ATbar Al-Qaida’s Asian Web
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Al-Qaida’s Asian Web

15/10/2002 | by Shahar, Yael  
It would be ironic, if it were not so tragic. For months the Indonesian government has denied allegations that al-Qaida militants were setting up shop in the country. When Singapore’s investigation into a plot to bomb Western interests pointed to the involvement of Indonesian operatives, Indonesia refused even to entertain the possibility. Now, in the wake of what is being called the worst terrorist act in Indonesian history, these denials appear not only preposterous, but criminally remiss.

There can be little doubt that the bombing of Bali’s popular nightclub district was aimed at the throngs of Western tourists who frequent the island’s nightspots. Nor do many doubt that Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida were ultimately behind the attack, which came on the second anniversary of the bombing of the USS Cole. What is in doubt is whether the lesson has been learned.

The attack on foreign visitors to Bali was only the latest—and the most deadly—attack on foreign visitors in Asia. This atrocity was preceded by attacks on French engineers, foreign diplomats, and Christian aid workers in Pakistan; by bombings targeting American forces in the Philippines; and by shooting attacks on American soldiers in Kuwait. Nor was this by any means the first attack against non-Muslims in Indonesian cities; in December 2000, a series of well-coordinated blasts targeted churches in Jakarta and elsewhere, killing more than 20 people. To say that the writing was on the wall would be a considerable understatement.

The influence of al-Qaida

Al-Qaida’s influence on the Islamic militant culture of Southeast Asia runs deep—perhaps even deeper than anyone had previously suspected. Only since the September 11 attacks in the United States has the full extent of al-Qaida involvement in the region begun to emerge. What at first appeared to be a ragtag assortment of unrelated militant groups has now been revealed as an intricate web of mutual operational support, based on personal connections and shared ideology. While al-Qaida’s influence has extended to virtually every part of Southeast Asia, Indonesia has provided particularly fertile ground, due to the current lack of a stable government and a recent history of brutal repression.

Ironically, it was the Suharto government’s suppression of Muslim religious groups that gave al-Qaida a foothold in Indonesia. In a region where the line between political activism and militant terrorism is a thin one, Suharto’s attempt to wipe out his political adversaries pushed many Muslim fundamentalists across the line, straight into the arms of al-Qaida.

Denied a chance to play a role in Indonesian politics, many Indonesian Islamists cultivated the dream of “Daulah Islamiah Raya,” an Islamic super-state that would include all of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Sultanate of Brunei, and parts of the southern Philippines, Thailand and even Cambodia. This notion of a global, or at least regional, Islamic nation was shared by the Wahhabi fundamentalists who eventually formed the Taliban, and by Osama bin Ladin’s network for global jihad.

Always seeking to extend his influence, Osama bin Laden reached out to the disparate local extremist groups, offering financial and operational assistance. In return, he won new recruits to his cause of “liberating” Muslim lands from Western influence.

Church bombings reveal international links

On Christmas Eve, 2000, twenty bombs tore through Christian churches in Jakarta and eight other Indonesian cities. Twenty-two people were killed and nearly a hundred wounded. Dozens of other churches narrowly missed destruction because the bombs were defused or failed to explode. Two would-be attackers were killed when the bombs they were assembling exploded prematurely.

A similar accident led Indonesian police to Iqbal Uzzaman, a Veteran of the Afghan war who had recruited at least 12 of the bombers. Uzzaman told interrogators that the attacks had been the brainchild of a man known as Hambali—who he said had arrived in the city of Bandung with plans for 30 simultaneous attacks on “infidel targets.” Hambali had access to plenty of money, and brought along two assistants to build the bombs. Uzzaman was to provide the foot soldiers and Hambali would provide the wherewithal to carry out the attacks. While Uzzaman and nine of his recruits are currently serving time in Indonesian prisons, Hambali has disappeared without a trace.

