MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two of the most dangerous al-Qaida-linked groups in Southeast Asia are working together to train militants in scuba diving for seaborne terror attacks, according to the interrogation of a recently captured guerrilla.
The ominous development is outlined in a Philippine military report obtained yesterday by The Associated Press that also notes increasing collaboration among the Muslim militants in other areas, including financing and explosives, as extremists plot new ways to strike.
In the past year, the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah has given Abu Sayyaf militants in the Philippines at least $18,500 for explosives training alone, the report said.
The report comes a month after the U.S. Coast Guard announced it is seeking to better protect the nation’s ports from terrorist attacks by scuba divers by developing a sonar system that can distinguish human swimmers from dolphins.
Concerns about terrorist strikes by scuba divers were raised three years ago after the FBI announced it was investigating whether al-Qaida operatives took scuba training to help blow up ships at anchor, power plants, bridges, depots or other waterfront targets.
Authorities fear scuba divers could target ships with more accuracy than a small explosive-laden boat like the one used in the USS Cole blast that killed 17 sailors in 2000 in Yemen.
According to the Philippine report, an Abu Sayyaf suspect in a deadly bus bombing in Manila on Feb. 14 — Gamal Baharan — described how he and other seasoned guerrillas took scuba diving lessons as part of a plot for an attack at sea.
Abu Sayyaf leaders Khaddafy Janjalani and Abu Sulaiman initiated the training, Baharan said, adding that Janjalani claimed to speak directly with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden via satellite phone. Authorities could not verify any such conversations and said Janjalani may have been boasting, according to Philippine military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Baharan, 35, said he was told in October to undergo the scuba training in southwestern Palawan province, where he periodically received cell phone messages from Janjalani and Sulaiman “asking him how many fathoms he would be able to dive,” the report said.
The training was in preparation for a Jemaah Islamiyah bombing plot on unspecified targets outside the Philippines that require “underwater operation,” Beharan is quoted as saying.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for a string of attacks in Southeast Asia starting in 1999.
Major strikes include the Aug. 5, 2003, bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, where 12 people were killed, and the Oct. 12, 2002, bombings on Bali island that killed 202, mostly foreign tourists.