DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — An alleged Abu Sayyaf demolition expert wanted by the United States for $1M is believed to have been killed in an American drone strike close to the Afghan border earlier this month, Pakistani intelligence officials said Thursday.
If confirmed, the death of Abdul Basit Usman would represent another success for the U.S. covert missile program on targets in Pakistan. There have been an unprecedented number of attacks this month following a deadly Dec. 30 bombing of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) base in Afghanistan.
There had been no previous indication that Usman, who was captured by Philippine authorities in 2002 but escaped months later, was in Pakistan.
If the reports of his death are true, it may indicate stronger ties between the worldwide terror group al-Qaida and Southeast Asian extremist groups than previously thought.
In Manila, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it was verifying the report.
AFP spokesperson Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner Jr. told reporters military intelligence was still checking if indeed it was Usman who was killed in Pakistan.
Brawner said an intelligence report â€œsometime last yearâ€ indicated Usman was still in Mindanao. â€œWe are still waiting for the report from our intelligence,â€ he said.
But if the report of Usmanâ€™s death was true, it would â€œto some extentâ€ cripple the capability of the Abu Sayyaf, Brawner said.
MILF Welcomes Report
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) expressed relief at the report.
â€œWe are happy and we welcome the report. We hope it is true,â€ Eid Kabalu, MILF civil-military affairs chief, said.
Kabalu said Usmanâ€™s death vindicated the MILF, which had been accused by the military of coddling the alleged bomber.
Usman was linked to a series of attacks in Mindanao, including the 2006 bombing in Makilala, North Cotabato, that killed half a dozen people.
In 2002, cohorts sprang him from the Sarangani provincial jail. He escaped along with Pentagon gang leader Alonto Tahir.
Kabalu said Usman belonged to the Maguindanao tribe, having been born and raised in Ampatuan town.
There were also reports that Usman was involved in extortion activities of the Abu Sofia and the al-Khobar gangs, which have been linked to the Abu Sayyaf.
Kabalu said Usman had never been an MILF member but that his brother, Ustadz Mohiden, belonged to the MILFâ€™s religious committee. Mohiden disappeared in 2004 after government agents seized him, Kabalu said.
â€œHe (Usman) was not a member (of the MILF) but he trained many MILF members in bomb-making,â€ said Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the militaryâ€™s Eastern Mindanao Command.
On Most-Wanted List
Two military intelligence officers in northwestern Pakistan said Usman was believed killed on Jan. 14 on the border of Pakistanâ€™s South and North Waziristan tribal regions. Another 11 militants were also killed in the strike on an extremist compound.
The US State Departmentâ€™s list of most-wanted terrorists identifies Usman as a bomb-making expert with links to the Abu Sayyaf bandit group and the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah network.
The State Department has put a bounty of $1 million for information leading to Usmanâ€™s conviction, and says he is believed responsible for bombings in the southern Philippines in 2006 and 2007 that killed 15 people.
Home to Terrorists
Waziristan and other parts of Pakistanâ€™s border region have long been home to militants from all over the world, primarily Arabs and central Asians.
Up to several hundred Filipino and other Southeast Asian militants traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and â€™90s to fight the Soviets and attend al-Qaida-run camps, but they are no longer believed to be in the region in significant numbers.
The apparent presence of Usman in Waziristan may raise fresh questions as to links between al-Qaida in Pakistan and extremists in Southeast Asia, which has seen several bloody bombings and failed terror plots since 2000. Many were carried out by extremists who had returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Pakistani officials cited extremist informers as the source of the information on Usmanâ€™s deathâ€”which could not be independently confirmed. One of them said Usman had been in Waziristan for one year after arriving from Afghanistan.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the record.
Pakistani government officials rarely confirm the identities of those killed in US attacks.
Islamabad publicly complains about the US missile strikes because admitting to cooperating with the United States would be politically damaging, but it is believed to provide intelligence for many of them.
US officials, also, do not often talk about the missile strikes or their targets, but they have in the past confirmed the deaths of several mid- and high-level al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.
Most of the missiles are fired from unmanned drone aircraft launched from Afghanistan.
Asked about the drone program during an interview with local Express TV, visiting US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: â€œIâ€™m not going to discuss operations but I will say this: These unmanned aerial vehicles have been extremely useful to us, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.â€
Gates said he was expanding the program by buying more of the aircraft. He also said the United States was considering ways to share intelligence with the Pakistani military, including possibly giving it US-made drones for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes.
U.S. officials said Gates was referring to a proposed deal for 12 unarmed Shadow aircraft.
With reports from AP; Jocelyn R. Uy, in Manila; and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao