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Southeast Asia easy source of Al Qaeda recruits

In the past month, detectives learned how fast the region's radicals were co-opted.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 2002


Through a series of intelligence breaks over the past month, investigators in Asia and the US have extended and deepened the known links between Southeast Asia's Islamic militants and Al Qaeda. Their findings? That just three key Al Qaeda operatives provided the connective tissue between the group's headquarters in Afghanistan and eager regional militants.

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Two of these men are now in custody: Agus Dwikarna, an Indonesian businessman convicted on explosive charges in the Philippines this summer, and the Kuwaiti Omar al-Faruq, arrested in Indonesia in June and currently in United States custody.

But the third, and most crucial in the opinion of Southeast Asian investigators, is Riduan Isamuddin, a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. The 37-year-old Indonesian, better known as Hambali, remains at large – a key reason US officials worry that Al Qaeda retains the capacity to strike in the region.

As Southeast Asian and US investigators have dug into the contacts between regional radicals and Al Qaeda, they've uncovered an intriguing, and somewhat alarming, fact: Co-opting radicals in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, was a cheap and easy proposition. Local militants were convinced that their interests – a desire to bring Islamic law to their home governments – could dovetail with the global agenda of Al Qaeda, presented as the protection of Islam against the aggression of the US.

"Al Qaeda has been operating in this manner all over the world,'' says Rohan Kumar Gunaratna, an expert on Al Qaeda who is a visiting fellow at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. "They work through a few key individuals and are very good at winning local groups to their cause."

In the case of Southeast Asia, Al Qaeda sought to win over loose networks of activists for Islamic law whose leaders are predominantly Indonesian. Key among them was the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an organization that investigators in Singapore and Malaysia say was created in the early 1990s by a tight-knit group of Indonesian radicals who dreamed of a pan-Islamic Southeast Asia.

The group's current leader, according to the US and regional governments, is Abu Bakar Bashir, a white-bearded cleric who runs an Islamic boarding school in Central Java. Mr. Bashir, who says he deeply admires Osama bin Laden, denies any links to terrorism while also acknowledging a friendship with Hambali when the two were living in Malaysia in the 1990s.

But Hambali, investigators say, was the principal Al Qaeda contact for JI, with Bashir aware of its objectives and methods but not involved in planning or executing operations. Officials in Singapore allege Hambali was a key figure in the planning of a failed effort to truck-bomb the US Embassy and other targets in Singapore last year. Officials in the Philippines say he was the controlling figure behind a bomb attack that killed 22 people in Manila on New Year's Eve 2000, while the Indonesian police say he led a series of synchronized church bombings on Christmas Eve 2000.

Regional investigators say he was also recruited into Al Qaeda by Mr. bin Laden's lieutenant Mohammad Atef while in Afghanistan, and was in regular contact with another key bin Laden aide, Abu Zubaydah, until his capture in Pakistan in March. Mr. Atef died in a US strike in Afghanistan.

"He's the linchpin,'' says a regional intelligence official. "If I could interrogate only one guy, Hambali would be the one I'd pick."

That Hambali is currently at large was one of the reasons the US was so alarmed when Mr. Faruq told US interrogators in early September that cells in Southeast Asia were planning a series of coordinated truck-bomb attacks on or around the Sept. 11 anniversary.

That claim led to the closure of the US embassies in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia for a few days. At the same time, Singapore arrested 19 men they described as terrorist "footsoldiers." Faruq's interrogation also led to the arrest of another alleged Al Qaeda operative in Indonesia – a German national named Seyam Reyda, who was living in one of Jakarta's southern suburbs.

Found in Mr. Reyda's home, according to Indonesian national police spokesman Saleh Saaf, was a videotape of local Islamic radicals receiving weapons training in eastern Indonesia, where a Jihad has been fought against local Christians for the past three years.