and to use its airports as transit points as it carries out its continuing anti-terror campaign.
As protestors demonstrated in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila Wednesday, the president met with local Muslims leaders.
Some activist groups have threatened to send members to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban in the event of any U.S. invasion. One such organization, the Islamic Movement for Good Government, claims to have already enlisted around 48,000 Filipino Muslims to fight against the U.S. and its allies.
Manila newspapers reported in early Thursday editions that members of the ASG were in the capital, planning to carry out bombing attacks in response to the air strikes on Afghanistan. Planned targets included the U.S. embassy, military installations, oil depots and shopping malls, the reports said.
Arroyo plans to visit Washington next month for talks with President Bush and other top officials. She will also address the United Nations, and has requested a visit to the sites of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, officials in Manila said.
Yossef Bodansky of the U.S. Congress' taskforce on terrorism and unconventional warfare wrote in a 1999 biography of bin Laden that the Philippines Islamists were the first major network supported by the Saudi-born terrorist leader.
Bin Laden traveled to the Philippines in 1993, bought property and opened bank accounts, according to Bodansky.
From early 1994, groups of mainly Arab "Afghans" - veterans of the campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as was bin Laden himself - began to arrive in the Philippines and establish operational cells around the country.