There was nothing furtive about the dozen or so men who checked into the Sardonyx Plaza hotel in the city of Cotabato on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Oct. 1. Their leader, a small, cherubic-looking young man who signed the register as Eric Yacub, said more men would be joining them the next day. The group then ate a hearty dinner, ordering food "like there was no tomorrow," recalls hotel employee Marietta Sandayen. As it transpired, there wouldn't be much of a tomorrow for Yacub—at least, not the kind of day he was expecting. Around 6 a.m. the following morning, a group of plainclothes policemen stormed his room, handcuffed him and carried him down to a waiting van. "He was thrown like a pig into the van," says Tatah Uy, a staff member at the hotel. "But never did he show any pain or emotion nor make any sound."
Yacub, a 23-year-old who police say is Indonesian and whose real name is Taufek Refke, was more talkative following his arrest. Authorities say Refke has confessed to being the second highest ranking member of the Islamic terror organization Jemaah Islamiah (JI) in the Philippines. His arrest, along with information stemming from his capture, has confirmed what Philippine officials have until now been reluctant to acknowledge: that a large number of foreign Islamic militants are using the country—more than any other in Asia—as a base and a refuge.
Indeed, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appeared on television last week to acknowledge for the first time that her country might be a haven for at least 45—some say hundreds—of JI militants, as well as suspected al-Qaeda operatives. "We are elevating the JI into our official national-threat spectrum," Arroyo declared. The President added that JI was now considered the greatest threat to stability in the Philippines, dwarfing the country's smoldering communist insurgency and the struggle for independence by Islamic fighters in the Muslim-dominated south.
To demonstrate her resolve, Arroyo held an Oct. 23 press conference during which Refke was put on public display. Arms and legs manacled, flanked by two hefty soldiers, the youth's diminutive size and fear-filled eyes made him seem more like a terrified boy than one of the country's top Islamic militants. But according to Arroyo, his arrest was a major step forward in shutting down a substantial JI cell. "The terrorists are falling one by one," she crowed. "This reduces the weight of the terrorist threat ... in our country and across Southeast Asia."
The breakthrough certainly came at a politically fortuitous time. Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush wrapped up his whirlwind tour of Asia, during which he urged regional leaders to turn up the heat in the war on terror. His second stop was Manila, where he promised to provide the Philippines with additional economic and military aid to fight militants. Bush, it seems, was drumming in the simplest of lessons: unwavering support for Washington's campaign pays handsomely. Still, even if stunts like parading Refke for the TV cameras were partly aimed at "the White House press corps," as Zachary Abuza, author of a forthcoming book about Islamic militants in Southeast Asia, says, Refke's arrest might also mark a genuine watershed in Manila's antiterror efforts.
Access to the Philippines is of "vital importance" to JI's continued existence, notes Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna. Given that fact, it's not surprising that Washington is so eager to gain additional access of its own to the region. The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign combat troops from operating in the country, but hundreds of U.S. special forces have been training Filipino soldiers in counterterrorism tactics for the past two years. The U.S. is also supplying the country with military hardware to hunt down militants, including 20 "Huey" helicopters. After Bush's visit, Arroyo told foreign journalists that her government would allow the U.S. to play a more direct role in a stepped-up antiterror campaign "to the extent allowed by the constitution."
This newfound sense of urgency is a direct result of Refke's capture, which has yielded compelling information about JI's operations in the Philippines. Among other revelations, Refke allegedly told police that he had received bombmaking training directly from JI's top explosives expert, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi. (Al-Ghozi, whose escape earlier this year from a high-security prison in Manila was a major embarrassment for the government, was shot dead by police on Oct. 12.) Refke also told police that his training from al-Ghozi had taken place in a camp "on the outskirts of Cotabato." That news "set off a mad scramble to find the camp," says a senior government official.
The camp has yet to be found, and the men who dined with Refke at the Sardonyx Plaza got away. But other information disclosed by Refke has already proved more helpful. Cotabata's police superintendent Felipe Napoles says Refke's interrogation led authorities to three JI "safe houses" in the city. When police raided these houses—with the help of two American specialists flown in to assist in analyzing evidence—they discovered manuals on bombmaking and on the manufacturing of biological weapons, as well as various bombmaking paraphernalia. Equally ominous, Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita tells TIME they also uncovered a manual on how to set up a JI training school—a document that contains the names of past students and suggests that training of aspiring terrorists is still actively under way.
