Al Qaeda's Asian 'quartermaster'

Behind bars in Manila, the alleged terrorist is revealing some secrets, investigators say.

His beard was more grunge goatee than a flowing symbol of religious devotion, and his portable CD player pumped out American pop music more frequently than Koranic lectures. Yet Fathur Roman al-Ghozi was the man Al Qaeda trusted to get things done in Southeast Asia, intelligence officials here say.

Mr. al-Ghozi was arrested in Manila on Jan. 15. Philippines investigators say his duties included the following: Elicit the sympathy of local Muslims; build relationships with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); ship guns to Sulawesi, Indonesia; and buy explosives to be used to destroy US and allied targets in Singapore.

"Mostly, he was their quartermaster - someone who could get what they needed,'' says Zachary Abuza, a political science professor at Simmons College in Boston, who has just returned from researching a book on Al Qaeda's network in Southeast Asia.

US Forces continue to arrive in the Philippines to assist in operations against the Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom gang that the State Department calls international terrorists. But the lesson of al-Ghozi and his accomplices, intelligence analysts say, is that a handful of sophisticated operatives are far more dangerous than Abu Sayyaf.

The Indonesian operative was methodical and ideologically driven - qualities that made him extremely elusive during the five years he roamed the region. He could speak several Philippine dialects. "He's smart and disciplined,'' says one of his interrogators. "If I didn't know better, he could pass himself off completely as a Filipino." Indeed, evidence is emerging that al-Ghozi is a prototype for a generation of young radicals that Al Qaeda sought to groom to carry the "Jihad" to Southeast Asia, home to one-third of the world's Muslims.

A terror chapter opens

In the early 1990s, relied on Pakistanis, Kuwaitis, and Afghanis to do operational work in the region. But by the middle of the decade, the group had helped found the Jemaah Islamiyah (J. I.), an affiliate head-quartered in Malaysia that drew its members from throughout Southeast Asia.

Singapore investigators say the J. I. is lead by Abu Bakar Bashir, a Indonesian cleric who runs a Islamic boarding school in Central Java. Al-Ghozi is one of the school's graduates.

The J. I.- sponsored Afghan training trips for members, conducted intense indoctrination sessions on its brand of Islam, and became a link between Osama bin Laden's Afghan bases and would-be radicals in Southeast Asia, officials in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines say. The apparent goal was to create ideologically sound operatives who could blend seamlessly with the local populations.

Al-Ghozi, who made at least two training trips to Afghanistan, was just one of them. Philippines officials say another Indonesian, who went by the alias Sulaiman, escaped when al-Ghozi was arrested. Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said this weekend that as many as eight members of the J. I. have eluded authorities.

Still, al-Ghozi is the only member known to have successfully carried out an attack.

On December 30, 2000, Manila was rocked by five nearly simultaneous explosions, including one at a crowded train station that left 22 dead and about 100 injured. A day later, a caller to the police who identified himself as "Freedom Fighter" took responsibility for the blasts: "Tell the President that's in retaliation for what's happening in Mindanao,'' the island home of the MILF.

Authorities captured the caller's cell-phone number, but at the time didn't know that it was al-Ghozi. But Army intelligence officers quickly established that he was an Indonesian, and that he frequented both MILF camps on Mindanao, where he provided explosives training.

But he never stayed in one place for more than two weeks and he had at least seven aliases, says one of the officers that tracked him. Al-Ghozi went frequently to Singapore and Malaysia.

It was only after the J. I. arrests in Singapore in December that they finally caught him in Manila. They quickly realized that he was one of two Al Qaeda operatives who had arrived in Singapore in October to make preparations for a massive bombing campaign that included the US Embassy, Singapore officials say.

Philippines investigators now describe the December 30 Manila bombing as a "trial run" for al-Ghozi. He told investigators that Faiz bin Abu Bakar Bafana, his controlling officer in the J. I., first sent him to the Philippines in 1995, with orders to make friends in the MILF.

"The kyai (Muslim leaders of J. I.) had determined that the Philippines was a very good source of logistics because of lax policing,'' says one of the Filipino investigators.

Trial run with a bomb

In particular, he cemented his relationship with Muklis Yunos, a MILF fighter who, intelligence officials say, trained at the same Al Qaeda camp as al-Ghozi in 1993. The Philippines police allege Mr. Yunos is the head of a Special Operations Group for the MILF, and a member of a splinter group within the organization that favors a more aggressive war with the Philippines.

Al-Ghozi and Yunos hatched the December 30 bomb plot, along with financing provided by J.I., al-Ghozi has told investigators. Intelligence officials here describe the Manila bombing as a trial run for al-Ghozi to prove that he could reliably get explosives in the Philippines.

"Having done it once, he could go back to the same contacts and just turn the key,'' says a Philippines intelligence official working on the case. "The MILF is cellular enough that no one would know."

In October of last year, Bafana told al-Ghozi to buy more explosives and prepare them for shipping to Singapore. Al-Ghozi has since led investigators to one ton of TNT, detonating wire, and 17 M-16s in a bamboo shack behind a house in General Santos City, Mindanao.

Philippines investigators say the cell was killing off two birds with one stone when al-Ghozi went south. In addition to buying the explosives in Mindanao, al-Ghozi had also bought 17 M-16s and had them meticulously packed to resist the damp sea air on the passage to Indonesia.

"It seems that the guns were for the 'Jihad' in Poso [Sulawesi] - while the explosives would be shipped on from Sulawesi to Singapore,'' says the investigator. Sulawesi was a natural transit point - an island with hundreds of miles of unmonitored coastline and two large ports that carry on a brisk trade with Singapore.

Christians and Muslims have been engaged in sporadic fighting near Solo for 18 months, and officials in Mr. Bashir's Indonesian organization say they have recruited fighters to go and "protect" Muslims there.

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