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  February 6, 2002  

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Southeast Asia

The Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda of Southeast Asia
By Marc Erikson

The director of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S Mueller III, said last Thursday that investigators believe the September 11 terror attacks were planned in part by al-Qaeda operatives in Malaysia. Prior to that, only Germany, where three of the suicide bombers lived, and Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates had been pinpointed as planning and logistics bases.

Other US officials said last week that they had evidence that a US (California State University, Sacramento)-educated biochemist and retired Malaysian army captain, Yazid Sufaat, 37, provided US$35,000 in Kuala Lumpur in the fall of 2000 to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent, who has been charged in Alexandria, Virginia, with conspiring with the September 11 hijackers. Sufaat is also said to have met in January 2000 with two of the hijackers, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhamzi, who piloted the plane that struck the Pentagon. He is among two dozen alleged Muslim extremists detained in Malaysia since December.

That's the latest. Along with arrests in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines over the past two months, it indicates that a far more extensive and better organized al-Qaeda-linked Islamic terror network than previously believed has existed in Southeast Asia for an extended period of time and is far from being uprooted. At the center of it is the Jemaah Islamiah (Islamic Group), a regional terrorist organization whose goal is to create Daulah Islamiah, an Islamic state encompassing southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Its leader, according to Singaporean and Malaysian security officials, is Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (Bashir), 63, who is being portrayed as the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia.

Jemaah Islamiah and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir: The background

Abu Bakar heads the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia or MMI), founded 18 months ago to push for the adoption of strict Islamic sharia law in Indonesia. Under questioning for six hours at Jakarta National Police Headquarters on January 24, he reportedly denied any links to al-Qaeda or to terrorism. But from a man who, in a statement to the media, said, "I am not a member of al-Qaeda. However, I really praise the fight of Osama bin Laden, who has dared to represent the Islamic world to combat the arrogance of the United States and its allies"; who called bin Laden "a true Muslim fighter" and who claims that the US is "the real terrorist" and "waging war on Islam, not terrorism", that's a bit difficult to take - though apparently not to Indonesian police who did not detain him, but allowed him to return to his Central Java base. It becomes more difficult still to believe Abu Bakar's denials (and understand Indonesian police leniency) when his background and specific evidence against him presented by Singaporean, Malaysian and Filipino investigators are taken into account.

In 1969, inspired by the ideology of Darul Islam, a violent movement that tried to establish an Islamic state on Java before being decimated and reined in by the military in the early 1950s, Abu Bakar and his closest collaborator, Abdullah Sungkar (who died in 1999) established Radio Da'wah Islamiyyah Surakarta, a pirate radio station that broadcast the call to jihad across the rice paddies of Central Java. It was shut down in 1975. In 1971, the pair co-founded the puritanical al-Mukmin Koranic Studies boarding school in Ngruki village east of Surakarta (Solo), many of whose graduates have run afoul of the law. The school still exists and is still run by Abu Bakar. To help bring its central message home to its over 2,000 students, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a sign on one of the buildings in Arabic and English reads: "Jihad is our way. Death in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration."

From 1978 to 1982 Abu Bakar and Abdullah were in jail for trying to start an Islamic militia, Komando Jihad. Soon after their release, they were convicted again - for subversive political activity including denigrating the tolerant Indonesian state ideology of Pancasila. They fled to Malaysia to escape another prison term and were not to return to Indonesia until after the 1998 downfall of Suharto. While in Malaysia (where Abu Bakar took on the name Abdus Samad), the two men gathered like-minded Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos, and Singaporeans around them, inculcating their vision for a regional pan-Islamic state. The Jemaah Islamiah was born. Abu Bakar now claims it was (is) "only a Koran reading group". Of course, so was the Islam AG (Islamic Study Group) at the Technical University of Harburg in Germany, founded by terror pilot Mohamed Atta and used by him as a recruiting vehicle in the al-Qaeda terrorist cause.

How would Abu Bakar, Abdullah and their followers go about implementing Jemaah Islamiah's goals?

In an interview published in the February-March 1997 issue of the Sydney, Australia-based Islamic Youth Movement magazine Nida'ul Islam (Call to Islam) (, Abdullah Sungkar speaks of "the obligation of Jihad within the framework of aiming to re-erect Dawlah Islamiyyah". He claims that "cooperative" [with government authorities] jama'ahs [collective organized movements] such as "political parties based on Islam" and "Islamic organizations which are only active in the areas of education and social activities" are ineffective, and he holds that only "non-cooperative" ones, "Jama'ah Islamiyyah which has the purpose of establishing Dawlah Islamiyyah by applying the strategies of Eeman [faith and its expression in word and action], Hijrah [migration from a place of oppression to one of safety, with proper timing and skill, in secret and with deception] and Jihad," can succeed. In this, Quwwatul Musallaha [military strength] is essential.

