Philippine authorities said they thwarted a plot to set off home-made explosive devices at Manila’s international airport and a nearby mall owned by Filipino billionaire Henry Sy, arresting three men who planned the attack to protest China’s assertiveness in the region.
The suspects will be arraigned today and may be charged with illegal possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit terrorism, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said at a briefing in Manila. The seized items were firecrackers so it is not classed as a terror attack, armed forces chief Gregorio Pio Catapang said at a separate briefing in Manila.
“Whatever their agenda is, it can’t be avoided that there’s a destabilization plan” against President Benigno Aquino’s government, de Lima said. “The instruction of the president was to pursue the investigation and determine the organization’s actual purpose. We believe there are other entities involved.”
The three men are believed to be part of a group called the USAFFE, which describes itself as “defenders of the Filipino people” and an enemy of Chinese business interests in the Philippines, the justice department said in a statement today. The group also plotted to strafe Chinese-run establishments such as the Chinese Embassy and a building of DMCI Holdings Inc. (DMC), which has come under investigation by labor authorities for allegedly employing Chinese laborers without work permits.
The USAFFE, which takes its name from the former U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East during World War II, criticized the Philippine government’s “soft stance” in its territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea, de Lima said.
The plot comes at a time when Aquino, who is seeking international arbitration of China’s territorial claims, faces a drop in popularity over a 144.4 billion-peso ($3.3 billion) stimulus program deemed illegal by the nation’s top court, said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University.
“More than any patriotic cause behind the plot, it is more likely that this was meant to destabilize the Aquino administration and puncture the veneer of relative security in the country,” he said by phone. “The Aquino administration has been widely hailed as being tough on the South China Sea issue, if not too acrimonious toward China at the expense of diplomatic options,” he said.
A House of Representatives body dominated by the president’s allies today rejected three impeachment complaints against him, with congressmen finding the charges insufficient in substance.
Acting on a tip, government agents arrested the suspects in the parking lot of Ninoy Aquino International Airport at Terminal 3 after midnight yesterday, de Lima said. The group planned to set off one set of improvised explosives inside the airport and three more at the nearby SM Mall of Asia owned by SM Investments Corp. (SM), she said. SM is the holding company of Sy, a Filipino-Chinese.
The USAFFE, whose members claim to be former and active members of the military, police, the armed wing of the communist party and Moro National Liberation Front, originally planned to attack on Aug. 25, National Heroes Day, de Lima said.