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In Philippines, Islamic militants regroup

MANILA -- Decimated by two years of US-backed assaults, the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf is reviving itself as the ''Islamic Movement," returning to fundamentalist roots and plotting urban bombings to lure recruits and foreign funding, security officials say.

The Muslim extremist group, with a 13-year history of kidnappings-for-ransom and beheadings, appears to be trying to shed its image as a band of criminals and focus more on bold attacks facilitated by radical Islamic converts, authorities told The Associated Press.

The group forced its way back into the headlines by claiming it planted a bomb aboard a ferry gutted by a Feb. 27 fire after a loud blast, killing 100 people. Investigators have not determined the cause of the fire.

The claim brought a shudder of national fear, worsened by the arrests a month later of six suspected Abu Sayyaf guerrillas with a stash of explosives. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said one man admitted putting a bomb on the ferry.

This month, members of Abu Sayyaf led a prison escape by 53 suspected militants. The incident embarrassed Arroyo, who has claimed progress in the war against terror as she faces a reelection vote in a month with polls showing her in a dead heat with an action film star.

Abu Sayyaf is now trying to attract recruits and funding from foreign Muslim organizations such as the Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, security officials said.

''It's like a last hurrah. They want to say they're still around and that they're not irrelevant," Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said in an interview.

Two years ago, Arroyo allowed US troops to train and arm Filipinos fighting the Abu Sayyaf. The assaults whittled the number of guerrillas from a few thousand to fewer than 400.

The Abu Sayyaf then turned to urban bomb plots, say security officials. ''They don't need an army. It just takes a man to mingle in a crowd, take out a grenade from his pocket, and cause trouble," Ermita said.

In 2000, Abu Sayyaf factions embarked on two years of mass kidnappings for ransom, taking 140 hostages. Most escaped or were ransomed. Others, including an American tourist, were beheaded.

More recently, the Abu Sayyaf has been blamed for urban attacks in Zamboanga, including blasts that killed seven people in department stores and a deadly explosion at a Roman Catholic shrine in October 2002. That month, Abu Sayyaf rebels also bombed a roadside eatery there, killing an American Green Beret and two Filipino civilians.

The leader of the group's main faction, Khadaffy Janjalani, is reviving the group under its little used, alternative name -- Al Harakatul Al-Islamiyah, or the Islamic Movement -- with recruits trained by foreign and Filipino insurgents in guerrilla warfare and urban bombings, say former hostages, captured guerrillas, and security officials.

''They're trying to shed the bandit tag," said a senior security official who has monitored the Abu Sayyaf for years. The group continues to plan kidnappings, however, he said.

Abu Sayyaf guerrillas arrested last month allegedly belonged to a terror cell that was plotting to bomb the US and Israeli embassies in Manila, malls, passenger ships, an oil depot near the presidential palace, a power plant north of the capital, TV stations, hotels, churches, and airports, according to a government document seen by AP.

Some allegedly told investigators they failed to execute the attacks because they were waiting for operational funds, police officials said.

Janjalani allegedly designated a Filipino emissary to Al Qaeda who arranged entry of three Middle Eastern militants in 2001 who trained recruits in explosives and gave $10,000 to Janjalani, the security official said. The emissary, Arshaf Kunting, was arrested in 2001 and turned over to the Philippines, he said.

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