Malaysian militant Marwan planned to bomb Pope Francis convoy in Manila - senior official

Pope Francis (centre) passes Catholic devotees in his "popemobile" on his way to Villamor Airbase in Manila on Jan 19, 2015. A former commando commander revealed that slain Malaysian terrorist Marwan and the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group Jem
Pope Francis (centre) passes Catholic devotees in his "popemobile" on his way to Villamor Airbase in Manila on Jan 19, 2015. A former commando commander revealed that slain Malaysian terrorist Marwan and the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah had planned to bomb the Pope's convoy during his Manila visit. -- PHOTO: AFP

SLAIN Malaysian terrorist Marwan and the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group Jemaah Islamiyah planned to bomb Pope Francis' convoy during the pontiff's visit to Manila last month, a former commando commander said on Monday.

Police director Getulio Napeñas Jr. made the disclosure in his opening statement at a Senate hearing on a deadly commando raid in the southern island of Mindanao on Jan 25 that killed Marwan but also cost 44 police Special Action Force (SAF) commandos their lives, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Napeñas was sacked as SAF commander in the aftermath of the raid.

"Just recently during the Pope's visit in the Philippines, we had information that the Jemaah Islamiyah, in coordination with Marwan, had planned to detonate a bomb as the Papal convoy (started) in Manila on January 18, 2015," Napeñas was quoted by the Inquirer as saying.

"These reports were neither confirmed nor denied or admitted by the PNP (Philippine National Police) but the fact remains, however, that such information is existing," he added.

During Pope Francis's five-day visit to the Philippines, telecommunications networks were weakened and cellular phone services were even stopped in places to be visited by the pontiff, on the request of the government, the Inquirer said.

Marwan, whose real name was Zulkilfi bin Hir, reportedly specialised in bombs and improvised explosives devices, including those triggered remotely by cellular phones. The 49-year-old was considered the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia for his terrorist activities in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and has a US$5 million (S$6.25 million) US bounty on his head.

He had been hiding in Central Mindanao since 2002.

While the Jan 25 raid, codenamed Operation Exodus, took out the militant, it went disastrously wrong when the SAF were attacked in an ambush blamed on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group which controls larges areas of Mindanao. Forty-four of the commandos were killed.

The botched raid has handed Philippine leader Benigno Aquino his biggest political crisis, amid revelations that a suspended police general who is a close friend of the president played a central role in the raid.

Aquino is also under pressure from an outraged public to abandon the peace deal signed in March with the MILF and seek retribution for the troopers' deaths.

On Monday, Napeñas the police official also said that Marwan's wife was the former widow of Khadafi Janjalani, the late leader of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine-based militant group also linked to Al-Qaeda, the Inquirer reported.

"These undeniable facts and issue show the danger that Marwan poses to the public that danger no longer exists with his death on January 25. Thanks to our new breed of heroes who executed Operation Exodus," Napeñas said.

seokhwai@sph.com.sg