In a political manifesto, "The Latest Indonesian Crisis: Causes & Solutions", penned in late May 1998, as they prepared to return to Indonesia after the fall of Suharto [see Nida'ul Islam, July-August 1998], Abdullah and Abu Bakar presented Indonesian Muslims with a simple and stark alternative: "We have two choices before us: 1. Life in a nation based upon the Qur'an and the Sunnah; or 2. Death while striving to implement, in their entirety, laws based upon the Qur'an and the Sunnah." Failing to see their hopes for the first fulfilled, they advocated and implemented (or at any rate had their followers implement) the second. The record of this is now coming to light as Malaysian, Singaporean and Filipino authorities interrogate Jemaah Islamiah members in their custody.

Jemaah Islamiah: The investigative record

Over 40 alleged or admitted Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members are now under arrest in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, most of them since early December. As results of their interrogation trickle out, the scary picture emerges that the al-Qaeda-linked organization was better organized and had much greater depth in Southeast Asia than anyone had suspected and that several key operatives remain at large and tons of explosives missing. The danger is now better known, but the terrorist threat is not banished.

The principal JI operative unaccounted for is Indonesian-born and Islamic boarding school-educated itinerant radical Muslim preacher Riduan Isamuddin, 36, better known as Hambali. In the mid-1980s, like Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, he fled to Malaysia to escape a Suharto-ordered crackdown on Islamic militancy. In 1987, he went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation forces. When he returned in 1990, he began preaching at radical mosques around Malaysia, soon met with like-minded Abu Bakar and Abdullah Sungkar, and later became the operations chief of JI and its main contact man with and point man for al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia. A Malaysian official has characterized Abu Bakar as the group's "godfather" and Hambali as the "consigliere".

Authorities in Singapore have ascertained that soon after the start of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Hambali guided execution of a JI/al-Qaeda plan to drive trucks loaded with fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) bombs into the US, Australian, British and Israeli embassies in Singapore. Four tons of ammonium nitrate had been purchased by trusted Hambali lieutenant Yazid Sufaat (see above) back in October 2000 through his Kuala Lumpur clinical pathology company, Green Laboratory Medicine. The explosives materials, originally delivered to the Malaysian town of Muar on the Malacca Strait, were shipped from there to the Indonesian island of Batam just off Singapore. Surveillance of the embassies had been completed and the largest terror attack since September 11 was about to take place when the JI cell members charged with carrying it out were arrested in early December.

Also arrested in early December in Singapore were members of another JI cell controlled by Hambali, who were planning to bomb US warships docking in Singapore, a shuttle bus carrying US military personnel, and offices of American corporations. A videotape showing a subway station near a shuttle-bus stop was found by CIA officers in the wreckage of an al-Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan. Singapore authorities say they have recovered the master tape of that video footage from a secret compartment in the home of Mohamad Khalim bin Jaffar, one of the 13 JI detainees. And where is Hambali? Singaporean and Malaysian investigators have been told by JI members in their custody that he went to Afghanistan in October. But he is now believed to be in hiding in Indonesia. The ammonium nitrate has not been found.

But the early December Singapore and Malaysia arrests provided leads to a key arrest in the Philippines on January 15. Three hours before he was to board a plane from Manila to Bangkok, a joint operation by Philippines national police, the armed forces and immigration authorities nabbed a boyish 30-year-old Indonesian national named Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, then rounded up four alleged Filipino accomplices and seized a ton of TNT, 17 M-16 rifles, 300 detonators and other bomb-making apparatus in a house rented by al-Ghozi in General Santos City in Mindanao. It has now been confirmed that al-Ghozi is identical to "Mike", who in October slipped into Singapore to help JI members prepare for the truck bombings. He is also "Randy Ali" of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) special operations group and, according to one of his four accomplices, Mohamad Kiram, the mastermind of a December 30, 2000 bombing at a Manila light rail transit station that killed 22 people. His involvement in bombings in Indonesia is still under investigation.

Al-Ghozi in the late 1980s was a student at Abu Bakar's Islamic boarding school. Several detainees in Singapore and Malaysia have identified Abu Bakar as the head of JI. But the militant cleric continues to live happily in his Central Java haunt. Indonesia remains the weak link in attempts to thoroughly uproot Southeast Asia's al-Qaeda.

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