Although the intelligence services have concrete details identifying 45 JI operatives in the area, Ermita says the total number of foreign Islamic militants is hard to estimate. "Our borders are very porous," he concedes. "We don't have the resources or the navy to protect them, so [terrorists] come and go at will." Other senior government officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say materials gathered from the safe houses indicate that there are "hundreds" of "heavily armed and well-financed" JI members on the island of Mindanao. Most of these operatives are Indonesian, reveals an official who has access to classified intelligence reports. "They are a parasite in our midst," the official says. "We have to recognize this problem openly and deal with it, or it will get worse and worse."
Other recent arrests suggest the problem goes beyond JI. Just a few hours after Arroyo paraded Refke before the press, the Bureau of Immigration's commissioner, Andrea Domingo, announced the capture of two suspected al-Qaeda operatives, both Arabs, on Philippine soil. One of them, 36-year-old Jordanian Mahmoud Afif Abdeljalil, was arrested on Sept. 25 in the city of Zamboanga while attempting to sell 14 properties owned by Alice Yabo, the second wife of Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. Khalifa is Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law. He ran a number of Islamic charities in the Philippines until the country's authorities barred him from entry in 1994 on suspicion of providing funding to Islamic militants and possible involvement in a plot to blow up 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific. Abdeljalil, whom authorities claim works for Khalifa, is currently being held in Manila for interrogation.
Despite these small victories, it is still just the beginning of a difficult battle to root out terrorism in the Philippines, a task that is further complicated by the predominantly Catholic country's longstanding warfare against two other terrorist groups: Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic gang of kidnappers, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a homegrown Muslim separatist organization in Mindanao with some 12,500 members. While attempting to harass Abu Sayyaf into extinction, Arroyo has also been trying to end years of bloodshed by negotiating a peace treaty with the MILF.
But peace negotiations have been made more fragile by assertions that Mindanao is JI's principle training ground and bolt-hole. Evidence from the several hundred JI operatives arrested and interrogated in the region over the past two years indicates that the MILF has maintained close links with JI—including offering training facilities for hundreds of its recruits—almost since JI's inception in the mid-1990s. JI's alleged former operations chief Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. Hambali, made this clear to his interrogators after his Aug. 11 capture. "Large numbers of Indonesian members of Jemaah Islamiah are hiding in the Philippines and are supporting the MILF," he stated baldly.
The MILF, however, has consistently denied any links with JI. "JI is a germ," is how MILF negotiator Michael Mastura put it to TIME. "Why should we allow ourselves to become infected?" Mastura says statements made by JI detainees like Hambali, which occur under the extreme duress of interrogation, aren't credible. Moreover, the MILF promised a year-and-a-half ago to cut all ties with foreign and local terrorists as part of the peace negotiations. Since then, the Philippine government has skirted the subject of JI's presence in Mindanao. "We give our MILF brethren the benefit of the doubt that they are not coddling foreign terrorists," says Defense Secretary Ermita. "But don't give us reasons to act, don't give us incontrovertible proof that you [the MILF] are not living up to the agreement." That, Ermita says, would almost certainly leave the government no choice but to turn to military action, reigniting the guerrilla warfare that has killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of civilians since the 1960s.
That is a grim prospect for Mindanao—already the country's poorest area—but also for the entire nation. "As long as there's no peace, no stability in Mindanao, there will be no chance for the whole country to progress," says Parouk Hussin, governor of an autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao established 13 years ago after his guerrilla group reached an agreement with the government. With peace talks between Manila and the MILF scheduled to restart within weeks, the government is trying to prevent a rift that would scupper the negotiations.
Meanwhile, Arroyo and the military must now track down scores of suspected JI terrorists, including Refke's dining chums. Arroyo says the Philippine military already has special teams "pouring into Mindanao for a manhunt that will not relent until all these fugitives are accounted for." The success of that mission will either help free the country of a dangerous scourge—or touch off another turn in the country's endless cycle of violence.
—With reporting by Nelly Sindayen/Cotabato.