Most are peaceful, but some former Christians help Islamic terrorists, slipping by police.
By Simon Montlake | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
MANILA, PHILIPPINES - Four years ago, Joey Ledesma went home and told his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, that he had "returned" to Islam.
Her reaction was shock and anger; they argued and fought. In the room where he prayed, she stuck pictures of the Virgin Mary to the wall facing Mecca. A cousin asked him, "Why are you acting so crazy? You're one of us."
Mr. Ledesma, who now calls himself Yousuf, has since separated from his Catholic wife after a tug-of-war over the religious upbringing of their young son.
As his family ties frayed, Ledesma found a stronger sense of community and purpose at the mosque. In particular, he bonded with other converts, known as 'Balik Islam,' or returnees to Islam. Their shared belief is that Filipinos were originally Muslims before Spanish colonizers imposed Catholicism, so they are returning to their faith.
Lesdesma is one of an estimated 200,000 Filipinos who have converted to Islam since the 1970s, joining about 4 million Muslims from the southern Philippines who are ethnically different from the heavily Christianized areas. At first, their numbers were too small to attract much notice from authorities. That is, until Philippine security forces began focusing on the role of Muslim converts in extremist violence.
What they found was a disturbing pattern: Islamic insurgents were using cells of militant converts as terrorist operatives to strike targets in Manila. Police say a detained Balik Islam militant has confessed to planting a bomb on a ferry that killed more than 100 people in February 2004. Other detainees are linked to a foiled truck bombing in Manila that targeted the US Embassy, say officials.
Investigators say that Islamic converts can evade ethnic profiling by police, opening up a new front for groups like Abu Sayyaf that are being squeezed by US-aided military offensives in the south. "This tactical alliance [between southern insurgents and Islamic converts] will emerge to challenge the government in new ways," warns Rodolfo Mendoza, a senior police official who tracks Islamic militants.
Last month, security forces arrested Ahmed Santos, an Islamic convert and founder of the Rajah Solaiman Movement. Officials say Mr. Santos, who was arrested at a hideout on Mindanao island with his wife and five associates, was trained and financed by Al Qaeda-linked militants in the southern Philippines.
Unlike Muslims from the south, Filipino converts "blend in" with the dominant ethnic group, says a Western diplomat. "They look like every other Filipino. Abu Sayyaf members stand out."
Islamic converts have played a minor role in global terrorist plots. In 2001, Richard Reid, a British Muslim convert, was detained after he tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his shoe on a US-bound aircraft. Germaine Lindsay, a Jamaican-born convert, was one of four suicide bombers who hit London on July 7.
Officials say that while it's wrong to label all Filipino converts as potential terrorists, some factors may lead converts toward extremism. Balik Islam followers "want to prove themselves, they want to compete and not be seen as second-class Muslims," says Mendoza.
The first wave of conversions began in the 1970s when Filipinos went to work in the Middle East, a trend that continues. For some it was a way of increasing their job prospects in countries like Saudi Arabia that discriminate against Christians. Others tapped Muslim charities to help develop their communities at home. For many, it was a spiritual awakening at a time when the teachings of the dominant Catholic church were being challenged by alternative faiths.
"It's been going on for a long time but initially the rate of conversion was slow because of the majority's [negative] view of Islam. Now Filipinos are more open to other religions, not only Islam but also born-again Christianity," says Romel Banlaoi, a political scientist who has studied Balik Islam. He estimates that Islam has become the fastest-growing religion in the Philippines.
For Ledesma, the turning point came not long after Sept. 11, 2001, when he began receiving e-mails from Christian groups railing against Islam and cheering on the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Soon after, he visited a mosque at the invitation of friends, and later converted.
"I feel more connected [now] to God than when I was a Catholic, and I practice more," he says.
Enthused, he joined a number of Balik Islam social organizations, including at least one that authorities have since shut down, citing suspected terrorist links. Ledesma came under suspicion for his role as spokesman of Fi Sabillilah, a group based in a building owned by Santos.
Ledesma says that he had never heard of the Rajah Solaiman Movement until it was identified in news reports as a terrorist group, and describes Santos as a devout Muslim who supported missionary work. He and other activists in Manila are skeptical of confessions by converts in custody; torture is common and access to lawyers is denied, they say.
