MANILA, October 11, 2003  (STAR) President Arroyo admitted yesterday that the Philippines is "an open target" for terrorists from the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah following Thursday’s warning from Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill.

But the Chief Executive assured the nation that the government is ready to thwart any plan of JI or any other terrorist group. "Potential targets have already been secured and hardened and we will continuously keep up with emerging intelligence assessments," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations recognized during their summit in Bali, Indonesia last week that terrorists could strike the region anytime, anywhere.

"So we have to work together for fighting terrorism and these arrests are part of the fruits of our working together," she said. "But also the fundamental reform is to fight the root cause of why so many are recruited (to terrorism) — and that is poverty."

Last Thursday, Hill told a security conference that the Philippines faces the greatest threat of attack by the al-Qaeda-linked JI.

Metro Manila’s Western-style clubs, discos, hotels and symbols of Western culture such as multinational businesses and fast-food outlets make it probably the "most target-rich environment in Southeast Asia," he said.

Deputy Director General Virtus Gil, Philippine National Police deputy chief for operations, said police are ready for any terrorist attack.

"We have been a target of bombings and terror attacks in the past," he said.

"But we are not taking any chances now. We are building-up our intelligence gathering and are engaged in target hardening operations."

Gil said they have received reports that the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is in close coordination with the JI. "If we could prove this, it could derail the ongoing peace talks between the MILF and the government," he said. Gil said the JI has ordered its operatives in MILF camps to stay put and lay-low while the peace talks are going on.

"(JI) operatives were ordered not to move around while the peace talks are ongoing," he said. Gil did not say what the JI members are doing in the MILF camps.

Earlier, MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied reports that his organization has links with the JI or with any other terrorist group.

Senior Superintendent Geary Barias, chief of the Firearms and Explosives Division, asked yesterday the country’s explosives dealers to ensure that they only deal with legitimate businesses to prevent explosives from falling into the hands of terrorists.

His men have coordinated with the Maritime Group and the Aviation Security Group to prevent the transport of illegal explosives across the country, he added.

Sen. Loren Legarda has called for the rewriting of the country’s national security policies to stop terrorism on its tracks.

"The complexion of national security as we know it has been altered and rewritten by major developments and the 9/11 tragedy," she said. "We should get out of old rules and file old strategies and craft modern, responsive and viable national policies," she added.

Legarda, who trained at the National Defense College of the Philippines, said the country cannot be ready for the "modern face" of domestic and global terrorism without rewriting the "obsolete rules" on defense and national security. "Our fundamental concepts of national security are based on realities of the Cold War, a bipolar world and not the new face of terror," she said.

Legarda said she and her consultants on defense and national security are studying what reforms could be put in place and what new policies and strategies could be adopted. There are several young and bright experts who can be tapped in the overhaul of the country’s national security policies, she added.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez reacted angrily to Hill’s statement. "Instead of Minister Hill giving a speech, he should have shared his information with us," he said.

Golez said Hill’s statement suggested a specific threat against the Philippines, which he said had "no basis."

Interior and Local Government Secretary Jose Lina Jr. said Hill’s warning is "highly inaccurate," and that the government has "more accurate" information on the terrorist threat.

"In fact, the Philippines was the one that tipped the United States on the Sept. 11 attack 10 years ago," he told reporters at the weekly Balitaan sa Rembrandt Hotel in Quezon City.

Rep. Prospero Nograles said Hill’s statement could further undermine the country’s economy as they could scare away not only investors, but also foreign tourists.

"You do not go to town and make everyone know about a very delicate information such the supposed plot of JI," he said.

Lt. Col. Daniel Lucero, Armed Forces spokesman, said authorities had already heightened security out of concern that JI will carry out terrorist attacks following the arrest of one of its top operatives, Hambali, in Thailand in mid-August.

Possible targets include embassies, diplomatic homes, malls, clubs and hotels, and that security was being beefed up, particularly ahead of US President George W. Bush’s eight-hour visit on Oct. 18, he added.

JI has been blamed for a string of terrorist strikes in Southeast Asia including last year’s bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people, and the attack on the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August where 12 people died. — Marichu Villanueva, Mike Frialde, Perseus Echeminada, Marvin Sy, AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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