SPENCER MICHELS: Since last fall, a small number of American military advisors or "consultants" has joined the Philippine Army in its fight against Muslim Separatists linked to al-Qaida. Until now, the details of their mission have been kept secret.
REPORTER: How do you find the Philippines army so far?
SOLDIER: No comment.
REPORTER: What can you say?
SOLDIER: I can't comment.
SPENCER MICHELS: Today Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the American mission to the Philippines -- a former U.S. colony-- will expand soon. Within a month, the U.S. contingent will number around 600, including 150 Navy Seals, Army Green Berets, Marines and Special Forces.
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld used the words "training exercises" to describe the mission.
SEC. DONALD RUMSFELD: I believe, the last time I looked, something like 240 or 250 Americans, military personnel, in the country. They are located in several locations in the country. More are going in. They are there for training purposes, they are there for logistics purposes, they are there for an exercise with the Philippine government. As you know, we have a very long military-to-military relationship between the United States and the Philippines. And I expect that there will be several hundred more people going in.
SPENCER MICHELS: The American forces will help train more than a thousand Filipino soldiers in their fight against Muslim extremists. The targeted group is Abu Sayyef -- one of several armed Islamic groups in the largely Catholic country. Based in the southern islands of Basilan and Jolo, Abu Sayyef has kidnapped foreigners for ransom, often killing them in grisly fashion. Last year's victims included American Guillermo Sobero. Two other American missionaries from Kansas, Martin and Gracia Burnham, have been held since last May.
Investigators believe Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida helped fund Abu Sayyef in the early 1990s, and said bin Laden's brother-in-law met directly with the group. There's also a Philippine connection to Ramzi Yousef, the man linked to al-Qaida and convicted of plotting and participating in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Yousef once lived in this Manila apartment. In a 1995 raid, Philippine authorities found evidence of al-Qaida plans to crash a jet into the CIA headquarters, blow up several American airliners, and assassinate the Pope.
At the Pentagon, Secretary Rumsfeld was asked if Abu Sayyef was involved in September 11th.
SEC. DONALD RUMSFELD: There is no question that there have been linkages between al-Qaida and activities that have taken place in the Philippines. And second, the United States is clearly interested in al-Qaida. We are interested in a lot more than al-Qaida.
REPORTER: If I could follow -- all the documents, the cell phones, the laptops, the evidence that you've gathered -- does any of that directly point to the involvement of Abu Sayyaf in the September 11th attacks? Does any of that support that at all?
SEC. DONALD RUMSFELD: I'm not in a position to respond. I don't -- and I don't know that I would want to if I happened to have gone through and reviewed all of that material.
SPENCER MICHELS: Concern about terrorism in the Philippines is part of the administration's worry about Islamic militancy throughout the region. Last month Malaysian officials arrested 13 radical Muslims. They say the men contacted Zacharias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th hijacker, in September or October. Singapore has arrested 13 men as well, saying eight trained in al-Qaida camps. The Singapore government also released this alleged al-Qaida videotape. It shows a train station believed to be one of the group's targets. Western embassies and American companies in Singapore were also on the list. And in Indonesia, the government believes al-Qaida funded a terrorist training camp used by local Muslim militants.
To help fund the new Philippine mission, President Bush in November committed $100 million in military aid to the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But Arroyo told the NewsHour last November she did not ask for ground troops. Foreign combatants are both unpopular and banned in the Philippines.
JIM LEHRER: You do not want the United States to send armed troops in there to help your army get rid of these people?
PRESIDENT GLORIA ARROYO, Philippines: (November 19, 2001) Well, I think our... I think that our armed forces are quite good in what they're doing. So what we really need would be really a technical assistance and equipment, materials, joint planning.
SPENCER MICHELS: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said the Philippine training exercises are scheduled to last six months.