Terror risk high despite death of bomb expert

Terror risk high despite death of bomb expert

The Philippines has taken out a vital link in South-east Asia's terror network, but the killing of Zulkifli Hir, better known as Marwan, has not diminished the threat posed by Islamist militants, security officials and analysts said.

As one of the world's most-wanted terrorists, Marwan had already spawned a new generation of extremists skilled in making bombs who could still launch attacks worldwide, they said.

An important international connection has been severed, "but there's a new breed coming in", Philippine national security adviser Cesar Garcia said yesterday.

Political analyst Alex Magno of the University of the Philippines said Marwan's death "has a marginal effect. He's essentially a marginalised terrorist hanging out in some isolated farm".

But he acknowledged that "whatever bomb-making experience he had, apparently there has already been a technology transfer".

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has said DNA tests showed that Marwan was likely killed in a police raid on Jan 25 in a remote town in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

Forty-four police commandos died in that raid when they ran into much larger forces from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) who were said to be protecting Marwan.

The carnage has sparked public outrage, endangering a hard-won peace pact between the government and the MILF and fuelling plots to oust President Benigno Aquino.

"Although the results of the DNA examinations do not provide absolute identification, the results do support that the biological sample provided by Philippine authorities came from Marwan," Mr David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office, said in a statement sent to reporters.

The FBI had listed Marwan as among its most-wanted terrorists. It offered a US$5 million (S$6.7 million) reward for his capture or killing.

Marwan was held responsible for the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200 people, mostly foreigners.

He fled to Mindanao in 2003, where he had at least three Filipino wives with deep connections to Philippine insurgents.

Mr Garcia said most of Marwan's cohorts "are slowly being accounted for", either jailed or killed.

But Marwan, a US-trained Malaysian engineer, is said to have schooled dozens of militants in Mindanao in the art of mixing chemicals and turning simple home implements into bombs.

His "apprentices" are said to be supplying bombs to the extremist Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang and two Islamic fundamentalist groups: the Rajah Solaiman Islamic Movement and the Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao.

"They've turned bomb-making into a cottage industry, selling IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at 10,000 pesos (S$305) to 15,000 each," said a senior police official in Mindanao.

The Jan 25 police raid had also targeted one of Marwan's Filipino students, Basit Usman, now a master bomb-maker with a US$1 million FBI bounty on his head. He escaped the carnage.

Intelligence reports said Usman had formed his own group culled from ex-BIFF troops that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Another of Marwan's lethal trainees is a Singaporean, Abdullah Ali, who uses the guerilla name Muawiyah. He is the chief suspect in the 2009 kidnapping of three members of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Marwan and Muawiyah had been described as "the two most important international terrorists currently operating in South-east Asia".

Marwan was said to have sheltered Malaysians and Indonesians en route to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, including a university lecturer and a stationery shop owner at Universiti Malaya.

Mr Garcia said Marwan had inspired "lone wolves" - "self-radicalised" Muslims in the Philippines and abroad plotting to launch their own terror attacks.

He said at least two Filipinos were arrested while attempting to cross to Iraq via Saudi Arabia.

rdancel@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 06, 2015.
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