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Letter from Niger, June 2002

U. S. security and intelligence authorities quickly began weaving strands of evidence together after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and identified the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden as the perpetrators. Initially, attention was focused on to the Al Qaeda-Taliban links in Afghanistan and the Middle East. More careful examination of the evidence revealed that Al Qaeda had deep roots in Southeast Asia. This evidence was obtained through, the cooperation of Malaysian, Singaporean, and Philippine security services. Indeed, these services had already identified apparent leaders of Al Qaeda cells and begun preparations for arrests. The Malaysians even passed to CIA information on certain suspicious persons whom they had observed locally. Three of these persons were among the eventual September 11 hijackers. As early as 1992, Philippine services provided the information that led to the arrest of the attackers of the World Trade Center that year. Meanwhile, the Filipinos had worked with the United States on the problem of the puzzling series of local bombings. The world of Intelligence is inherently secretive and opaque but a close reading of newspaper reports provides many hints that the governments of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore generously shared such bits and pieces of intelligence as they obtained with the U. S. government before September 11. Inevitably, such information concerned the individual security situation of each nation.

The U. S. offensive in Afghanistan resulted in the capture of startling documents that revealed the existence of an al Qaeda network that was not just national but regional in scope. As already indicated, national investigations of suspicious Muslim extremist activities were at an advanced stage and arrests were imminent so it is impossible to state exactly how added U. S. intelligence information affected national plans. It is possible, however, that U. S. information made it easier for these governments to make their arrests and to go public with derogatory information on subversive activities of nationals from neighboring countries. Malaysian extremists were among the plotters in Singapore. Philippine-based al Qaeda operatives plotted against both Malaysia and Singapore.

Indonesia is the "weakest link" in addressing terrorism in Southeast Asia.

However, it was only after the December 2001 arrests in Malaysia and the January arrests in Singapore that the masterminds of the al Qaeda operations there and in the Philippines were identified as Indonesian nationals. These persons reportedly fled back to Indonesia before they could be arrested. This information was given to the Indonesian government, which has been disappointingly slow in reacting to it. Part of the reason is that Indonesia has been so preoccupied with other problems that it has paid little attention to growing al Qaeda penetration of its 220 million population, ninety percent of whom are Muslims. In any case, Muslim fundamentalism and militancy has grown substantially in the confused politico-economic situation that has prevailed since the 1997 financial crisis and the 1998 fall ofthe Suharto regime. Suharto had tried to keep the lid on the cauldron of political Islam in his thirty-two years of rule. Freed of such restraint in the post-Suharto era, Islamic radicalism has grown and even the activities of such aggressive paramilitary groups as the Laskar Jihad have been condoned. The public has also given little support to the U. S. campaign against the Taliban, thus the main apparent reason the Indonesian Government has failed to take action against local al Qaeda leaders identified by its neighbors and the United States is fear of a backlash by the supporters of such leaders and possible widespread public unrest. Indonesia is the "weakest link" in addressing terrorism in Southeast Asia.

As far as is currently known, the al Qaeda problem is most severe in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. A country-by-country assessment follows.

One of the tactics of the Malaysian government's strategy to increase its appeal to Islamic activists was to adopt a no-visa-required policy for visiting Muslims. This fact, along with Malaysia's modern infrastructure and telecommunications system, its bustling economy with world wide air connections and its many Muslim organizations, made Malaysia a welcome crossroads for al Qaeda plotters. Additionally, there were growing numbers of local religious clerics teaching the severe brand of Islam espoused by the Taliban in private homes or in little-known schools.

"[I]t is likely that the al Qaeda cells discovered to date are only the tip of a terrorist iceberg of unknown dimensions."

The career of the Malaysian Yazid Sufaat illustrates how al Qaeda took root. Sufaat spent four years, 1983-1987, studying biochemistr y in the U. S. His mother in law considered he had strayed from Islam and urged him to take religious instruction. Meanwhile, he joined the army, became a captain and served as a laboratory technician in a medical brigade. He became extremist in his religious outlook and came under the influence of exiled radical Islamic Indonesian teachers. They were Abubakar Baasyir and Riduaan Isamuddin known as Hambali. Sufaat became the key accomplice of these men who were al Qaeda agents.

Both men had fled to Malaysia from Indonesia in the mid-1980s crackdown on radical Islam by then president Suharto. Baasyir apparently stayed in Malaysia but Hambali went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s to fight against the Russian occupation. Hamali returned to Malaysia in the early 1990s full of zeal to continue and expand the armed struggle to promote Islam. Hambali joined forces with Baasyir and they formed Jemaah Islamiya (the Islamic Group) by the mid-1990s. Sufaat and perhaps thirty to forty others were members of this organization which Baasyir led with Hambali as his second in command. Sufaat was the key Malaysian follower and hosted group meetings at his residence.

