Singapore arrests tied to Al Qaeda

Alleged plans by Islamic militants to blow up the US Embassy point to terrorist cells in Southeast Asia.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In mid-December, while US bombing in Afghanistan was tapering off and Al Qaeda appeared routed, Singapore was quietly rounding up 13 members of an alleged terrorist cell it says has close ties to Osama Bin Laden.

To many, it was a startling set of revelations. In a region where "chaotic" can be used fairly to describe almost every country, Singapore stands apart. Its streets are unclogged by traffic, its skies unpolluted - and the political climate parallels the outward signs of order.

Today, the government said the men were planning to bomb the US Embassy and US businesses in Singapore. "The US Embassy and commercial entities were the principal targets for attack in this case," says Ong-Chew Peck Wan, the spokeswoman for the Singapore Home Affairs Ministry.

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The sprawling Internal Security Department keeps tabs on its 3.5 million citizens and the powerful Internal Security Act gives the government the right to detain anyone deemed a threat to Singapore's stability. And Singapore's roughly 400,000 Muslims are famous for a live-and-let-live attitude.

All of which makes the city-state one of the most unlikely places anyone would look for terrorists in Southeast Asia, and has many wondering: If there's space for terror groups to operate in the tightly controlled city-state, where can't they operate? In a part of the world where corruption and lawlessness is common, Singapore's strict armed forces and severe law enforcement made terrorist cells seem unlikely.

Singapore has long kept a tight rein on public expression and freedom of assembly. The government has wide powers to listen to the phone calls, read the e-mails of citizens, and control the press. Intelligence agents keep a tight watch on political activity and discussion.

"Based on my experiences in the Muslim community here, if there are any Muslims here that might be labeled extremists, they must be a very, very small group of people," says Azhar Steven, an American Muslim who's lived in Singapore for 10 years.

Government officials say they found evidence in the homes and businesses of the men - all but one of whom are Singapore nationals - tying them to Al Qaeda and showing that they tried to obtain bomb-making materials, and that they videotaped potential targets like the US Embassy. Singapore officials also said that some of the arrested men had trained in Al Qaeda camps in Pakistan.

Indeed, the arrests in Singapore may force a reevaluation of Al Qaeda's potential reach in Southeast Asia. Singapore and Malaysian authorities say the men arrested in Singapore have ties to a separate group of 13 men arrested by Malaysia in December, who in turn, Malaysia says, had contact with Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchmen currently being held in the US in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.

The arrests may be the first evidence of disparate militant groups in the region. A spokesman at the US Embassy in Singapore says the two countries "are cooperating closely in these matters" and other officials indicated that the two countries are weaving together the threads between militant groups in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia that all seem rooted in Afghanistan.

"Our security and intelligence agencies [are] working with counterparts in the region and other parts of the world," says Mrs. Ong-Chew, Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry spokeswoman.

Singapore is home to a US Navy logistics unit, and the island recently opened a naval facility that accommodates US aircraft carriers.

Singapore's founding father and elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew has often argued that the stability and prosperity of multiethnic Singapore, which experienced race riots at independence in 1969, is fragile, and that protecting that stability is the principle function of the government.

That should leave a very difficult operating environment for any militant group. The last terrorist act in the country was over 25 years ago, when members of the Japanese Red Army briefly hijacked a ferry. But according to the Singapore government, the alleged militants it has arrested had a fairly wide scope of activities. It describes them as members of a cell of a previously unknown group called the Jemaah Islamiah, and says that in addition to gathering information on how to make bombs and seeking to secure a supply of ammonium nitrate, an explosive, they also raised money for other terror groups and had a number of potential targets under surveillance in Singapore.

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