A suspected member of a terrorist cell that allegedly once plotted deadly bomb attacks with the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf has surrendered to the Philippine military in southern Zamboanga city, six years after eluding capture, officials said Monday.
Authorities identified the suspect as Rommel Aguirre, a mechanical engineer believed to be a bomb expert of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), a group composed mostly of former Christians who had converted to Islam and aligned with the IS.
A son of a former army ranger, Aguirre was charged with illegal possession of explosives in 2014. But instead of clearing his name, he eluded arrest then went into hiding, the military said.
“He was convinced by his father to surrender and clear his name,” Col. Antonio John Divinagracia, commander of a military task force, told reporters.
But Aquirre denied the allegations against him on Monday. He said he was unaware of any bombing plot and just wanted “to widen my connection as a Muslim” by connecting with other converts. He said he fled because he feared for his life.
RSM was accused of involvement in the bombing of a ferry near Manila Bay on Feb. 27, 2004, in a terror attack that killed 116 people. The following year, the group helped the Abu Sayyaf carry out three bombings that struck several targets across the country on Valentine’s Day, killing nine people and wounding dozens of others, officials said.
Philippine military authorities said the RSM was one of 23 Filipino groups that intelligence officials had identified as sympathetic to IS.
Founded in the mid-1990s and based in the northern Philippines, RSM provided training and recruitment to aspiring militants who were later fielded to Abu Sayyaf and al-Qaeda operations in the Philippines, the only predominantly Catholic country in Southeast Asia.
RSM’s founder, Ahmed Santos, was arrested in 2006. He had admitted to having forged an alliance with Umar Patek, an Indonesian bomb maker, who is serving a 20-year-sentence in his homeland for his role in several attacks, including the 2002 bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
A military official told reporters that Aquirre was monitored to have plotted to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Manila with the help of two other militants in 2014. He was allegedly seen carrying a black bag that contained explosives, but an employee of the hotel where he stayed alerted the police about the suspicious package. He fled before police arrived at the hotel, officials said.