The administration of US President George W. Bush has quietly warned the Philippine government that it has not been doing enough to crack down on terrorist groups in the country, Western and Philippine officials said.
The diplomatic reproach, which has not been made public, was delivered to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at a late-night meeting nearly three weeks ago and comes after two years of public praise from Washington for her support in the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism.
It also comes after a reassessment of the terrorist capacities, objectives and international connections of Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine rebel group that has a reputation for kidnapping and beheading hostages.
At the same time, a new Islamic organization has emerged that claims Muslims were here before the Spaniards, who brought Christianity, and focuses on converting Christians to Islam, then sending them for terrorist training. US officials said they know little about the group.
In spite of recent arrests, which came as a result of the American warning, there is still a high level of tension here about the possibility of a terrorist attack. There is a lot of chatter on intercepted phone conversations that has everyone worried, Western and Philippine officials said.
The warning that the Americans delivered to the Arroyo government is similar to one they delivered to the Indonesian government in the weeks before the attacks in Bali in October 2002.
The Philippine government has been "in a state of denial" about the terrorist threat, said a Western diplomat, explaining what prompted the American warning, which was made on March 22. The US was joined by Australia and Britain in the warning, diplomats and Philippine officials said.
Over a period of months, the US had given the Philippines intelligence that should have led to the arrest of suspected terrorists, including the leader of Abu Sayyaf, and the Philippine government did not act, one Western diplomat said.
Asked about the warning, Arroyo's national security adviser, Norberto Gonzales, said, "I think they have changed their position by now."
After hearing the three Western diplomats on March 22, Gonzales was so alarmed that he arranged for them to meet late that same night with Arroyo, a diplomat said.
Eight days later, the Philippine authorities, acting on intelligence provided by the US, arrested several people who, they said, were planning a series of attacks in Manila.
But other members of the same cell are still at large, a Western official said. "Are we out of the woods?" he asked. "No."
On Tuesday, the US Justice Department began proceedings that could lead to the extradition of one of those arrested, Alhamser Manatad Limbong.
Along with several other suspected members of Abu Sayyaf, Limbong was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington in December 2002, charged with the kidnapping and murder of several Americans.
After his capture, he confessed to taking part in the beheading of one American hostage, Guillermo Sobero, in June 2001, Philippine officials said.
They said that another of the six people arrested on March 30 had confessed to planting an explosive device, concealed inside a television, on a ferry in Manila harbor.
The ferry attack caused an explosion and fire that killed more than 100 people.
Until the confession, the Philippine government had steadfastly refused to call the explosion, on Feb. 27, a terrorist attack.
The US has bomb experts here who could determine the exact cause of the explosion, diplomats said, but the Philippine government has not allowed them.
Its "utter refusal to do anything" about the ferry attack was another reason for the warning, a Western diplomat said.
When the police arrested Limbong and the others they also seized nearly 180 pounds of TNT, leading Arroyo to say that "another Madrid" had been avoided.
In announcing the arrests and seizures, Arroyo incorrectly said that 80 pounds of explosives had been found, but it was 80kg, or about 176 pounds, said a Western official.
Diplomats and security officials said that in invoking the train bombings in Madrid, Spain, Arroyo engaged in a bit of election-time hyperbole. The presidential election is May 10. Still, they do not deny their concerns.
Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian-based terrorist group, often seen as al-Qaeda's surrogate in the region, is continuing to operate camps in the southern Philippines, with another 40 recruits reported to have graduated in February, Western and Philippine officials said.