- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

MANILA — Al Qaeda-linked terrorists are recruiting Muslim converts in the Philippines through a network of charities, including one founded by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, according to security officials and an intelligence report obtained by the Associated Press.

Converts to Islam in this predominantly Roman Catholic country are valuable because they know the lay of the land and can tap into local information and have contacts and access, the authorities said.

“When they use converts, it means they are using people who are familiar with Manila, with Cebu, with the Christian-dominated centers,” National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales warned at a recent forum.

Muslim converts landed in the spotlight when at least seven were arrested in March in and around Manila with caches of explosives. Police said one, Redendo Cain Dellosa, confessed that he planted a bomb on a ferry that caught fire two months ago, killing more than 100 people. Dellosa’s attorney called it a false confession, extracted under torture.

Government officials estimate the Philippines has about 200,000 Muslim converts, many who worked as migrant laborers in the Middle East before returning to join the nation’s 8 million-strong Islamic community.

Philippine Muslims are dwarfed by the sheer number of Christians in this nation of 84 million, but convert groups get by on funds from Arab benefactors and tithing from Muslims in the Middle East.

The government intelligence report identified the Fi Sabilillah Da’wah and Media Foundation as the main local advocate of a radical Muslim convert movement in Christian-dominated Manila and Luzon island.

The group has been headed since 1998 by a man authorities suspect is a terrorist, Ahmad Santos, who now is in hiding. Police and soldiers recently raided the foundation’s mosque and office in suburban Quezon City, seizing firearms, explosives and videotapes of jihad activities.

Police arrested Mr. Santos’ two wives, but they were released on bail.

The March report links Fi Sabilillah officers to bin Laden’s al Qaeda. Fi Sabilillah also has been tied to the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, other fundamentalist groups and a network of foundations set up by bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa.

A Fi Sabilillah officer, Yusuf Ledesma, denied charges of terrorism and said the Muslim group is being unfairly targeted by a government attempt to whip up anti-Islam hysteria.

“They really have no proof that Fi Sabilillah has ever been involved in any terrorist act,” Mr. Ledesma said. “They seem to be using us as props in a propaganda war.”

Mr. Ledesma accused police of planting guns and explosives in the Fi Sabilillah office and torturing converts into admitting terror activities.

The intelligence report claims that two Islamic schools, or madrassas, in the northern provinces of Pangasinan and Tarlac were run by Mr. Santos and provided paramilitary training for Muslim converts.

Eight converts — including the accused ferry bomber, Dellosa — were arrested in a 2002 raid on the madrassa in Pangasinan, but were released.

Dellosa was among six suspected terrorist-cell members from the brutal Abu Sayyaf group arrested last month when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said officials had foiled major terror attacks in Manila.

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