MANILA (Reuters) - A Filipino accused by the United States of being an Islamic State supporter involved in a foiled plot to mount gun and bomb attacks in the heart of New York City is a hospital doctor described by colleagues as a “kind and generous guy”.
U.S. prosecutors said on Friday they had charged 37-year-old Russell Salic with terrorism offences, alleging he helped fund a plot that included attacks on Manhattan’s Times Square and the city’s subway. Salic, who is in custody in the Philippines, denies involvement in the plot or links to Islamist extremists.
Philippine authorities say they had been tracking Salic for some time, but gave conflicting accounts of his suspected ties to a local group loyal to Islamic State.
Armed forces chief, General Eduardo Ano, said on Sunday that contacts between the doctor and extremists in the Middle East and Malaysia, mostly via social media, had been monitored, but no links had been found between Salic and the radical Maute group that has been engaged in nearly five months of battles with the military on the southern island of Mindanao.
Military spokesman Restituto Padilla, however, said Salic had treated wounded Maute rebels in clandestine mountain training camps, and was known to them as “doc”.
Medical staff at the hospital where Salic worked in Cagayan de Oro City, in Mindanao, were shocked to learn about the U.S. charges against him.
“I knew him when he was here, he was kind, generous, and a regular guy,” said one doctor reached by telephone, who declined to be named. “I would never suspect him to be a supporter of a terrorist organization. He is not that kind of person.”
Another colleague said he had no idea that Salic had been in detention, noting that he had disappeared without explanation in April.
“I thought he moved to another hospital after completing his residency,” he said.
Salic had, in fact, surrendered to the Philippine authorities in April, when he learned that he was wanted by the United States. He is in the custody of the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation.
U.S. authorities have charged him with seven offences, including conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and to support a terrorist organization. The most serious of the charges he faces carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Since giving himself up, Salic has also been charged by the Philippines with involvement in the kidnapping of six sawmill workers by the Maute group in Mindanao in April 2016.
Two of those captives were beheaded a few days after the abduction. Salic was implicated by one of the freed hostages, according to the Philippine authorities.
Salic’s lawyer, Dalonilang Parahiman, on Monday dismissed links between his client and the Maute group and said it was impossible the doctor had been involved in the kidnappings.
“He has proofs, including his daily time record, to show he was at the hospital in Cagayan de Oro, which is about 200 kilometers away,” Parahiman said.
The Philippines’ Justice Department said the process to extradite Salic to the United States was under way. It did not say whether it would complete the kidnap and murder case against him first.
According to documents unsealed in federal court in Manhattan on Friday, Salic had repeatedly expressed his support for a major attack on New York to an undercover agent, and said he was “desperate” to join Islamic State in Syria.
Salic was in regular contact via text messages with that agent and Abdulrahman El Bahnasawy, one of the two men who planned to carry out the attacks, the documents said.
Salic had transferred the equivalent of $423 to fund bomb-making materials for the attack, and indicated his intention to send more later, according to the charges.
Canadian El Bahnasawy, 19, had described Salic, who he knew as “Abu Khalid” and “the doctor”, as a trusted supporter of Islamic State, who had provided funding to the group on previous occasions, according to the U.S. charges.
El Bahnasawy was arrested in New Jersey in May 2016 and pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. Another alleged conspirator, American Talha Haroon, also 19, was arrested in Pakistan around September 2016.
Salic told the undercover agent he would pray for the success of the attack, describing New York as the capital of non-believers.
“It would be a great pleasure if we can slaughter” people in New York, he was quoted telling the agent.
Additional reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Martin Petty; Editing by Alex Richardson