In recent months, Ledesma has devoted more time to missionary work and reaching out to new converts. He's also tried to reconcile with his mother, and cites a Koranic verse about abiding respect for parents. But it's an uphill task with his family. "No matter what I do, I'm rejected," he says.
" Meeting at the mall: The key to today's story on the links between militant Filipino converts to Islam and terrorist acts, was talking to an Islamic convert, says correspondent Simon Montlake. So when he met a Muslim activist contact in Manila, he asked her for suggestions.
"She immediately thought of Joey Ledesma and promised to put us in touch," says Simon. "My source had got to know Ledesma last year during a controversy over building a mosque for traders at Greenhills shopping mall in a posh Christian area of Manila. Ledesma had successfully defended the rights of the Muslim worshipers and the mosque was built. I wrote a story for the Monitor last year on the mall mosque, but didn't meet Ledesma at the time.
This time, when Ledesma agreed to meet Simon, the venue was Starbucks at Greenhills mall. Ledesma is a regular at the new mosque, which is close to his family home in the gated community where some voices had opposed the mosque. "I was pleased to hear that the mosque had been open for several months and nothing had sullied the peaceful atmosphere, confounding the doomsayers," says Simon.
But Ledesma told Simon that he is wrestling with his own family's disapproval of his faith, and his conversion appears to have cost him his marriage. He seemed particularly upset about his wife's insistence on keeping their only son away from the mosque.
"It's hard to overstate the strongly Christian flavor of Philippine daily life, or the massive prejudice against Muslims," Simon says. "During my taxi ride to Greenhills, my driver was listening to a live sermon from a Roman Catholic church, and I wondered what he would make of my reporting assignment, let alone the idea of 'returning' Filipinos to Islam."
Amelia Newcomb Deputy world editor
MIM: Al Qaeda has been recruiting converts in the Philipines for years. Note that the Christian convert Ledesma mentioned in the 2005 article above is also cited in the article below, proclaiming how 'we (Philipinos) can return to Islam through Da'wa (missionary) activity.
Al-Qaeda recruiting Muslim converts through charities
Al-QaEda-linked terrorists are recruiting Muslim converts in the Philippines through a network of charities, including one founded by Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, according to security officials and an intelligence report obtained by The Associated Press.
Converts to Islam in this predominantly Roman Catholic country are valuable because they know the lay of the land and can tap into local information and have contacts and access, the authorities said.
"When they use converts, it means they are using people who are familiar with Manila, with Cebu, with the Christian-do-minated centers," National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales warned at a recent forum.
Muslim converts landed in the spotlight when at least seven were arrested in March in and around Manila with caches of explosives.
Police said one suspect, Re-dendo Cain Dellosa, confessed that he planted a bomb on a ferry, which caught fire two months ago, killing more than 100 people. Dellosa's lawyer called it a false confession extracted under torture.
Government officials estimate the Philippines has about 200,000 Muslim converts, many of whom worked as migrant laborers in the Middle East before returning to join the nation's 8-million-strong Islamic community.
Philippine Muslims are dwarfed by the sheer numbers of Christians in this nation of 84 million, but convert groups get by on funds from Arab benefactors and tithing from Muslims in the Middle East.
The government intelligence report identified the Fi Sabilillah Da'wah and Media Foundation as the main local advocate of a radical Muslim convert movement in Christian-dominated Manila and Luzon.
The group has been headed since 1998 by a man authorities suspect is a terrorist, Ahmad Santos, who is now in hiding. Police and soldiers recently raided the foundation's mosque and office in suburban Quezon City, seizing firearms, explosives and video-tapes showing jihad activities.
Police arrested Santos's two wives, but they were released on bail.
The March report links Fi Sabilillah officers to bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Fi Sabilillah also has been tied to the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiah, other fundamentalist groups and a network of foundations set up by bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mo-hammad Jamal Khalifa.
Santos refused to meet with the AP. But a Fi Sabilillah officer, Yusuf Ledesma, denied charges of terrorism and said the Muslim group is being unfairly targeted by a government attempt to whip up anti-Islam hysteria.
