Terror threat report: The inside story

Maria A. Ressa
The announcement of a terror threat was based on a raw report whose credibility other intelligence units have dismissed

MANILA, Philippines – Security officials concluded last Thursday, January 5, that there was “no imminent threat” for Metro Manila in the “next few weeks.”  What happened between then and last Sunday, January 8, when President Benigno Aquino III warned about a plan to attack the Black Nazarene procession?

“The sad reality of the world today is that terrorists want to disrupt the ability of people to live their lives in the ways they want to, including the freedom to worship,” Mr. Aquino told a nationally televised conference.

Interior Secretary Jess Robredo said that 6 to 9 people from the southern Philippines may be involved in the plot.  On Monday, the government asked telecommunications companies to shut down 2G and 3G services to a large chunk of Manila around Quiapo church.

The US and Australia urged its citizens to avoid the procession and nearby areas.

Information obtained by Rappler from Philippine intelligence officials and classified documents tell the story behind the scenes.

The last meeting of the Special Monitoring Committee of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) last Thursday, January 5, ended with a clear conclusion: “There is no imminent threat for Metro Manila in the next few weeks.”

On Saturday, January 7, intelligence sources said information from human assets (or informants) of the Military Intelligence Group 15 (MIG 15) of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces (Isafp) warned of “bombings in Quiapo church, in Divisoria and long the routes of the procession.”  MIG 15 is in charge of Isafp’s intelligence operations in the National Capital Region.

Military and police agents conducted a raid around 3 am Sunday, January 8, on a suspected safehouse in Manila (read a story we wrote on this here.) 

The informants said the place was “where the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are stored,” but a classified report obtained by Rappler said “the search yielded negative traces of IED components.”  The owner of the house was brought to the Manila Police District for questioning, but until today, he has not been linked “to any terror group.”

On Sunday, National Police Chief Nicanor Bartolome was briefing President Aquino inside a police mobile command post bus at the moment a bomb threat came in against a Manila building.  Mr. Aquino then asked for a threat briefing from security officials, including Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jessie Dellosa.

Hoax?

The military team sent to investigate the bomb threat came back empty-handed.  The threat seemed like a hoax.

Threats like this are “normal” and need to be substantiated before further actions, if any, are taken.  An intelligence official told Rappler, “these are the same sort of reports we receive annually during this feast day.  So far, in the last several years, nothing came of these threats.  But we never leave anything to chance.”

Perhaps that’s why President Aquino made the call to tell the public about an unverified, nonspecific report.  The two raids over the weekend investigated different threats.

“We feel that it is very prudent on our part, and it is part of our task,” said Mr. Aquino, “to ensure that our people have the necessary information for them to be able to make the appropriate decisions.”

The Palace on Monday defended his decision.  “Obviously, it was credible enough,” said Palace Spokesperson Abigail Valte, “for the President himself to come and warn the public about it.”

On Sunday afternoon, intelligence officials from both the military and police said their investigations “yielded negative information with current threats.”  Their report, which reached Malacañang and was obtained by Rappler, ended with a disturbing sentence: “They noted that MIG 15’s assets’ reliability is low.” – Rappler.com

Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.