CAMP SIONGCO, Maguindanao ((JOHN UNSON / October 16) — Abdulbasit Usman, the principal suspect in last week’s bombings in Central Mindanao, once served as cook and janitor for policemen holding him in detention for his alleged involvement in a terror attack four years ago.
An ethnic Maguindanaon better known as "Basit," Usman was first implicated in the April 2002 bombing of the Fitmart department store in General Santos City, which led to his detention for a couple of months at the headquarters of the 1206th Provincial Police Mobile Group, then under Chief Inspector Auselito Cabang, in Alabel, Sarangani.
Usman was driving a van, on his way to South Cotabato, when Region 12 police from General Santos City stopped him at a checkpoint in Esperanza, Sultan Kudarat and served him a warrant of arrest in connection with the Fitmart bombing.
Usman’s name in the warrant, however, was incorrect, prompting the Region 12 police to put him under the custody of Cabang at the 1206th headquarters while prosecutors were initiating the required amendments to his case.
While in detention, Usman was not regarded as a suspect in an extremely heinous offense. He was free to move around the premises working as janitor, cook, and as "spotter" for other terrorists operating in the South-Cotabato Sarangani-General Santos City (Socsargen) area.
Usman eventually escaped on Oct. 22, 2002 and has since gone underground. A year later, Usman’s custodian, Cabang, then due for promotion as police superintendent, and a subordinate, were found tortured and shot in the back of their heads by unidentified men while allegedly negotiating the surrender of Pentagon gang leader Tahir Alonto in a remote guerrilla enclave at the border of Tulunan, North Cotabato and Datu Paglas, Maguindanao.
Police and Army intelligence communities believe Usman could have set up the surrender of Alonto, wanted for more than 30 kidnappings in Central Mindanao , to lure Cabang and avenge Usman’s detention in Alabel. Usman’s family in Bentong District in Polomolok has since left and is believed to be in hiding somewhere in Maguindanao, where they have relatives both in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front. Usman, his relatives said, was still a member of the MILF when Fitmart was bombed in 2002.
Before Usman’s escape, his family had questioned the legality of his arrest and had even sought the help of the Commission on Human Rights to secure his release.
His relatives in Maguindanao are convinced that Usman may have indeed established a link with the Jemaah Islamiyah through some Indonesians in General Santos City who gave him sanctuary after his escape.
It was in General Santos City where the slain JI operative Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi was arrested in early 2000 for possession of explosives. Usman was again on the military’s watch list after he was rumored to have been spotted with Abu Sayyaf chief Khadaffy Janjalani and JI operatives Dulmatin and Umar Patek in Maguindanao from June to September in 2004.
There had been talks of Usman’s involvement in the deadly Dec. 23, 2003 bombing in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, which left 18 people dead and more than 20 others wounded.
One of the fatalities in the Datu Piang bombing was Mayor Saudi Ampatuan, son of Maguindanao Gov. Datu Andal Ampatuan. MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said Usman was long dropped from the roster of the front due to his alleged involvement in heinous crimes.
Highly placed sources from the military’s intelligence community said they are now validating reports from civilian informants that months before the Oct. 10 bombings, Usman was in the hideout of a Moro separatist commander and preacher who had trained abroad.
There are also reports detailing links between Usman and Egyptian national Dia Al-Gabre, who was arrested at the Cagayan de Oro airport some three years ago, together with a Maranaw bomb expert Muklis Yunus, while waiting for his Manila-bound flight. Al-Gabre himself has a shady personality.
He resided in Cotabato City in the 1990s and introduced himself to neighbors and friends as a journalist. He was always present in multisectoral peace dialogues then and traveled extensively from Cotabato City to parts of the Zamboanga peninsula.
Al-Gabre made a black umbrella and chessboard handy and played chess with friends in areas he frequented. Region 12 police had said they would file criminal charges against Usman, and Indonesian-born Dulmatin and Patek for the October bombings in Makilala and the cities of Cotabato and Tacurong.
Chief Superintendent German Doria, Region 12 police director, told the Notre Dame Broadcasting Network in Cotabato City that they have gathered enough evidence against the three terror suspects. The attacks, according to Doria, were carried out in retaliation for the arrest in Sulu two weeks ago of Dulmatin’s wife and two sons.
John Felix Unson