Intelligence operatives in the Philippines arrested an Iraqi man described as a bomb maker who had eluded capture five months earlier, police announced Monday.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa identified the suspect as Taha Mohamed Al-Jabouri, 64, saying he came to the Philippines in August as Manila was preparing to host a summit of world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, three months later.
Al-Jabouri “evaded our radar” after Iraq’s embassy in Manila alerted local authorities about his presence, dela Rosa said.
“The Iraqi Embassy described Al-Jabouri as a chemist with knowledge on explosives and is known to have close ties with militant extremist movements in the Middle East,” dela Rosa said.
The suspect was arrested Saturday night after village officials in Angeles City, north of Manila, alerted police to the presence of a Middle Eastern-looking man said to be acting suspiciously.
Al-Jabouri did not resist arrest, and officers confiscated his travel document, which was valid for only three months and had expired, dela Rosa said. The suspect was carrying different denominations of a foreign currency.
While under interrogation, Al-Jabouri told police “he served as a consultant” for the Hamas organization in Syria before relocating to Turkey sometime in 2012, dela Rosa said.
The man allegedly traveled to the Philippines to meet a Chinese business group, dela Rosa said without giving other details. The suspect likely will be turned over to Iraqi authorities here before he is deported.
Philippine authorities said they were checking whether Al-Jabouri could have made connections with local groups. His visit came in the middle of a massive operation against linked militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) who had gained control of Marawi city in the southern Philippines.
In May 2017, police in Manila placed the crowded Quiapo district in Manila under lockdown after two improvised bombs exploded within hours near the Muslim center. Two people were killed in the attack.
Six months earlier, in November 2016, police said they foiled a bomb plot after discovering an improvised bomb near the U.S. embassy in Manila.
Dela Rosa blamed the Maute group, which would later help lead the Marawi siege, as being behind the foiled bombing.
Filipino officials said the fighters were backed by several Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian fighters, including Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad.
Overall Filipino IS leader Isnilon Hapilon, Ahmad and top leaders of the Maute gang were killed in Marawi in October as the five-month siege was ending.
However, President Rodrigo Duterte has asked Congress to extend martial law in the south, noting that nearly 200 enemy fighters remained at-large in the region. He said an extension was needed for troops to ensure the total eradication of extremist groups in the south.
50 foreign militants
Last week, Maj. Gen. Fernando Trinidad, deputy intelligence chief of the military, said at least 50 foreign IS militants were believed to still be operating in the south, allegedly training recruits and teaching bomb-making techniques.
He issued the warning while defending Duterte’s martial law extension in the south, saying a majority of foreign terrorists had arrived from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
“The new recruits are undergoing training on marksmanship, urban attacks and use of improvised explosive devices,” Trinidad had said last week.
Within days of Trinidad’s warning, an army combat patrol engaged a group of militants who were trying to sneak into the town of Masiu in Lanao del Sur province.
The army’s commander in the area, Brig. Gen. Roseller Murillo, said about 10 enemy fighters were seen aboard two boats trying to come ashore, triggering a gun-battle. The two boats were found sunk.
He said troops had recovered an assortment of high-powered weapons, including grenade launchers and IS paraphernalia, including its trademark black flag.
The clash happened despite a heightened alert status ordered by the military guarding Marawi city amid warnings the enemy was plotting fresh attacks.