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The trial of accused Valentine's Day bombers Angelo Trinidad, Gamal Baharan and an Indonesian named Rahmat began in the Makati City Regional Trial Court on 18 April 2005. The three are charged with causing the deaths of four passengers and wounding forty when a bomb was detonated aboard a bus in the Manila business district on the evening of 14 February. Four more bystanders were killed in coordinated blasts that same evening in the southern cities of Davao and General Santos.
Abu Sayyaf mastermind Jainal Sali, alias Abu Solaiman, immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks and linked them to a government offensive on distant Jolo island, which began a week earlier, in a clear effort to associate his group with the cause of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The MNLF is widely regarded as a legitimate organization struggling for Muslim self-determination, and signed a peace pact in 1996, but the agreement has been steadily deteriorating on Jolo since 2001, with local MNLF and Abu Sayyaf units joining forces against the government. These bonds were strengthened in the February fighting, the heaviest on Jolo for several years.
But it is the diverse backgrounds of the three Makati bombers that signal a new dimension to the Philippines' deepening terror coalition. Gamal Baharan, alias Tapay, worked closely with Solaiman in the Abu Sayyaf as his liaison both to corrupt elements in the Philippine military, procuring materiel, and to urban-based operatives like Angelo Trinidad, one of a growing number of radical Muslim 'reverts' - former Christian Filipinos who have come to see Islam as their original faith. Rahmat, meanwhile, is a confessed Jemaah Islamiyah veteran with five years' experience in the southern Philippines, who worked from early 2003 to solidify training and operational ties between JI and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), with the protection of militant commanders in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Just as the ASG provides a local partner through which JI can expand its regional jihad into the Philippines, some Muslim reverts - or Balik Islam -serve the ASG's purposes by extending its operations into the enemy's northern, urban heartland, moving with relative ease among their former brethren, speaking Tagalog like the natives that they are. Trinidad trained alongside ASG and JI comrades in Mindanao for more than a year before carrying out the Makati bombing, which is not the first such attack on the nation's capital. The sinking of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay in February 2004 - with over 100 lives lost, the world's worst act of maritime terrorism since 9/11 - has also been admitted by a Muslim revert, Redondo Dellosa.
Tragically, both Trinidad and Dellosa came to police attention as early as May 2002, when a Balik Islam training camp six hours north of Manila was raided. The two men were among six taken into custody, but jumped bail after being charged with illegal firearms possession - a common occurrence in the absence of effective anti-terror legislation in the Philippines. Further Manila police raids seeking Balik Islam terror suspects in the wake of the ferry attack, and in anticipation of alleged bomb plots in January and March 2005, have given rise to cries of religious persecution.
There is little doubt that some arrests, such as at the Islamic Information Center in Manila's Ermita district on 7 January, have lacked sound legal basis. Balik Islam activists, on the other hand, often appear no less indiscriminate in their eagerness to denounce legitimate law enforcement. Security forces and community activists need to come to the realization that they have a shared interest in distinguishing the innocent from the culpable - and that it is only the terrorists who profit from the collapsing of this distinction.
WATCHPOINT: Can the Philippine Congress, currently considering nine draft anti-terrorism bills, approve legislation that protects the human rights of the innocent by aiding effective prosecution of the guilty?
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AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.
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