"They really have no proof that Fi Sabilillah has ever been involved in any terrorist act," Ledesma told the AP. "They seem to be using us as props in a propaganda war."
Ledesma accused police of planting guns and explosives in the Fi Sabilillah office and torturing converts into admitting terror activities.
The intelligence report claims that two Islamic schools, or madrasahs, in the northern pro-vinces of Pangasinan and Tarlac, were run by Santos and provided paramilitary training for Muslim converts.
Eight converts—including the alleged ferry bomber, Dellosa—were arrested in a 2002 raid on the madrasah in Pangasinan, but were released.
Dellosa was among six alleged terrorist cell members from the brutal Abu Sayyaf group arrested last month when President Arroyo said officials had foiled major terror attacks in Manila.
The intelligence report said the men arrested in 2002 admitted membership in a group known as the Rajah Sulaiman Movement, whose primary objective is to establish Islamic cities on Luzon island in the Christian-dominated north. A secondary goal is to carry out terror attacks in the north, taking attention away from predominantly Muslim areas of the south.
The report cites meetings and contacts between Santos, his two brothers and Muslim groups in the south, including Salamat Hashim, the late chair of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The report says Santos and four Fi Sabilillah converts received special military training from the MILF, including the use of explosives, in December 2001 and January 2002.
When government forces attacked an MILF complex last year, Santos purportedly received instructions from Salamat to carry out bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of high-ranking officials in Manila, the report said, though the plot was never carried out.
MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu acknowledges that Santos visited the group's training camp and interviewed Salamat for a TV-radio program, Discover Islam, which Santos used to run. But Kabalu denied that any contacts with Santos were related to bombings or other terror activities.
Santos is linked to Abu Sayyaf through Omar Lavilla, a classmate of Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani at a school allegedly established and funded by bin Laden's brother-in-law, Khalifa, the report says. Khalifa, a Saudi businessman, has a Filipina wife and used to visit the Philippines often.
Three sisters provide another connection: one married to Lavilla, one to Janjalani and another to Abu Sayyaf senior officer Abu Solaiman.
Before raids on the madrasahs in Pangasinan and Tarlac, Santos sent Lavilla to Mindanao in the south to get US$180,000 from Janjalani, according to arrested members of the Rajah Sulaiman Movement. The cash was intended for development of bases in Luzon, buying weapons and carrying out bombings, kidnap-pings and assassinations, the report says, but preparations were suspended because the money did not arrive in time.
The report outlines Fi Sabilillah links with Jemaah Islamiah through Santos; a slain Jemaah Islamiah officer, Fathur Roman al-Ghozi of Indonesia; and Jaybe Ofrasio, a Filipino Muslim convert arrested early this year in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Some contacts may have been involved in providing bank accounts used in transferring suspected Jemaah Isla-miah funds from domestic and foreign bank accounts to Ofrasio's local account, where substantial deposits and withdrawals continued after he left in July 2003 and even after his arrest, the report says. The report gives no figures but calls the transfers "huge."
A Fi Sabilillah officer was also allegedly one of the contacts of suspected Jemaah Islamiah finance officer Taufic Rifqi, an Indonesian arrested in Mindanao in October, and Abdulmukim Edris, an Abu Sayyaf member slain after escaping from jail in July with terror suspect al-Ghozi.
Al-Ghozi, accused of supervising a bloody December 30, 2000, train bombing in Manila that killed 20 people, was killed later in a shootout with soldiers.
Ledesma denied any knowledge of the Rajah Sulaiman Movement or its military arm. Ledesma also denied any links between Fi Sabilillah and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf or Jemaah Islamiah.
But he said Fi Sabilillah members sometimes encounter MILF members in forums and Abu Sayyaf detainees during jail visits as part of charity work. And he acknowledged that as Muslims, Fi Sabilillah members are interested in making Luzon island a fertile ground for Islamic conversions.
"For us to want a return to our Islamic roots through da'wah, or missionary work, or peaceful means is not out of the question," Ledesma said.
The report said Santos recently arranged explosives procurement through Muslim convert Mohammad Barrientos, who was arrested in April north of Manila with a cache of explosives and a utility vehicle with a false bottom. Although authorities have alleged Barrientos dealt with Santos's group, he has not been identified as a member of any terror networks.