At least five foreign extremists have been hiding on a remote southern Philippine island and could help link Filipino radicals to potential overseas financiers and combat trainers like the al-Qaida terrorist network, a military commander said Tuesday.
The five, who have been roaming the tropical jungles of Jolo island in Sulu province, are led by U.S.-trained Malaysian engineer Zulkifli bin Hir, one of the remaining key terror suspects in Southeast Asia, regional military commander Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer said.
"They seem to be actively moving around Sulu," Ferrer told reporters.
U.S. troops have been providing training, intelligence and other noncombat help to underfunded Filipino troops for years to help crush local Abu Sayyaf militants and the foreign extremists they shelter, including members of the Indonesia-based militant network Jemaah Islamiyah.
U.S.-backed Philippine offensives have been credited for the capture and killing of hundreds of Abu Sayyaf fighters and their foreign allies in Sulu, an impoverished Muslim region about 590 miles (950 kilometers) south of Manila, and in outlying island provinces.
Washington has offered huge rewards for some of the terror suspects, including $5 million for Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan. The Malaysian has been accused of involvement in past bombings and of helping secure funds and weapons for the Abu Sayyaf from foreign donors.
Ferrer said the other foreign militants are a Singaporean identified as Abdullah Ali who uses the guerrilla name Muawiyah, and an Indonesian identified only as Qayim. The two others are Amin Baco, probably a Malaysian who uses the alias Abu Jihad, and another Indonesian identified as Sa'ad, he said.
Troops have obtained pictures of Marwan and Muawiyah, Ferrer said.
Ferrer, who heads the military's Western Mindanao Command, said he was unaware of other foreign militants outside his command. A government threat assessment report issued last year seen by The Associated Press lists 12 identified foreign terror suspects, including those named by Ferrer.
Aside from a yearslong military manhunt, troops have been launching offensives to kill or capture Abu Sayyaf militants and destroy their strongholds to deny foreign radicals sanctuaries, Ferrer said.
Military officials have accused hard-line commanders of a larger Philippine rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, of harboring Jemaah Islamiyah militants in southern Mindanao region's marshy heartland. The 11,000-strong Moro group, which is engaged in peace talks with the government, has denied any links with foreign terrorist groups.