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.
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.
The bespectacled Maidin was a condominium manager who moonlighted as a cleric. With his Arab robes and unkempt beard - a bolt of white down its middle - he looked the part, but was otherwise low key. Most of Maidin's neighbors in his apartment complex - a concrete, custard-colored government-built edifice - didn't know his name.
He seemed to like it that way. Maidin, a puritanical Muslim in the Wahabi tradition of Saudi Arabia, disdained Singapore's mainstream mosques and Muslims. "I would pass him on the stairs, he would only say hello,'' says a neighbor, a Muslim, who didn't want to be identified. "I knew he had people in to talk about the Koran sometimes. But I can't believe they were terrorists!''
Nevertheless, Singapore authorities allege that Maidin was using his classes to find recruits. (In the 1990s, Al Qaeda sought to nurture the sympathy of Muslims into a web of support cells around the globe. At least 1,000 Southeast Asian Muslims, investigators say, traveled to Afghanistan in the 1990s for military training.) And he had help, particularly from three Indonesian clerics named Hambali, Abu Bakar Bashir, and Mohammad Iqbal Rahman, Singapore and Malaysian authorities allege. The Indonesian's lived in exile in Malaysia, and provided, investigators say, the connective tissue between the Singapore cell, its brother organizations in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the expertise of Al Qaeda.
Rahman is currently in Malaysian custody, while Hambali is a fugitive. Bashir, a campaigner for the creation of an Islamic state, returned to Indonesia in 1998. He denies involvement in any terrorist activities and Indonesian police say they have no evidence to arrest him.
In Singapore, Maidin's lectures took a sharp anti-American turn after US troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. The Americans are infidels, he preached, and the presence of their troops in the holy-land an attack on Islam. In 1993, Maidin attended one of the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan; at least seven more of his students also attended Al Qaeda camps, Singapore officials allege.
Jaffar told Singapore investigators that he grew convinced that Maidin's view of the world was correct. In 1995, he and another member of his cell went on an adventure holiday to Malaysia, and he boasted when he returned that he'd acquired jungle survival skills. In 1997, Jaffar began to develop plans to attack US sailors in Singapore. Vessels in the US Seventh fleet regularly put in to port here.
Jaffar worked up plans to attack ships in the harbor similar to the Cole attack and also proposed blowing up a bus ferrying American sailors from the port to a subway station near his home. In August of 1999, Maidin sent Jaffar to Afghanistan, where he briefed Al Qaeda leaders on the plan. Jaffar provided them with a videotape of his proposed target.
That tape was found in mid December by US intelligence agents in Afghanistan in a burned out Al Qaeda safe-house. It was turned over to Singapore officials in late December, after the arrests here.
Jaffar told interrogators that his plan was well-received, but for reasons unknown, were not pursued. But intelligence analysts say that plan served to convince the Al Qaeda leadership that the cell was capable enough to help carry out an attack.
In late September, Al Qaeda contacted the Jemaah Islamiyah through a Malaysian member, Faiz bin Abu Bakar Bafana, and told them to prepare for action. In early October Sammy, the Al Qaeda operative who Singapore officials said is of "Arab extraction," and an Indonesian who called himself "Mike" flew into town and began piecing together details for an attack.
They were clearly planning a devastating operation. The foreign experts told the local cell that Malaysian contacts had already procured 4 tons of ammonium nitrate, a volatile fertilizer frequently used by terrorists, and that they'd need a further 17 tons to carry out their plan. The 1995 Oklahoma City bomb that killed 168 people contained just two tons of ammonium nitrate. Unknown to the alleged plotters, Singapore already had many of them under surveillance, and as they moved to acquire explosives, the authorities decided to close in, making their first round of arrests on December 6.
Sammy and Mike had already fled. Philippines officials arrested "Mike" last week. They say his proper name is Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, a self-described munitions expert who was trained by Al Qaeda.
The Filipino's said they recovered a ton of explosives and detonators after interrogating Ghozi. Sammy, whose identity is not yet known, remains at large.