'Activated' Asian terror web busted
The arrest of dozens of Al Qaeda suspects shows the organization's depth in Asia.
When Al Qaeda's leaders looked around the globe for fresh US targets after the Sept. 11 attacks, they turned to a professionally run network in Singapore that they had been quietly nurturing for almost a decade, officials here say.Skip to next paragraph
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The arrest last week of 13 alleged Al Qaeda agents in Singapore, plus another two-dozen men in Malaysia and at least one in the Philippines, uncovers a large and relatively unknown network of terrorist sleeper cells in Southeast Asia. CIA and FBI agents are now working with local law-enforcement officials in the region, following up fresh leads, including alleged connections to groups in Indonesia.
What's emerging from the available evidence is a portrait of Islamic militants who are remarkably similar to the Sept. 11 hijackers: middle class, well educated, trained in Afghanistan, and chillingly methodical in their plans to bomb multiple Western targets.
The Singapore cell was "activated" in late September, say officials here, and an Al Qaeda agent, who only called himself "Sammy," flew in from the Philippines.
Sammy came to coach a local affiliate, called the Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Group) through its final preparations for a truck-bombing campaign in the city-state.
The local group had spent years studying targets and training operatives, and Al Qaeda had decided it was finally time to tap its hidden asset.
It appears that only a tip-off from a resident in Singapore headed off a terrorist attack.
Local intelligence officers were stunned when they followed up a tip about one man's possible Al Qaeda connections. What they found led Singapore and Malaysian authorities to arrest 28 men in December, and they have since recovered evidence ranging from bomb-making manuals to maps of US installations here.
Al Qaeda operatives had been known to occasionally meet with extremists in the region. The Malaysian branch of the Jemaah Islamiyah, for instance, had at least fleeting contact with Al Qaeda members who US officials say participated in the Sept. 11 attacks and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
But this case is the first evidence that Al Qaeda was actively fostering connections between these local groups, and planning to use them for something more than logistics. Singapore authorities say Sammy instructed the Jemaah Islamiyah to acquire explosives and to put the US Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and the British High Commission under surveillance. A surveillance tape of the targets was recovered from the Singapore office of Fathi Abu Bakar Bafana, one of the alleged bomb plotters.
"The comments on that tape were chilling, things like 'those pillars look pretty strong' but with a clear implication that they'd find a way to knock them down,'' says one Western diplomat in Singapore. "It came as a bit of a surprise that they could be developing specific plans in a place like Singapore."
Indeed, that surprise is one of the reasons intelligence analysts say Al Qaeda was so interested in placing operatives here. The feeling of security and the presence of more than 17,000 US residents, as well as extensive US commercial and military ties, meant that Singapore was littered with "soft" targets.
The details of this ongoing investigation show how, patiently and quietly, Al Qaeda extended its reach into this country of 4 million people, despite a famously efficient domestic intelligence service and the highest standard of living in the region. Singapore was supposed to be the sort of place were extremism wouldn't take root.
"They had good cover stories, and were very careful about never talking about their intentions,'' says a Singapore official. "If they could do it here, they could do it anywhere.''
The men who were arrested were middle-managers, electrical engineers, and entrepreneurs and most owned their own flats in government-constructed apartment buildings - the Singapore version of the American dream.
The common denominator was neither poverty, nor lack of education. Instead, the arrested men shared a religious ideology that calls the United States an enemy of Islam and a belief that God would reward them for waging a global Jihad. Those beliefs led the men to embrace fanatical secrecy, officials say. Even their wives were in the dark about their activities. They told friends and employers they were attending religious schools in Pakistan when in fact they were learning terrorist tactics in Afghanistan.
Among those arrested were Khalim Jaffar and Ibrahim Maidin. In late 1989, the 27-year-old Jaffar was fresh out of vocational school, where he'd trained to be a printer, and looking for direction. According to Singapore officials, the gaunt, intense Jaffar found it at Maidin's informal religious classes.