- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

CEBU, Philippines Islamist terrorists in the southern Philippines who have killed two American hostages in recent years say they are receiving money from Iraqis close to President Saddam Hussein.
Hamsiraji Sali, a local commander of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf on the remote southern island of Basilan, says he is getting nearly $20,000 a year from supporters in Iraq.
"It's so we would have something to spend on chemicals for bomb-making and for the movement of our people," Sali told a reporter this week, renewing earlier claims of support from Iraq.
The payments, while small, provide additional evidence of a link between Iraq and the Abu Sayyaf a group with long-standing ties to al Qaeda and its global terror network.
The boast of an Iraqi connection was taken seriously after the expulsion of an Iraqi diplomat from Manila last week amid charges he had been in contact with the Abu Sayyaf by telephone.
"Things like this are very difficult to pin down," said a Manila-based Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But it certainly wouldn't surprise me."
Iraqi diplomat Husham Hussein was expelled after Philippine officials discovered that he had received a telephone call from an Abu Sayyaf member linked to the Oct. 2 bombing in the southern port city of Zamboanga that killed one American serviceman and badly wounded another.
The soldiers were part of a joint training exercise intended to bolster the Philippine military's ability to hunt down the terrorists.
A new contingent of 1,700 U.S. troops began arriving in the southern Philippines last month, with plans to put them into combat alongside their Philippine counterparts in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf.
That operation is on hold as questions have arisen about whether U.S. participation in combat would violate provisions of the Philippine Constitution.
The Abu Sayyaf was founded more than a decade ago with help from Jamal Mohammad Khalifa, a brother-in-law of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Several of its members have received explosives training from Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York who is now in prison.
Sali, who participated in the 2001 hostage seizure from a dive resort that led to the deaths of two Americans, had claimed support from the Middle East.
Reports of links between Middle Eastern terrorists and the Abu Sayyaf, which means "bearer of the sword" in Arabic, have been rife since the group's founding in the late 1980s by Abdurajak Janjalani, born to a Muslim father and Christian mother on Basilan.
Janjalani, who was killed in a firefight five years ago, studied in Libya and Saudi Arabia and later fought in Afghanistan alongside men who today form the core of bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Joel Guillo, a hospital worker held hostage for six months by the Abu Sayyaf, said he witnessed the visits by Arab terrorists to the camps. Sali, the Abu Sayyaf commander, said several of those visitors were Iraqis.
Mr. Guillo was held along with Guillermo Sobero, an American tourist, and Gracia and Martin Burnham, American missionaries who were taken from a dive resort May 27, 2001.
Mr. Sobero was beheaded the following month, and Mr. Burnham was killed last year by his captors during a military rescue operation that freed his wife.
Sali told a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer that weapons for the Abu Sayyaf were being provided by unnamed contacts in the Middle East.
The weapons, he said, were transshipped through Cambodia and Vietnam, then to Malaysia and on to the southern Philippines.
That the Abu Sayyaf needed outside aid baffled some observers who pointed out that the terrorists received a windfall after their April 23, 2000, kidnapping of 21 persons eight Europeans, two South Africans, nine Malaysians and two Filipinos from a resort in neighboring Malaysia.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who has long meddled in Philippine affairs, gave the Abu Sayyaf $20 million in ransom money called "development aid" to release the hostages.
Much of the money reportedly was siphoned off by middlemen who helped negotiate the hostage release. The remainder was squandered by the Abu Sayyaf on speedboats and arms, leaving ragtag units like Sali's destitute.
While estimates of the number of full-time committed Abu Sayyaf guerrillas vary, the Philippine military puts their strength at about 200, down from more than 1,000 at the height of their kidnapping sprees. Many of those fighters have retreated from Basilan to Jolo, an island farther south where U.S. troops were to go into combat.

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