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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

(Page 2 of 3)

Zubaydah's representatives would arrive with contacts drawn from Afghan war alumni, refresh ties with old friends, and identify local groups that showed the most ideological and operational promise. Mr. Faruq told his interrogators that when he came to Indonesia he worked closely with Al Haramayne, a Saudi charity the State Department alleges has served as an occasional front for Al Qaeda.

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"Part of the MO [modus operandi] is to actually engage in some charitable work,'' says Lee Wolosky, a lawyer who tracked terrorist financing for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. "One of the reasons was to provide cover to operatives, and another was to make friends.

Sometimes the operative would strengthen bonds by marrying into a local militant family, as Faruq did in Indonesia; his father-in-law, Fadillah, was a militia leader. And operatives didn't always work alone - others were often brought in to train potential militants and offer them aid.

The pattern is one experts expect Al Qaeda will follow again. "Al Qaeda is opportunistic; they look to take advantage of local grievances to convince Muslims to join their larger struggle," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert. "They thrive in lawless environments."

Promising territory

For Al Qaeda's strategists in Afghanistan, conditions in Indonesia after the 1998 collapse of the Suharto regime were like the ringing of a dinner bell. Not only had the political climate changed, but communal conflicts and local militias were mushrooming.

Faruq was the man Zubaydah turned to take advantage of these conditions, according to a summary of a Faruq interrogation conducted by the US and seen by the Monitor. Faruq told his interrogators he was trained in 1991 and 1992 in tactics and explosives at Al Qaeda's Camp Khalden in Afghanistan, and had been coming to Southeast Asia since the mid-1990s.

His original role was as a liaison to armed Muslim groups in the largely Muslim southern Philippines. But after the fall of Suharto, Faruq shifted his focus to Indonesia, where he quickly zeroed in on the religious war brewing on Ambon, the capital of the archipelagic Maluku province.

Faruq devoted much of 1999 to meeting with would-be militia leaders, Indonesian investigators say.

He would call on both militants and peaceful supporters of sharia, or Islamic law, drink coffee with them, and build on his list of contacts. He traveled freely, passing himself off as a small trader in pearls, coffee, and the fragrant gaharu wood prized as an incense in the Middle East.

Faruq tapped Muslim outrage over the fighting in Maluku to spread the word within Indonesia that Muslims had to take up arms. Christian-Muslim violence had erupted in Ambon in January 1999, spurred by local conflicts over power and money.

Though Indonesia is overwhelmingly Muslim, the confessional balance in Maluku province is about 50-50. The fighting there snowballed from brawls to full-scale gun warfare. The military and government did little to contain the situation, treating it as a minor conflict that would burn itself out.

Eventually, 5,000 people died and about 100,000 families were displaced. "Our leaders didn't appreciate how dangerous the fighting in Maluku was," says Eko Prasetyo, author of several books on the Maluku war and militant Islam. "The fighting created a cadre of people with the skills and ideological motivation to engage in terror."

An opening

Those political miscalculations provided Faruq and his allies with an opening. Though Indonesia is a secular state, it has the world's largest Muslim population, with about 90 percent of its 220 million people adhering to the faith.
Coming on the heels of the UN-sponsored independence referendum in overwhelmingly Christian East Timor, many thought, however absurdly, that the fighting represented a Western attempt to carve out a Christian republic in Indonesia's midst.