Security forces tried to disrupt plots by al Qaida-linked militants to stage attacks but failed to track them, setting off an alarm that influenced a decision to postpone a pair of Asian summits, officials said today.
The plots may have included a possible car bomb attack in a key city to embarrass the Philippine government during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and the East Asian summit in central Cebu province, a security official said.
The Philippine government has been forced to defend its deision to postpone the summits,citing a looming typhoon. The meetings had been scheduled for this week.
The Cambodian prime minister said a possible attack also played a role, while the Japanese economic minister said the Philippines’ handling of the situation had undermined its credibility.
“We respect the views of other officials in the region, but the Philippines did the right thing in taking no chances with the safety of the leaders,” said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye.
“We all know the fickle nature of typhoons and there was no sense at all to act in a reckless and wanton manner,” Bunye said in a statement.
Vic Lecaros, a spokesman for the summits’ organising committee, denied that terrorism threats played a role in the decision.
“I was in the room when that decision was taken,” Lecaros said. “People were agonising over weather reports, not security reports.... There was no terror, whatever, it was just the weather report.
“Terrorists are threatening everywhere. Those are acts of people that can be countered by security people. What you cannot counter is an act of nature.”
Typhoon Utor swept through the central Philippines’ Visayas region over the weekend, leaving at least 17 dead and another 17 missing. But Cebu, which forecasters said was unlikely to take a direct hit, only got rain and some gusty winds. A week earlier, “super” Typhoon Durian killed more than 1,000 people.
Japanese Trade Minister Akira Amari said on his blog yesterday that Manila’s explanation wasn’t convincing enough.
“Considering the size of the typhoon and the fact that it would have passed by Sunday morning, the reason for the postponement is extremely puzzling,” Amari wrote, mentioning news reports that the move was triggered by terrorism concerns.
Amari added that the postponement “ruined the credibility of the Philippine government,” saying the whole idea of hosting the meetings at a resort island was ill-conceived.
“Just the idea of gathering the leaders of 16 countries on tourist-infested Cebu island poses an extreme security risk,” Amari wrote.
In separate advisories last Thursday, the United States, Britain and Australia warned terrorists might be in the final stages of plotting attacks.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said that “a typhoon on one hand and the threat of attack on the other” prompted the postponement.
“The terrorists threatened to launch an attack” in the Philippines, he said.
Some Abu Sayyaf rebels, along with Indonesian members of the Jemaah Islamiyah group, were believed to have travelled from their strongholds on the southern islands of Jolo and Basilan to carry out the attacks, going through Zamboanga city, said three security officials.
Philippine intelligence agents carried out about 10 covert operations, including raids on suspected safe houses, in Zamboanga last month but failed to find the militants, the officials said.
The attacks allegedly were ordered by Abu Sayyaf chieftain Khaddafy Janjalani and top Indonesian terror suspect Dulmatin, targets of a monthslong US-backed offensive on Jolo, they said.
The plots were partly gleaned from intercepted rebel communications and four CDs seized from a captured Abu Sayyaf encampment on Jolo in August. When experts decoded the CDs’ contents, which contained Arabic passages, security officials concluded the militants might be planning a major attack in an unspecified city, possibly Cebu, in December, one official said.
In the absence of concrete evidence, officials have given conflicting assessments of the threats.
The three security officials separately said the terror threats were a factor in the government’s decision to postpone the high-profile meetings.
But National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales said he was not consulted by Arroyo regarding the postponement, indicating security was not a factor in her decision.
Gonzales acknowledged there was “raw information” about plots by al Qaida-linked militants against the meetings but said they were not substantiated and security officials doubted the militants’ capability to stage a major attack.
“Everything considered, I still give credence to the weather as the cause of the postponement,” he said.
The postponement also came amid fresh rumours of another coup plot against Arroyo that might have been linked with planned anti-governmet protests in Manila at about the same time as the summits.