Zulkifli Bin Hir, a fugitive Malaysian Jemaah Islamiya operative, was thought to have been killed in a military airstrike in February 2012. But on Tuesday a source said Zulkifli could be behind the bomb explosion in the northern Mindanao city of Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines that killed six and wounded 48 others on July 26.
The source, who requested anonymity, said the military intelligence community is on the lookout for Zulkifli, also known as Marwan, and is keeping a close watch on major urban centers in Mindanao where the JI operative could strike next. Marwan carries a US$5 million reward for his capture, dead or alive. The reward was put up by the US government.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) listed him as one of the most wanted ‘terrorists’ in the world with links to the Al-Qaeda. The source did not say if the Cotabato car bombing on Monday is linked to Jemaah Islamiya. Eight people were killed when a roadside car bomb exploded in a busy downtown avenue killing two security escorts of City Administrator Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi as her convoy was passing through.
Guiani, sister of Cotabato City Mayor Japal Guiani Jr, was not hurt as she was riding in a bullet-proof SUV, according to reports.
The Cagayan de Oro and Cotabato City bombings came only 10 days apart.
General Santos City wary
In General Santos City, police and military forces are on heightened alert following the rash of bombings in Mindanao. A source from th intelligence community said they received reports from ground assets that the group of an operative named Ali Akbar is preparing to transport an improvised explosive device (IED) to General Santos City from Tantangan town in South Cotabato.
The source would not provide more details.
Akbar’s name has not surfaced in any reports related to past bombing incidents in Mindanao. But he is said to be a member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF). A Rappler report earlier said BIFF was involved in the CDO bombing.
General Santos is preparing for next month’s annual Tuna Festival and scores of foreign delegations are expected to arrive in the city for the 15th Annual National Tuna Congress.
The city has often been targeted by bombing attacks. Since 2000, at least 13 bomb explosions occurred in the city killing 48 and wounding at least 201 others. The bloodiest were the April 2002 Fitmart bombing and the December 2004 public market blast that each killed 15 people.
The last bombing-related incident in the city was in January 2008 when a grenade exploded outside the gate of Philbest Canning Corporation, a tuna canning plant owned by the family of Mayor Ronnel Rivera.
City police director Sr. Supt. Froilan Quidilla confirmed they have been receiving reports of possible attacks but will not confirm if the latest threats are verified intelligence information.
"We have intensified our policed checkpoints and making our presence in areas where people converge," Quidilla said in a phone interview. He assured residents here the police are on top of the situation.
Mayor Rivera declined to categorically confirm bomb threats in the city but said,"I already ordered the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and newly-installed Col. Victor Tan, head of Joint Task Force Gensan, to intensify security operations in the city."
He said he would call an executive Committee meeting of the Peace and Order council (POC) later in the afternoon today, August 6.
Rivera also said the Cotabato roadside bombing is likely politically-motivated.
Malaysian authorities said they believed Marwan survived the air strike in February last year.
A New York Times report in March 2012, a month after Marwan was reported to have been killed in the southern Philippine island of Sulu, Ayob Khan, head of a special Malaysian task force on counter-terrorism, said they believed Zulkifli was taken from the scene alive and was now hiding not far away. Zulkifli, according to the same report, was reportedly "trained as an engineer in the United States" but is now "accused of providing training in making bombs for terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia."
He is believed to be still holed up in southern Philippines along with what is remaining of the once formidable Abu Sayyaf Group. A source from the National Intelligence Community Administration (NICA) however doubted the participation of Marwan in both the Cagayan de Oro City (CDO) and Cotabato City bomb attacks over the last two weeks.
"The JI would have already owned the CDO bombing while the Cotabato attack is not related to terrorist activities," said a high ranking NICA officer in Region 11.
The NICA officer, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, however said they are not ruling out any possibilities until the perpetrators of the attacks are identified and apprehended.
(Edwin Espejo blogs for The Asian Correspondent)