Authorities on Saturday afternoon presented an alleged ranking member of a local terror group suspected of masterminding the SuperFerry 14 bombing in February 2004 and the 2005 Valentine's Day in Makati City.
Ruben Omar Pestano Lavilla Jr., or Sheik Omar Lavilla, is an alleged ranking member of the Rajah Solaiman Movement (RSM), police said. He was presented to media after arriving from Bahrain where he worked in the Philippine embassy.
RSM is a group of Christian reverts or converts with links to the Abu Sayyaf group and the Southeast Asia terror network, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).
"We commend the arrest and the deportation of one of the key members of the Rajah Solaiman Movement. Lavilla's arrest is not only a big boost in our fight against global terrorism but also clearly shows that the long arm of the law will definitely catch any fugitive whether in the country or abroad," Rolando Añonuevo, PNP Intelligence Group chief said.
The PNP said Lavilla was arrested while applying for a loan from a local bank in Bahrain last July 24. The suspect's identity was discovered by the bank after conducting a credit investigation and found his name in the sanctioned list of the United Nation's Security Council.
Lavilla had served as the political-religious leader and finance officer of RSM, police said. He is also listed as a “terrorist” by the US State Department.
After the arrest, Immigration Commissioner Marcelino Libanan requested the Department of Foreign Affairs to cancel the suspect's passport. He sent two immigration officers to work on his deportation.
The PNP said Lavilla was involved in the SuperFerry blast last Feb. 27, 2004 that left more than 100 passengers dead. The alleged RSM leader has also been implicated by the police in the Valentine's Day bombings in Feb. 14, 2005.
Lavilla is facing charges of multiple murder before the Makati City Regional Trial Court and in Cotabato City for bombing incidents.
Fernando Mesa, executive director of the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), said Lavilla was the "brains" of the RSM.
The ATC said that they have witnesses who are ready to testify on Lavilla’s direct participation in separate bombings that occurred in Manila and Makati City.
Members of media tried to get his side, but he refused to comment on the accusations against him.
'Intelligence lapses' allowed Lavilla to leave for Bahrain
The ATC, which is composed of different law enforcement agencies of the government, was criticized for permitting the suspect to leave the country and work at the Philippine embassy in Bahrain despite criminal charges filed against him and his record as an alleged leader of a terrorist group.
Lavilla was allegedly working as an editor of a local magazine and was also an interpreter at the Philippine embassy in Bahrain.
The ATC refused to give details on how Lavilla was able to evade law enforcers. They said that they still have to conduct further investigation.
Añonuevo, however, explained that Lavilla might have left the country before the UN Security Council notified government institutions regarding its list of sanctioned terror suspects.
Libanan also said that the BI cannot prevent anyone from traveling abroad, unless there is a hold departure order issued by a regional trial court.
Libanan said it took them more than two months to deport Lavilla because the suspected terrorist was carrying a proper passport. He said Bahrain’s immigration office has no power to deport him unless the DFA cancels his Philippine passport.
The SuperFerry bombing, which the government initially said was an accident, is considered the Philippines’ worst terrorist attack. It is also one of the world’s deadliest terror attack at sea.
It resulted in the sinking of the passenger ferry and the deaths of over 100 persons.
President Arroyo later announced on October 11, 2004 that the explosion was caused by a bomb. Two members of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group, suspected to be behind the February 27 explosion of SuperFerry 14, were presented by the police.
Police later said that “the fire on board the SuperFerry 14 was caused by an explosion due to an explosive device."
SuperFerry 14 sailed from Manila to Cagayan de Oro City with about 900 passengers and crew. A television set reportedly containing 4 kilograms of bomb was reportedly placed on board. Ninety minutes out of Manila port, the bomb exploded.
Charges would later be filed against leaders and members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), including ASG leaders Khaddafy Janjalani and Abu Sulaiman. The military has announced that the two bandit group leaders were killed in separate encounters in 2007.
The Abu Sayyaf later claimed responsibility for the bombing of the ferry, but a captured suspect who reportedly confessed to have participated in the ferry bombing, told authorities he was a Muslim convert of the RSM.
The RSM is an alleged terrorist band linked by security officials to ASG. Police have previously said that RSM is composed mostly of Muslim converts or "Balik Islam". Police have said it has been neutralized and has been inactive since 2006.
Reportedly founded by Ahmed Santos, also known as Hilarion del Rosario, a Christian convert to Islam, RSM purportedly seeks to establish an Islamic state in the Philippines. Santos and other RSM leaders have been captured by authorities.
The US government has tagged RSM as a terrorist organization.
A US Treasury Department release in 2008 said RSM "received training, funds, and operational assistance from ASG and Jemaah Islamiyah [JI]. RSM, in return, has provided field operatives and a pool of potential recruits to the ASG and JI, enabling them to expand their reach into the urban areas of the Philippines." It has been included in the list of US’s Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
Lavilla’s name is also included in the US Treasury Department’s terror list. -- With reports from Wheng Hidalgo, ABS-CBN News and Reuters