In January, 2000 Hambali ordered Sufaat to host two of the hijackers who later crashed United Flight 77 into the Pentagon. CIA had tipped off Malaysian police that a group of suspected Arab terrorists would arrive about that time and the entire group was tailed closely and videotaped.. Malaysian surveillance of Jemmah Islamiya apparently began at that time. The CIA was provided the videotape, but initially paid it little attention until mid-1991 when one of those photographed was identified as a possible suspect in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in October 2000. By then the two eventual hijackers had already entered the United States. Meanwhile, Sufaat went to Afghanistan and served in a Taliban medical unit.

Hambali also set up at least two al Qaeda cells in Singapore composed of ethnic Malays. After U. S. bombing began in late 2001, one of the cells was instructed to set off explosions at the U. S. and other embassies in Singapore. Another cell was ordered to blow up U. S. warships and other targets in Singapore. In October, two al Qaeda agents slipped into Singapore to help with the bombing plans. One called "Mike" was a former student of Baasyir. Hamali left for Afghanistan at this time.

However, Singapore police were informed soon after September 11 by local sources of Jemaah Islamiya links with al Qaeda and began investigations. Arrests were made in December shortly before the bombings were to occur. Singapore police interrogations produced evidence information leading back to Malaysia and Hambali. Malaysian police had already begun making their own arrests of known Jemaah Islamiya members. Yazid Sufaat returned to Malaysia from Afghanistan in December and was also arrested. Sufaat has been charged among other things with procuring four tons of ammonium nitrate—twice the amount Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma bombings. The explosives were stored at the Indonesian Island of Batam and have not yet been recovered.

The Singapore arrests provided the identity of "Mike" who turned out to be a key figure in al Qaeda activities in the Philippines. The Singaporeans informed the Philippine authorities that arrested the man who has been a useful informant. His name is Fahur Rathman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian associate of both Baasyir and Hambali. He is charged with December 2000 bombings in Manila in which twenty-two people were killed and is a suspect in Christmas Eve church bombings in Indicia in which fifteen persons were murdered. These attacks were reportedly test runs for the planned Singapore bombings.

Al Ghozali, like Baasyir and Hambali, was a highly sophisticated agent. He had traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, using five passports, often sailing in small fishing boats at night to escape detection. Aside from his contacts with these men, al Ghozali worked closely also with another Indonesian Hambali lieutenant, Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana. Bafana gave instructions to al Ghozali to put the Singapore bombing plot into motion, but al Ghozali decided four tons of explosives was inadequate and ordered that a total of seventeen tons be procured. This blunder led to delay which gave the Singapore police enough time to make the arrests which unraveled the plot.

Hambali and Baasyir escaped arrest and were able to return to Indonesia. Baasyir has resumed his public role as a religious teacher. Hambali's whereabouts are unknown.

There is no indication that this al Qaeda network was in contact with the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. Such contacts were presumably made by other cells.

U. S. intelligence agencies and the Malaysian, Ä Singapore and Philippine agencies have cooperated closely and joined heartily in the U. S. war against terrorism. although the United States has offered military and other assistance to these governments. Neither Malaysia nor Singapore needs nor desires such assistance. However. the Philippines has eagerly. accepted the U. S. offer and 600—soon-to-be 900—U. S. Special Forces have been assigned to the Philippines, of whom 150 are stationed in Basilan. Meanwhile the United States has reportedly provided the Philippine armed forces with nearly $100 million in equipment. However, U. S. involvement has caused considerable negative public reaction and U. S. forces have been put under Philippine command and prevented from participating in military operations. The United States has been patient and understanding of the public relations problems of the Philippine government, especially the still shaky political position of President Macapagal. The small Abu Sayyaf contingent probably numbers less than 100 persons, but continues to elude the 6,000 or so Philippine military pursuing them in the thick jungle. U. S. assistance is limited to aerial reconnaissance.

The Indonesian government has been reluctant to cooperate with the United States or with its Malaysian, Philippine or Singaporean neighbors. Information on the links between Indonesians and al Qaeda have been provided to Indonesian authorities, but no arrests have been made. The government of President Megawati is also shaky and dependent to a degree on the support of Muslim parties. In any case, the U.S. still maintains sanctions against Indonesian military human rights abuses in the East Timor crisis. The Indonesian public reacted negatively against the U. S. anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan. There is little immediate prospect Indonesia will join the U. S. anti-Terror coalition.

Al Qaeda has made major prog ress in Southeast Asia. The Jemaah Islamiya goal of establishing an Islamic state encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Southern Philippines is only in its early stages and has been stymied for the time being. However, it is likely that the al Qaeda cells discovered to date are only the tip of a terrorist iceberg of unknown dimensions. Challenges to local governments to maintain secular governments will be severe. Those challenges will take many forms, only a few of which will have security or military dimensions. The United States can help meet these challenges but will have to focus major policy resources including intelligent attention on the region. This will require a policy framework much larger than merely fighting terrorism.

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July 9, 2002

Ambassador Ronald Palmer, a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors, frequently contributes analyses and commentaries to this journal. During a long and distinguished career as a Foreign Service officer, he served as U. S. ambassador to Malaysia from 1981 to 1983. Additionally, he filled the post of American ambassador to Togo, 1976-78, and Mauritius, 1986-89. frequently.

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