MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A captured Abu Sayyaf commander told investigators that a top Southeast Asian terror suspect, who the military reported was killed in a U.S.-backed airstrike two years ago, is alive and being harbored by a hard-line Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines, a confidential police report said.
Abu Sayyaf commander Khair Mundos, who was arrested near Manila's international airport on June 11, acknowledged his group has fallen into disarray, without a central leader, burdened by infighting and surviving largely on extortion and kidnappings, according to a police interrogation of Mundos, a copy of which was seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Mundos' account echoes military and police assessments of the Abu Sayyaf, which they said has been weakened and isolated in remote jungle patches in the south by more than a decade of U.S. military-backed Philippine assaults.
The U.S. State Department says Mundos is a key Abu Sayyaf leader and financier who was captured in the southern Philippines in 2004, but escaped from jail three years later. While in police custody, he acknowledged having arranged the transfer of funds from the al-Qaida terrorist network to the Abu Sayyaf to finance bombings and other terrorist attacks in the south, the State Department said.
The Abu Sayyaf "has no central leadership," Mundos was quoted in the report as saying, adding the militants "do not have direction" and are "engaging in extortion and kidnapping activities only to sustain their daily needs."
U.S. terrorism expert Zachary Abuza warned that crimes could serve as a lifeline to the Abu Sayyaf and enable it to bounce back, launch more serious attacks and reconnect with more foreign jihadists. "The Abu Sayyaf group vacillates wildly between ideologically motivated terrorism and wanton criminality," Abuza said.
Mundos said he traveled last year to a hinterland camp of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, a hard-line separatist group, in southern Maguindanao province where he met Marwan, a top Malaysian terrorist suspect whose real name is Zulkifli bin Hir.
Marwan was with a Singaporean militant, Muhamda Ali, who uses the guerrilla name Muawiyah, and another foreign militant, Amin Baco, Mundos said.
Marwan, who is on the FBI list of most-wanted terrorists and has a $5 million bounty on his head, was reported by the military to have been killed, along with Muawiyah, in a Feb. 2, 2012, Philippine airstrike on an Abu Sayyaf camp in southern Sulu province.
Mundos said he went there to visit a local Muslim rebel commander, spend the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and serve as a religious instructor to two batches of rebel recruits, who were undergoing bomb-making training.
Mundos described Marwan as a "silent man" while he said Muawiyah, a computer expert, was a friendly militant who wandered from hut to hut like "a politician."
A separate police intelligence report obtained by the AP quoted informants as saying that Marwan visited a local militant's residence in Maguindanao with security escorts in April.
The military has said it was aware of intelligence reports that Marwan survived the airstrike but would not change its statement that he was killed without convincing proof that he is alive. A military acknowledgement that Marwan is alive is crucial because it would allow the resumption of funding to efforts to track and capture him.
The Abu Sayyaf is burdened by infighting, Mundos said in the report, adding he was at odds with a younger commander, Puruji Indama, in their base in southern Basilan province.