How Al Qaeda lit the Bali fuse: Part one

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

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."

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.

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.

"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.

In the early days of fighting, local Christian militia groups engaged in atrocities against Muslims, just as local Muslims perpetrated atrocities against Christians. But as the war heated up and Muslim fighters began to pour into Maluku from outside, Christian forces were routed. "The Christians struck first, so we had to defend our brothers,'' says Irfan Suryadi Awwas, a leader of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), which sent paramilitaries to Maluku. Many MMI leaders have since been tied to JI, the group accused of planning the Bali attack.

A hotbed of Islamic activism

Nowhere was Muslim anger deeper than in Makassar, a fervently Islamic port that is the capital of South Sulawesi province and acts as a trade and cultural gateway to the Maluku provinces. A tradition of trading and seafaring has dispersed the region's people throughout Indonesia's archipelago.

Starting in early 1999, waves of Muslim refugees with family ties to the city began to return. Some made heated allegations of Christian "genocide"; these claims made their way into local and national media.
Makassar was also a hotbed of Islamic activism after the fall of Suharto, with the emergence of dozens of groups devoted to bringing sharia to the province. A leader of this movement was local businessman Agus Dwikarna. Mr. Dwikarna also happened to be Faruq's principal contact in Indonesia, according to Faruq's interrogation.

An immigration official interviewed in Makassar says an Indonesian passport was issued to Faruq on Dwikarna's recommendation, and he obtained a birth certificate in Ambon identifying him as a Maluku native after moving there in late 2000.

Faruq's wife thinks her father may have met Faruq in Makassar while on business. Makassar was also her family's link to Dwikarna: The year after her marriage, she spent time there, at one point working with Dwikarna's wife in a small baking business.

Agustina insists Faruq is an Indonesian national. "My husband was born in Maluku,'' she says. After the family moved to Ambon, she says her husband was involved in the distribution of aid, funded by Saudi charities.
She acknowledges that her father, who was killed fighting Christians in 2000, was a militia leader in the province. And her husband, she said, would often leave the house early and return late. She never asked him what he did all day and Faruq never told, she says.

Faruq's direct role in later violence should not be overstated. Dozens of men, many trained in Afghanistan, got involved with terror groups after the fall of Suharto. Some, like accused terrorist Riduan Isammudin, whose alias is Hambali, also had a direct line to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

But Faruq's work shows how Al Qaeda seeks to capitalize on unsettled situations. "Faruq is an example of how Middle Eastern terror networks hook up with Southeast Asian ones,'' says Sidney Jones, the director of the International Crisis Group's Indonesia project. "Everything from the marriage to the fake ID cards to the traveling around in the region are evidence of a pattern."

Faruq is no longer a factor. On June 5, 2002, he called his wife on his cellphone to tell her he was on his way back from the mosque. Shortly after that call, he was arrested. His wife is pursuing a lawsuit against the government over what her lawyers say was her husband's illegal arrest and delivery to US authorities.

But his violent legacy persists. The fighting in Maluku has long since cooled. But it created hundreds of veterans of the violence there, some of whom would turn to terror.

Key players among Indonesia's Islamic militants

  • Omar al-Faruq Alleged to have been Al Qaeda's main relationship manager in Southeast Asia.
  • Haris Fadillah Leader of the Laskar Mujahidin, a militia group active in the Maluku provinces; father-in-law of Omar al-Faruq.
  • Abu Zubaydah Leader of Al Qaeda's external operations.
  • Agus Dwikarna Businessman, main contact in Indonesia for Omar al-Faruq.
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