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How Al Qaeda lit the Bali fuse: Part one

Nightclub bombings grew out of a network forged by marriage, training, and aid

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 2003


Mira Agustina was surprised to get the call at the Islamic boarding school where she had been cloistered since she turned 18. "Come home,'' her father said."There's someone who wants to marry you."

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Ms. Agustina slipped on the black, tentlike dress her father, Haris Fadillah, had taught her to wear in public; packed a small bag; and left on the 12-hour bus ride to Cijambu, West Java. Arriving early the next morning, she was introduced to Mohammed Assegof, a young man with Arab features. Ms. Agustina, then 21, married him that day.

Mr. Fadillah never explained why he was uniting his daughter to this stranger. But "my father must have trusted my husband completely,'' Agustina said in an April interview, as she played with her toddler in the sparsely furnished family home here. "Otherwise, he wouldn't have allowed him to marry me."

US and Indonesian investigators agree. Her marriage in July 1999, they say, helped cement an alliance between Indonesian militants and Al Qaeda that culminated in the October 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists dancing at a nightclub.

The trials of two of the men implicated in those bombings got under way last month in Bali. A third - of Mukhlas, the man alleged to be the operations chief of the terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) - began Monday.

The prosecution in those cases is focused on the narrow details of how the Bali attacks were carried out. What they do not tell is the larger story of Al Qaeda's entry to Indonesia.

That tale reveals a pattern the organization mastered in the 1990s: patiently tracing an arc of opportunistic expansion from Somalia to Afghanistan to the southern Philippines and thriving on weak law enforcement, corruption, and local Islamic militias ripe to be transformed into members of a borderless terror group.

Agustina's husband, arrested by Indonesia almost five months before the attack and now being held without charges by the US, is not directly tied to the Bali bombings. But US and Indonesian investigators say he and a handful of others prepared the ground for such attacks through aggressive propaganda and intensive recruiting. With the Muslim-Christian war in the Maluku provinces as their springboard, they swelled the ranks of local militants in an effort that would yield the worst terror attack since September 11.

The trail from the Maluku war to the Bali bombings provides a lesson in how "nuisance conflicts" can become fodder for future terrorism. Local grievances festered and spiraled into extremism - even in areas where militant Islam would seem to have had little chance of taking root. The phenomenon was underscored last week with the arrest of three Thai Muslims accused of belonging to JI and planning a bombing campaign there. The south of the predominantly Buddhist country is home to a Muslim minority that has long complained of discrimination by the government.

Building the team

While the man Agustina married has at least seven aliases, US officials say his real name is Omar al-Faruq. They allege the 32-year-old Kuwaiti was Al Qaeda's principal relationship manager in Southeast Asia. For four years, he crisscrossed this archipelago, building operational ties between Al Qaeda, JI, and other local militants.

The basic template began with Abu Zubaydah. The Saudi Palestinian and confidant of Osama bin Laden had operated along the Afghan border for more than a decade and risen to lead Al Qaeda's external operations. Literally thousands of young men from dozens of countries had entered Al Qaeda's camps on his recommendation, both during and after the war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Among Mr. Zubaydah's many duties was infiltration of Islamic charities. He often dispatched his man with a legitimate charitable cover.