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ABU SAYYAF: FBI PROBES ABU MONEY TRAIL

Manila, April 2, 2002 (STAR) By Delon Porcalla - The Abu Sayyaf and other local Islamist terrorist groups appear to be channeling huge sums of money from kidnapping activities to Osama bin Ladenís al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, Justice Secretary Hernando Perez disclosed yesterday.

Quoting a US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) intelligence report, Perez said Bin Laden has been using "Muslim terrorists" in the Philippines as a source of funds to finance his worldwide terrorist operations.

"That is what the FBI is telling us," he said. "The volume of money is apparently significant. We were told that perhaps money already here in the hands of terrorists are going toward the way of Bin Laden. And I am referring to the Abu Sayyaf."

Perez said he does not know the exact amount of money that the Abu Sayyaf has been sending Bin Laden as its contribution to the spread of terrorism in the United States and other Western countries.

"There are many kinds of modus operandi," he said. "That is what we are trying to discover and we are going to hold meetings with BSP (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) and SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) officials."

With FBI help, the Philippine government is trying to track down the paper trail to determine how the Abu Sayyaf is able to send money to Bin Laden, he added.

Chief State Prosecutor Jovencito Zuño said the Abu Sayyaf has been remitting money on "a regular basis" to Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network.

"The (Philippines) is where the source of funds of terrorists come from," he said. "Thatís why the Philippines is the No. 1 client of the FBI in this investigation."

Zuño said Philippine officials are having difficulty determining how Abu Sayyaf money reaches Bin Laden because of the countryís strict bank secrecy law.

"Maybe the law on money laundering should be amended," said Zuño, who has just attended a two-week seminar in the US sponsored by the FBI on "Financial Underpinnings of Terrorism." "This is because the US has a very different setup as compared to ours."

In the US, the FBI can ask the courts to subpoena bank records or documents, he added.

In Rome, Filipino priests have asked the Senate to come out with a report on the alleged collusion between some military officers and the Abu Sayyaf bandits in the payment of ransom for the release of hostages.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. told Filipino priests at the Colegio Filipino that he believes in the allegations of Catholic priest Fr. Cirilo Nacorda, parish priest of Lamitan in Basilan, that one or two military officers facilitated the payment of ransom so the Abu Sayyaf would free hostages it seized last year from the Dos Palmas resort off Palawan.

But businessman Reghis Romero II said no ransom was paid and that he was able to escape from the Abu Sayyaf during the military siege of St. Peterís Church in Lamitan.

Abu Sayyaf bandits were able to pierce the military dragnet and took more hostages, including Filipina nurse Deborah Yap from a nearby hospital.

In August 2000, two suspected Abu Sayyaf couriers were arrested in Zamboanga City while trying to exchange into pesos $240,000 of what police believed was ransom money.

After reportedly paying thousands of dollars in ransom, Abu Sayyaf leader Ghalib Andang, alias Commander Robot started releasing one after the other the 21 mostly foreign hostages his band seized from the Sipadan island resort off Sabah on Easter Sunday in April 2000.

The two couriers were later freed on bail and Robot was said to have demanded that the $240,000 be returned to him in exchange for the release of 12 Western hostages.

The Abu Sayyaf reportedly demanded $1 million for each of the 12 hostages but the plan fizzled out when the Libyan government could only come up with $700,000 per captive.

Negotiators said Robot agreed to reschedule the release of the 12 after Libya promised to pay the full amount as demanded by the Abu Sayyaf.

Former Libyan Ambassador Rajab Azzarouq offered his services and that of the Libyan government to the Estrada administration to help negotiate for the release of the foreign hostages.

On Aug. 27, 2000, five Western hostages, four of them women, walked to their freedom from months of captivity after Libya reportedly agreed to pay $1 million per hostage.

A Libyan jet was on standby in Cebu City for two weeks, ready to fly the freed hostages to Tripoli for an audience with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Gadhafiís son Seif Al-Islam, head of the organization that was said to have offered the ransom money, said in an interview the other hostages would be released in batches in the coming days.

Another Abu Sayyaf band was said to have demanded $10 million for the release of American Jeffrey Craig Schilling, who was taken captive in late 2000 after he went to the banditsí lair in the jungles of Basilan with his Filipino Muslim wife who was said to be a cousin of Abu Sayyaf spokesman Abu Sabaya.

In addition, Sabayaís group reportedly wanted $5 million in "goodwill money" for the start of any negotiation for the freedom of Schilling.

Earlier, Zamboanga businessman Dee Ping "Lepeng" Wee helped arrange the payment of some $4.5 million for the freedom of nine Malaysians who were among the 21 mostly foreign tourists snatched from Sipadan.

Robot also demanded P7 million for the release of Jesus Miracle Crusade (JMC) spiritual leader Wilde Almeda and his 13 disciples, who had gone to the Abu Sayyaf hideout to "pray over" the 21 hostages in the Sulu jungle.

One of the Christian preachers said the JMC paid $3,000 and gave several sacks of rice to Robot and another Abu Sayyaf leader, Mujib Susukan so they could enter the lair of the bandits.

Two ABS-CBN journalists were also taken hostage in July 2000 and the Abu Sayyaf demanded P10 million for their freedom, but it is not known if the amount was paid when the two were released. ó With reports from Aurea Calica, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS ONLINE