ZAMBOANGA CITY—After first denying that Jordanian TV journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani and his two Filipino crew were missing, then admitting that the three were in the custody of the Abu Sayyaf, government officials here now say the Al Arabiya newsman could be a conduit to the al-Qaeda international terrorist network.
“We are looking at Atyani as a terrorist cell contact,” a ranking government official, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak, said.
The Manila-based official, who has joined government efforts to resolve Atyani’s disappearance in Sulu, explained that Atyani was “the favored journalist of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.”
The Pakistan-based TV journalist is widely known for having interviewed Bin Laden three months before the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. In that interview held near Kandahar, Afghanistan, Bin Laden and al-Qaeda deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri hinted about the terror plot.
The official said the kidnapping could be a ruse to deliver funds to the Abu Sayyaf. “If the ransom (demanded) is really big, then for sure, Atyani could be acting as a conduit to deliver funds to the Abu Sayyaf in the guise of a kidnapping.”
“We know that the Abu Sayyaf is not doing well with resources and they are really pressured,” he added.
While confirming that the Jordanian bureau chief was “in the hands of the Abu Sayyaf,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said Malacañang had “no confirmation” on whether or not Atyani was a hostage of the terror group.
“What we can confirm is that he went there voluntarily to interview the Abu Sayyaf,” he said, adding that it was likewise confirmed that Atyani “had an opportunity to interview the group’s head previously.”
Atyani and his Filipino crew, Ramelito Vela and Rolando Letrero, had been missing since June 12 when they were last seen leaving their hostel in Jolo in the early hours with several persons.
Lacierda said Sulu Governor Sakur Tan had formed a crisis committee and would be in charge of the case.
Asked whether this incident meant the Abu Sayyaf was resurgent in Jolo, the Palace official said this was not the case as Atyani was the one who decided to interview the local terror group.
“So as to what the Abu Sayyaf’s intentions were when they agreed to be interviewed, that’s beyond our comprehension,” he added.
“The best that we can do is to warn (journalists) and to caution them. We do not stop journalists from what they want to do,” Lacierda said.
Chief Superintendent Mario Avenido, police director of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that Atyani’s rejection of their offer of security escorts made authorities suspicious of his real identity and purpose in coming to Sulu. He said the group had rejected similar offers of security from Tan, the mayor of Jolo and the local police.
“With that actuation, I began to harbor suspicions,” Avenido said, adding that he and the Sulu authorities should have tailed the group “so we would know what his real motive was.”
But activist priest Fr. Robert Reyes scored the government officials for their baseless conclusions. The “running priest” said the officials should not do a Pontius Pilate “simply because a Muslim journalist gets into a dangerous area without informing the authorities.” Instead of trying to solve the case, the government has become “narrow-minded by making a statement (that falls) short of blaming the (journalist’s group) for the situation they are in now,” Reyes said by phone.
Adopted son of Janjalani
Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo said that although Atyani and his Filipino companions were now with the Abu Sayyaf, the government did not consider them kidnap victims.
“They were not forcibly taken in the first place. They went there,” Robredo said, adding that the government was still trying to establish the identity of the leader of the Abu Sayyaf group that took the three men. He said they were still processing information they received that the group leader could be Nadzmir Alih, described as a native of Basilan and reportedly an adopted son of slain Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajak Janjalani.
Professor Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said Alih took Islamic studies in Libya and Pakistan and studied at the University of Baguio.
Professor Octavio Dinampo, a former Abu Sayyaf kidnap victim and chairman of the Bantay Ceasefire based in Sulu, said that “Nadzmir Alih could be a nom de guerre” of an Abu Sayyaf leader in Sulu. He said that based on information he had gathered, the white multicab used to pick up Atyani and his crew was “traced to the relatives of Radulan Sahiron in Patikul,” though he could not conclude that Sahiron had the three missing men.
The Manila-based official said the information about Atyani being held by Alih’s group had come from Joyce Cruz, Vela and Letrero’s employer at SFX Productions. “I was able to talk to their employer, who said the three were not abducted,” the official said.
Julmunnir Jannaral, a Manila Times correspondent who helped arrange interviewees for Atyani said he was worried over the fate of the Jordanian and his two Filipino companions.
But Jannaral maintained he had nothing to do with Atyani’s disappearance. “I am ready to face any investigation because my conscience is clear,” he said. Jannaral said his role was limited to that of arranging the interview.
He said he was contacted by Cruz and Bing Formento for help on fixing Atyani’s schedules in Manila and Sulu because he knew a lot of Muslim leaders.
Jannaral said Atyani wanted to interview Muslim leaders such as Julkipli Wadi of the UP Islamic Studies, former Caluang town mayor Al Hussein Caluang and Zamboanga-based Ustadz Abdulbaki Abubakar and in Sulu, governor Tan and Jolo mayor Hussin Amin.
He interviewed some Muslim leaders in Manila when he arrived in Manila on June 4.
Jannaral said that on June 10, Atyani went to Zamboanga City, then went on June 11 to Sulu.
He was to return to Manila on June 12 for an interview with the Philippine National Police spokesperson, Senior Superintendent Generoso Cerbo. The next day, he was scheduled to meet Moro leader Nur Misuari before flying out for Dubai.
“When he failed to return to Manila on June 12, I just called up these officials and explained to them that Atyani was still out of town, I was not aware that he and his team went missing,” Jannaral said.
Originally posted: 8:27 pm | Monday, June 18th, 2012