MANILA, Philippines – Top leaders of an Al Qaeda-linked group accused in Asia's worst terror attacks once taught or were trained at secret Philippine camps — which are still active despite government claims they've been dismantled — a U.S. security analyst said Thursday.
The camps still produce would-be attackers, allowing Jemaah Islamiyah (search) to survive arrests and crackdowns, said American terror expert Prof. Zachary Abuza (search), director of Asian Studies at Simmons College in Boston, Mass.
Most of the camps are in remote southern strongholds of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (search), which has repeatedly denied any Jemaah Islamiyah links and pledged to help authorities hunt down foreign terrorists, according to Abuza.
The Philippines government acknowledges that suspected foreign militants used to train in southern camps, but maintains that troops have dismantled them.
But the United States, Australia and other nations have been alarmed by reports of the camps' continuing presence in the largely undeveloped south, where the MILF and other Muslim groups have waged a decades-old independence fight.
"There, unfortunately, have been people who'd come out of these camps who have been involved in either attacks or in key leadership position in the JI organization," Abuza told Associated Press Television News.
"They need these training camps," he said. "JI simply cannot continue to sustain the organization without their members getting such training" in Islamic indoctrination, intelligence-gathering, military skills and bomb making.
Alleged trainers included Malaysian bomb expert and key Jemaah Islamiyah figure Azahari bin Husin (search) — a main suspect in the Australian Embassy bombing that killed nine people in Indonesia in early September, Abuza said.
Bin Husin also allegedly played an important role in bombings that killed 202 people on Indonesia's Bali island in 2002, and in last year's Jakarta JW Marriott hotel suicide attack that killed 12, officials said.
Abuza said Abu Dujana (search), believed to have replaced now-detained Abu Bakar Bashir as Jemaah Islamiyah's spiritual leader, has been in MILF camps.
Zulkarnain, a militant believed to be overseeing JI's military operations, also graduated from them, Abuza said.
Bashir, accused in Indonesia of heading the Al Qaeda-linked group and inspiring followers to launch the Marriott attack, toured one of the camps, according to self-confessed Jemaah Islamiyah operative Nasir Abbas, who is testifying against Bashir.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said Bashir and other foreign Islamic preachers may have visited the front's main camp in the past as friends of the rebel group's late chairman, Salamat Hashim, who wanted to show off a model Muslim community free of crime and vice.
"They may have been here as peaceful guests, not as terrorists," Kabalu said.
A Philippine government report obtained by The Associated Press says Filipino Muslim guerrillas have hosted terror training camps for Jemaah Islamiyah and militant groups from Indonesia and Malaysia for at least seven years.
The latest batch of 19 new Jemaah Islamiyah trainees finished last January, the report said.
After the government captured key MILF camps in 2000, the camps were shifted to smaller sites that were meant to handle only up to 20 recruits each but remained crucial to Jemaah Islamiyah's survival, Abuza said.
Despite the arrests of more than 300 members and leaders since 2000, the militant group has kept recruiting, training and plotting attacks.
The Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta — a difficult target — indicates that security officials may have underestimated its ability to endure crackdowns.
"They weren't going after a mall or a nightclub. They went after a hardened target," Abuza said. "I think they really wanted to signal that they might be down, but they're not out."