Just 48 hours before U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in the Philippine capital to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Philippine National Police (PNP) investigators thwarted a terrorist plot to disrupt the international gathering by detonating a bomb in metropolitan Manila.
Police arrested three suspected members of a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, the Abu Sayyaf Group, as leaders from 20 nations, the European Union, and the United Nations were about to arrive in Manila for the November 10-14, 2017 summit.
PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa made the announcement to news media on November 17, 2017, three days after the ASEAN summit concluded. Local news reports indicated that one of the suspects had posted to social media photos of himself and his alleged accomplices at various places in the Metro Manila region, including at the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex, the ASEAN summit’s main venue.
The terrorist plot was discovered through the investigative work of officers assigned to the PNP’s Anti-Cybercrime Group, alumni of training provided by the U.S. Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) Program. The program is supported by the Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, which provides the funding and policy guidance.
Established in 1983, the ATA program helps U.S. law enforcement partners build their capacity to detect, deter, disrupt, and investigate terrorism activities and suspects — all within a rule-of-law framework that promotes respect for human rights. The CT Bureau has partnered with ATA to assist a number of countries on the front lines of terrorism. Through the ATA program, personnel with the Department’s Diplomatic Security Service assess partner nations’ needs, develop curriculum, and train and mentor foreign law enforcement officers in a variety of counterterrorism skills.
The PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group’s Cyber Terror Response Section, led by Chief Inspector June Paolo Abrazado, monitored the suspects’ social media postings and provided intelligence to the PNP operating units who located the suspects and made the arrest.
The anti-cybercrime investigators, including Chief Inspector Abrazado, were trained by ATA instructors in social media investigation, proactive internet investigation, and other relevant topics.
Since 2003, when ATA delivered its first cyber training to the Philippines, ATA support has helped the Philippine National Police to build a successful counter-terrorism cyber investigations program that is considered among the best in the region. In 2018, the Philippines is projected to be among the top recipients of ATA cyber training and cyber-related equipment and technology grants.
This ASEAN-related investigation is but one example of how the ATA program has saved lives, helped protect U.S. officials and interests abroad, and contributed to closer U.S. relations with partner nations.
Paul Davies is Director of the Diplomatic Security Office of Antiterrorism Assistance