MANILA, Philippines – Indonesian Islamic militants taught dozens of Abu Sayyaf recruits how to make cell phone-triggered bombs and other terror skills while dodging helicopters and troops in a jungle camp last year, one of several former hostages told The Associated Press.
About 40 men completed the bomb-making course and 60 were taught sniping and combat techniques from late 2002 to the middle of 2003 by two unidentified Indonesians, who officials believe were members of the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (search) network, the ex-hostage said.
The eyewitness accounts by Rolando Ulah and several other Filipinos once held by Abu Sayyaf (search) provide a glimpse into clandestine terror training by suspected militants with ties to Al Qaeda and to rebels in the southern Philippines, home to this mostly Roman Catholic nation's Muslim minority.
Philippine authorities have long suspected that Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesia-based Al Qaeda ally, has links with the brutal Abu Sayyaf and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (search), a Muslim separatist group accused of providing sanctuary and training grounds to foreign militants.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for numerous attacks and plots across Southeast Asia, including the Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people. Jemaah Islamiyah seeks to establish a hard-line Islamic caliphate comprising Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the southern Philippines.
The Abu Sayyaf, known for kidnap-for-ransom schemes, has been blamed for bombings in the Philippines, including an attack in 2002 outside an army camp in southern Zamboanga city that killed an American Green Beret and two Filipino civilians. It has claimed responsibility for an explosion and fire on a ferry a month ago that killed more than 100 people.
According to the former hostage accounts, training started with a dawn jog and was capped at night by an Arabic reading of the Quran, the Muslim holy book and prayers led by the Indonesians, who spoke a smattering of Tagalog, English and Arabic. Their yells of "Allahu Akbar," or God is Great, echoed through the jungle as they trained, Ulah told AP.
"They were taught sniping, combat, tae kwon do and dismantling bombs and making bombs that could be set off using cell phones and alarm clocks," said Ulah, who escaped from the Abu Sayyaf last June after more than three years of captivity on southern Jolo island.
The Indonesians taught the young guerrillas, mostly recruits from Jolo and the nearby island of Basilan, how to safely open mortar rounds or unexploded bombs dropped by Philippine air force planes and picked up by villagers, who sold them to the rebels. The explosives could be rigged as timed bombs or their powder could be used to make separate bombs, he said.
Breaking into smaller groups, the recruits were taught to make bombs that could be remotely detonated using mobile phones or alarm clocks. Such bombs, made using soldering irons and other electrical equipment, were detonated in explosive tests in the jungle, he said. Ulah said the homemade bombs he saw were made from mortar rounds and unexploded bombs dropped by twin-propeller OV-10 Bronco attack planes.
The recruits also were taught to use the locally available M16 and M14 rifles as well as the grenade-firing M203, aiming at red targets on trees, he said. The training occasionally was disrupted by troops.
"Sometimes a Sikorsky (helicopter) would fly over and everybody would run for cover to avoid being seen. After it passed, they would resume training again," Ulah said.
The training, mostly at temporary encampments on Mount Buod Bagsak, in Jolo's coastal town of Patikul, was witnessed by three other former captives, including a sailor who escaped last year and told military interrogators the trainers were fellow Indonesians.
Ulah, 44, and four other hostages surfaced Monday when they were called by authorities to identify some of six alleged Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who reportedly were planning Madrid-style bombings in Manila. They sat down with AP on Monday for interviews.
Abu Sayyaf chief Khaddafy Janjalani left Jolo aboard boats with the two Indonesians and about 40 of the newly trained guerrillas a month before he escaped in June, Ulah said. The military, sometimes helped by U.S. surveillance planes, has been hunting Janjalani since.
Former hostages also disclosed seeing two Arab nationals who met Janjalani and stayed with the guerrillas for about a month in 2001 on southern Basilan island, where the rebels had a strong presence until they were crippled and displaced by U.S.-backed assaults. Basilan is near Jolo and Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are active in both impoverished islands.
Ulah was kidnapped in April 2000 with 20 Western tourists and Asian workers from Malaysia's Sipadan resort, where he was a handyman. The other hostages were ransomed off. Now under a government witness protection program, Ulah said he was helping the government prosecute the guerrillas so they would not be able to destroy innocent people's lives.