A notorious Islamic militant arrested in May has confessed to police that he plotted to attack the Philippine presidential palace using Arab suicide bombers, according to a confidential police report of his interrogation.
Muklis Yunos, a suspect with links to Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian terrorist network, said he was on his way to Manila to prepare for the attacks when he was arrested with a co-conspirator, an Egyptian businessman, according to a copy of the Philippine police report obtained by The Times.
It was unclear whether Yunos and his associates had the capability and resources to pull off such an attack. One Philippine police investigator speculated that the plan was concocted as part of a successful counter-terrorism scheme to lure Yunos out of hiding and arrest him.
Details of the alleged bomb plot emerged as Southeast Asian authorities grapple with mounting activity by suspected terrorists.
In Indonesia this month, police arrested nine suspected Jemaah Islamiah members and seized weapons and enough explosives to make a device more powerful than the car bomb used in the October 2002 attack on a nightclub in Bali, which killed 202 people. Police said the group planned to blow up churches and assassinate five prominent Indonesians.
Jemaah Islamiah, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in the region, scored a significant victory when Fathur Rohman Al Ghozi, one of its most prominent members, managed to escape from prison in Manila this month. Also known as “Mike the Bombmaker,” the Indonesian terrorist allegedly took part in bomb plots in Manila, Jakarta and Singapore before his arrest last year.
Authorities say Al Ghozi and two members of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang walked out of their cell at police headquarters in Manila during the middle of the night July 14. Authorities are investigating whether guards were bribed.
Following Al Ghozi’s escape, the U.S. and other Western nations issued new warnings of terrorist threats in the Philippines.
In Indonesia, authorities warned of possible terrorist attacks following the recent Jemaah Islamiah arrests and said security was not adequate at public facilities that could be targets, such as the airport in Jakarta, the capital. Four of the alleged assassination targets were leading members of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party. The fifth was a wealthy Indonesian businessman of Chinese descent.
In addition to the reported plots in the Philippines and Indonesia, four alleged members of Jemaah Islamiah were arrested in May and June in Thailand and accused of planning to blow up foreign embassies and tourist resorts when President Bush visits the country in October.
The Manila plot disclosed by Yunos called for placing a fertilizer-based bomb in a tanker truck and driving it onto the grounds of the Malacanang presidential palace, according to the interrogation report.
Other potential targets included two oil depots, located at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and across the Pasig River from the palace, the U.S. Embassy and a huge passenger ferry, Yunos told police.
Yunos told his interrogators that he did not have the specifics of the attack plan. His job, he said, was to prepare the bombs and detonators.
Before his capture in May, Yunos, 37, was one of the Philippines’ most-wanted terrorist suspects.
According to the 112-page report of his interrogation, he trained in Afghanistan in the late 1980s during the anti-Soviet war. There he met Hambali, an Indonesian terrorist mastermind who is Jemaah Islamiah’s operations leader and an Al Qaeda operative. Hambali, who is on the run, is widely considered by authorities to be the most dangerous terrorist in the region.
After the Soviet forces were defeated in Afghanistan, Yunos returned to the Philippines and joined the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, a rebel group seeking the independence of the historically Muslim southern Philippines. According to his account, he eventually rose to become a leading bomber for the group and trained dozens of other members in how to make and plant bombs.
In 2000, Yunos said, he worked under Hambali and Al Ghozi in the Manila bombing campaign, which used MILF operatives and was funded by Jemaah Islamiah. Five nearly simultaneous blasts on Dec. 30 of that year killed 22 people and injured 100.
Yunos said he helped Al Ghozi procure the explosives and made detonation devices for the bombs. Most of the bombs were wrapped as gifts, he said, and placed at targets such as a transit station and a bus station. The largest device was a car bomb Al Ghozi placed at the airport.
Yunos said Hambali wanted the bombs to be ready by Christmas Day so they would be tied to a wave of bombings in Indonesia on Christmas Eve that wound up killing 19 people.
Yunos was identified as one of the Manila bombers but escaped to the southern Philippines and evaded arrest for nearly three years.
In early May, an Islamic cleric whom Yunos had known since the 1980s told him that Diah Al Gabri, an Egyptian businessman who lived in the Philippines, wanted to meet him.
Authorities say Al Gabri headed a company that recruits and sends Philippine workers to countries in the Middle East -- a business that could be used to help terrorists move between countries.
According to Yunos’ statement to police, Al Gabri offered him and his family a safe haven in Saudi Arabia if he would help carry out one last bombing in Manila. The Egyptian said he would finance the project and arrange for suicide bombers to come from the Middle East to carry out the attacks. Yunos agreed.
“Al Gabri told me he could help me go anywhere because he has an agency,” Yunos told police.
The two made plans to travel from Cagayan de Oro, a port on the northern coast of Mindanao island, to Manila. Yunos said he wanted to travel by ferry wearing women’s clothing and a veil to keep from being recognized. But Al Gabri talked him into going by plane disguised as the victim of a bad traffic accident.
Yunos said Al Gabri persuaded him to take a sleeping pill, then placed plaster casts over much of his body and covered most of his face in plaster and bandages. Yunos arrived at the airport on a stretcher, but the ruse backfired when an airline agent became suspicious and called police, authorities said.
Yunos was later taken to Manila, where he was presented to the media. Al Gabri remains in custody and may face deportation for immigration violations but has not been charged with involvement in the bomb plot.
One police investigator not involved in the case suggested that the MILF may have set Yunos up to distance itself from terrorist activities. The rebel group, which is seeking peace talks with the government, has disavowed terrorism and disowned Yunos.
“The way Muklis was arrested is really suspicious,” the investigator said. “He was delivered like a mummy.”
For his part, Yunos says he is now sorry that the December 2000 bombs killed and injured civilians and blames the Indonesian organizers, Hambali and Al Ghozi.
“I really regret that,” he told his interrogator. “The innocents were involved, and that is forbidden. That was a mistake. Those foreigners should really be watched.”