Abu Sayyaf behind Manila blast?

A remotely detonated car bomb attack on the Batasan complex that houses the Philippines House of Representatives at Quezon City in Manila Nov. 13 killed four, including the suspected target—Rep. Wahab Akbar (Basilan), a former Muslim militant who backed operations against the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. Twelve other were injured in the blast, including two congressmen. National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales revealed that authorities received an intelligence report three weeks ago about threats on Akbar’s life, according to the Philippine ABS-CBN TV News. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has offered a $100,000 reward for information that can prevent such attacks in the future.

Reports are conflicted on claims of responsibility for the blast. China’s Xinhua news agency reported that Abu Sayyaf’s Kumander Noth Mudalam denied the organization was responsible. He said Abdul Mushaf—who had claimed responsibility in the group’s name through cellphone text messages—is not a member of Abu Sayyaf.

The blast occurred just a day before Malaysia-brokered peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were slated to resume in Kuala Lumpur.

The blast also comes amid heightened political tensions, as President Arroyo faces a third impeachment attempt in as many years. Hearings resumed the day after the blast.

The key Abu Sayyaf leaders were reportedly killed last year in a clash with Philippine marines on Jolo Island. But some of the group’s fighters apparently survived and regrouped. Sporadic bombings continue on the southern island group of Mindanao, where Basilan and Jolo are located. Last month, 11 were killed and about 120 injured in an explosion at a mall in Makati City. Police have said a build-up of gases was the likely cause, but a final report has yet to be released and the owners of the center have disputed the preliminary findings. (Christian Science Monitor news blog, Nov. 15)

The CSM report contains a few errors. The account states: “Akbar was Basilan governor when US troops arrived on the island in 1992 to train Filipino soldiers battling Abu Sayyaf.” In fact, Akbar was elected governor in 1998, and US troops arrived in Mindanao after 9-11 in 2001—the same year Akbar was re-elected governor. In fact, 1992 saw a massive withdrawal of US troops from the Philippines following the closure of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base.

The CSM headline “Former Muslim rebel may have been target in Philippines bombing” may also be misleading. CSM quotes The Australian newspaper saying that Akbar had “spoken in the past of his links with Abubakar Janjalani, an Afghan-trained Islamic firebrand who founded the Abu Sayyaf initially to fight for an independent state in the Philippine south… After Janjalani was killed in a gunbattle with police in 1998, Akbar severed ties with the group and later joined the mainstream to seek elective office.” The Global Security website tells us that Janjalani’s brother, Khadafi Janjalani, took over Abu Sayyaf after his death. The Council on Foreign Relations page on Abu Sayyaf states that “Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in a clash with troops on Jolo Island” in September 2006. Khadafi/Khadaffy Janjalani’s presumed successor Abu Sulaiman was killed by Philippine troops in January 2007.

The independent Philippine publication Newsbreak has re-posted a January 2003 profile of Wahab Akbar, in which he admitted that he met Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani in Libya, where they were both studying Islam in the mid-1990s. But despite preaching jihad in Mindanao after his return from Libya, Akbar denied ever having had any any links to Abu Sayyaf. He admitted to taking money for family medical expenses and to establish local mosques from Mohammad Jamal Khalifah—a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who is also accused of funding Abu Sayyaf. But Akbar said the relationship ended there, and added: “I don’t actually like him. He looked down on me because I smoked.”

The profile also states that as a child in the early 1970s, Akbar joined his father in an armed insurgency in Mindanao after a multinational timber corporation burned down the family’s squatter settlement. It does not state whether this insurgency was Islamist or communist in orientation—or neither. Akbar is quoted: “[The struggle] was actually selfish. [Most of the rebels] just wanted to have a better life, but there was no opportunity for them, so they joined the revolution.” Akbar’s father laid down arms after three years in exchange for land and a local political post from the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. Akbar joined the Islamist student movement and was arrested in protests when the Philippines were under martial law in 1979. In 1987, he was sent to Libya by the MNLF to train as a commando. But upon his return to Mindanao, he became a preacher—not a guerilla.

In any case, Akbar rapidly became a GWOT hardliner upon joining mainstream politics in 1998. Wrote Newsbreak:

“It would be better to kill 10 suspects than to let the criminals go and let everybody suffer,” the macho governor says. “I have to be tough. I have to be a dictator. I must not show pity.”

See our last post on the Philippines.