- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

CEBU, Philippines — A convicted bomb maker who is a key operative in Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist group tied to last year’s Bali bombing, is on the run in the Philippines after escaping from his Manila jail cell early yesterday, police said.

The escape of Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi is a setback for the war on terrorism in Southeast Asia and an embarrassment to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is hosting Australian Prime Minister John Howard for antiterrorism talks.

Al-Ghozi was serving a 17-year sentence for possession of explosives, some intended for a thwarted attack on the U.S. Embassy in Singapore and other Western targets. Police say he has also confessed to a role in the Dec. 30, 2000, Manila bombings that took 22 lives.

“It is a major breach of security because he was the most important [Jemaah Islamiyah] member currently in custody,” Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror,” told Agence France-Presse in Singapore.

“He is the most experienced, the best trained and the most well-motivated,” Mr. Gunaratna said. “He is the one man who can put together an operation in such a short time. He knows how to purchase weapons, he knows how to put operations together, he knows security.”

Al-Ghozi walked out of his cell inside the intelligence service compound at Camp Crame, the national police headquarters, along with two members of the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, National Police Chief Hermogenes Ebdane said.

Both groups have ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network, according to U.S., Australian and Philippine intelligence officials.

News of the escape came only a few hours after Mr. Howard, the Australian leader, announced $3 million antiterrorism grant for the Philippines. He and Mrs. Arroyo have been Washington’s chief Pacific allies in the war on terrorism.

The majority of those killed in the October 2002 Bali blast were Australians, while the Philippines has endured years of fighting, kidnappings and terrorist bombings by Islamic separatists.

The other escapees were identified as Abu Sayyaf members Abdul Edris and Merang Abante. Abante is accused of the 2000 kidnapping of Jeffrey Schilling, an American who later escaped.

Edris was indicted in the United States last year for his reported role in the kidnapping of tourists, including three Americans, from a resort in May 2001.

The security detail on duty at the time is under investigation as rumors swirled in the capital that the three men paid their way out. Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffy Janjalani escaped from the same prison three years ago.

Jemaah Islamiyah wants to carve out an Islamic state from parts of Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Despite the recent arrests of Jemaah Islamiyah leaders, there have been new reports that the group is reorganizing and planning attacks.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, U.S. military commander for the Pacific, said during a visit to Manila last month that 140 Jemaah Islamiyah members had been arrested over the last 18 months, but warned that the group still is capable of attacks.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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