A top Asian terrorist suspect and the notorious Abu Sayyaf extremist group may have deployed militants to bomb targets in the Philippines' capital, according to a Philippine intelligence report seen by The Associated Press on Thursday.
The threat remains unsubstantiated and comes from only one source, but the military and police are taking it seriously. Intelligence operatives fanned out in metropolitan Manila to thwart any attack, the report said.
One of two security officials who were aware of the threat and spoke to the AP said one date mentioned for the possible bombings was June 12, when the country celebrated its Independence Day, but no attack happened. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The report said Zulkifli bin Hir, a long-wanted terrorist suspect believed to be hiding in the southern Mindanao region, and the Abu Sayyaf deployed the militants to bomb targets in Manila. Those targets were not specified in the report.
The deployed militants belong to the Abu Sayyaf's so-called Urban Terrorist Group, which focuses on attacks in urban areas. They were supposed to be joined in the capital by some members of the Rajah Solaiman Movement, a small group of Islamic converts blamed for past bombings in the capital, the report said.
The military commander in the capital, Tristan Kison, said he has not seen the report but added that authorities were constantly on the lookout for any threat from "people with bad intentions."
The heightened alert comes after the U.S. State Department on Tuesday renewed its travel warning for the Philippines, saying terrorist attacks could occur in the restive southern Philippines and even in Manila. The U.S. Embassy did not cite any specific reason for the warning.
The Philippine government has complained that such warnings fail to take into account an improving security situation.
Government troops and police have killed and captured hundreds of Abu Sayyaf militants in past years and the few recent attacks attributed to them have been mostly confined to far-flung communities on the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo. Surviving militants have been on the run in the jungles and crippled by a lack of funds, the military says.
Zulkifli bin Hir, a U.S.-trained Malaysian engineer also known as Marwan, has been accused by U.S. and Philippine authorities of involvement in a number of deadly bombings in the country. Washington has offered a $5 million reward for his capture, and Philippine troops backed by U.S. training and intelligence have hunted him in Mindanao in recent months.
Marwan is one of the few remaining important terrorist figures in Southeast Asia following the death or capture of his counterparts in Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaida's affiliate in the region. He used to plot attacks with Indonesians Umar Patek, who was arrested in Abbottabad, Pakistan, last January, and Dulmatin, a master bombmaker killed in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta last year.
Patek traveled to Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden was killed, to meet the al-Qaida leader but apparently never got to see him. Pakistani officials kept Patek's arrest under wraps until the AP broke the news in late March.
Patek and Dulmatin, who goes by one name like many Indonesians, fled to Mindanao in 2003 after they were implicated the year before in the nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreigners, in the Indonesian resort island of Bali.
Abu Sayyaf militants were blamed for the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, setting off an inferno that killed 116 people. A year later, the militants claimed responsibility for bombings of a bus in Manila and two southern towns that killed eight people and wounded more than 100 others.
The militants are based in the country's south, where Muslim rebels have been fighting for minority self-rule for decades.