MANILA — Anticipating a backlash from the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Philippine Government is intensifying its manhunt for top terrorists believed to be in Mindanao.

At a press briefing following a Cabinet security cluster meeting called by President Benigno Aquino III, National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia said the threat level is assessed to be at high in Mindanao, particularly in Regions 9, 11, 12 and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

“The threat groups have the intent and capability to undertake terrorist activities,” Garcia said.

He said around 20 to 30 Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members in Mindanao “are foreigners.”

“The most prominent of them, of course, is Zulkifli Bin Hir, alias Marwan,” Garcia said.

“He is a Malaysian who has long been embedded inside the Abu Sayyaf. The other gentleman is Mr. Mauwiyah, a Singaporean who is also with the Abu Sayaff in Jolo. There are others we suspect but their names escape me right now.”

Garcia also said that while there was no specific or immediate terror threat in Metro Manila, “the government has nonetheless deemed it prudent to upgrade to critical infrastructure and other places deemed likely targets of a terrorist attack.”

“They (possible terror targets) include the embassies of countries in the global war against terror, five-star hotels and other areas frequented by tourists, points of entries either by air or sea, other transport facilities and generally areas where the public converges — malls, churches and the like,” he said.

He said the terror threat in the National Capital Region remains at moderate level.

Garcia, however, admitted the exact whereabouts of the terrorists in Mindanao remain “a million dollar question.”

“Groups affiliated with al-Qaeda such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) along with the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and others are known to have lairs and sympathizers in this area,” he noted.

“It is here that they can quickly mount, without much preparations, attacks against targets of opportunity.”

“This means that while threat groups may have the intent to undertake terrorist activities, their capability to carry out such intentions has not been monitored and are deemed unlikely at this time,” Garcia said.

Marwan allegedly heads the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia terror group and is a member of the JI’s central command.

Marwan is reportedly training Abu Sayyaf members in bomb-making.

Garcia said there are no reports of new ASG recruits as the terror group had lost its religious and ideological moorings after the death of their leaders Khadaffy Janjalani and Abu Solaiman.

“With the parochial outlook of its current leadership, the ASG has degenerated into committing acts of banditry and other criminal activities. This does not mean, however, that there are no longer religious militants and ideologues within the ASG, because there are. Their identification, location and neutralization is the other focus of the fusion of the intelligence community,” Garcia said.

Garcia added the Philippine National Police (PNP) and other law enforcement agencies were likewise undertaking measures to strengthen the legal offensive against terrorist suspects.

In tandem with the Program Management Center of the Anti-Terrorism Council, Garcia said they would also carry out other measures to further harden potential targets of a terrorist attack, as well as undertake soft programs aimed “at the hearts and minds of potential terrorist recruits through a comprehensive de-radicalization campaign.”

In the medium-term, Garcia said the intelligence community through its foreign intelligence liaison program would further assess the impact of bin Laden’s death on the al-Qaeda ideology of waging a global jihad against the West and its allies.

“Questions like can the next echelon leadership of the al-Qaeda sustain the movement? And if so, what will be the impact on the local affiliated groups of these developments?” Garcia said.

Garcia said the Rajah Solaiman Movement, a terrorist organization founded by a Christian who was converted to Islam, had been largely contained.

He said the leaders of the group “are now mostly in jail” but some were freed because the cases against them were dismissed for lack of evidence.

“And this is the target of the PNP’s legal counter measures,” he said.

No more foreign funding

Garcia said foreign funding for al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations in the Philippines had long ago stopped as the United Nations sanctioned regimes and organizations providing such funding.

“What has been generated as funds by the local groups was done through criminal activities like kidnapping and extortion,” Garcia said.

“It is expected that with the death of bin Laden and the neutralization of his group, the ASG will further deteriorate into a plain criminal gang,” he said.

Garcia said these were the people that the intelligence community would identify, locate and neutralize, “being high value targets.”

He said the JI has been conducting training activities in the Philippines since the 1990s and most of the trainees have gone back to Indonesia and only a few have remained to train.

Garcia said the government has tightened security at ports and implemented stricter immigration procedures to prevent terror suspects from coming in.

“But more importantly, this is a continuing activity of tightening our intelligence exchange program with foreign counterpart organizations,” he said, citing instances where terror attacks on the Philippines were planned elsewhere.

Garcia also called on the people not to be alarmed but “vigilance is still very important.”

A senior anti-terror official said followers of bin Laden are still observing hidaad or period of mourning.

“There’s no immediate retaliatory attack happening soon as the al-Qeada’s regional terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah and local allies the Abu Sayyaf are also still mourning bin Laden’s death,” the official, who asked not be named, said.

Terror hunt in Maguindanao

In Maguindanao, security forces here have also intensified their hunt for a local follower of bin Laden named Basit Usman, who has been tagged as mastermind in some 20 deadly bombings in Central Mindanao over the past six years.

Usman was said to have undergone training in handling of explosives and fabrication of bombs out of mortar and cannon projectiles in Kandahar, Afghanistan in the early 1990s, and in Peshawar, Pakistan shortly before his return to Mindanao in early 2000.

Intelligence sources said Usman was last seen in April training a dozen recruits somewhere in the second district of Maguindanao, a known hotbed of Islamic militancy.

Usman first hogged the headlines when he was tagged as mastermind in the bombing of several department stores in the cities of Cotabato, General Santos, Koronadal and Tacurong from 2002 to 2005.

He was also believed to be responsible for several bus bombings that killed 20 people.

Sources said even the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is supporting efforts of the police and the military to prevent Usman from launching sympathy attacks.

The MILF has long been denying any links to the terror suspect.

The MILF denied having referred to bin Laden as a “martyr.”

“I was quoted out of context in a TV report when I said bin Laden could be a ‘martyr’ for his followers. We in the MILF are not followers of bin Laden,” Ghadzali Jaafar, political affairs chief of the MILF, said in a text message.

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