Six days after the church bombings, five nearly simultaneous explosions rocked the Philippine capital of Manila, killing another 22 people. More than a year later, Philippines police arrested an Indonesian citizen, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, who had once worked as an explosives expert for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The new bombings were not the work of the MILF; a check of al-Ghozi’s cell-phone records revealed that immediately before and after the Manila bombings he had called a number belonging to Hambali. Al-Ghozi said that Hambali, who had visited Manila a short time before, had funded and coordinated the bombings.

Al-Ghozi also led police to a cache in General Santos City on the island of Mindanao containing a tonne of Anzomex explosive, 300 detonators, six 400-meter rolls of detonating cord and 17 M16 assault rifles.

Operation “Jibril”

That al-Ghozi’s arrest was able to throw light on the Manila blasts was pure serendipity, since he was arrested in connection with a totally different incident. In December 2001, Singaporean authorities arrested 13 members of a cell planning attacks on Western interests in that country. Al-Ghozi had acquired the explosives uncovered on Mindanao as part of this cell’s plan. According to Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, the explosives were “destined to be smuggled from Mindanao to Indonesia, and then to Malaysia and finally to Singapore.” The Mindanao cache was only part of the picture: Singaporean investigators eventually concluded that the cell had intended to blow up seven targets on the island with trucks, each carrying three times as much explosives as that used to level the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Eight of the men arrested in Singapore had trained at al-Qaidah camps in Afghanistan. The cell consisted of local Muslims belonging to Jemaah Islamiah, a clandestine Islamist group with ties to similar groups in Malaysia and Indonesia. Several of the men were reported to be members of Singapore’s armed forces.

The cell, which was formed as far back as 1993, followed a classic al-Qaida pattern: Local militants formed cells of between three and four men, who were then provided with instruction and aid by al-Qaida “consultants.” Members of the Singaporean cell knew these “foreign experts” only as “Mike” and “Sammy.” Both men were experts in explosives and undercover work, and met with the cell several times during October 2001.

The plan they helped develop required the cell’s local members to scout out and videotape potential targets, arrange for travel documents, and acquire the explosives to be used in the attacks. “Mike” reportedly instructed members of the cell to purchase some 20 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The actual attacks would be carried out by suicide bombers brought in by “Sammy”—by which time the local cell members were to have left the country. The plan’s targets included the American, Australian and Israeli embassies in Singapore, as well American ships in Singapore’s harbor.

The plot, code-named “Operation Jibril”, was apparently known to Singaporean authorities as early as October 2000. Singapore government sources said the arrest of the local members of the cell thwarted “a serious effort to launch attacks.” However, the two al-Qaida experts managed to slip out of the country some time in late December.

The arrest of Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi in mid-January in the Philippines was based on information provided by Singapore. Al-Ghozi, it turned out, was the explosives expert known to the Singaporean cell as “Mike.” The second al-Qaida “consultant” was later picked up by United States security agents in Oman. “Sammy” turned out to be Jabarah Mohammed Mansour, a Canadian citizen of Kuwaiti descent. Mansour proved extremely cooperative in answering questions about al-Qaida, and reportedly provided his interrogators with details about the network’s training methods and operational techniques, including means of blending in with the local population while planning an attack.

But it was the interrogation of Rohman al-Ghozi and the other members of the Singapore cell that provided the most information about al-Qaida’s Southeast Asian cells. Among the information al-Ghozi provided was the name of the “brains” behind the Singapore operation. According to his affidavit, al-Ghozi had been working under the orders of Hambali, whom he described as the operational commander of Jemaah Islamiah.

However, the name Hambali, which now appeared to be connected with virtually every major terror attack in Southeast Asia, was also connected with al-Qaida. It was Hambali who ordered a member of the Singapore cell to videotape possible targets on the island; and when police arrested the cell members in December 2001, they discovered a copy of the tape.

A second copy had been sent by courier to bin Ladin’s operations chief, Mohammed Atef – reportedly to get final approval for the planned attack. The tape, which was found in Atef’s house in Kabul, Afghanistan, after his death, shows scenes of a bus stop, a Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) underground railway station, and an area where U.S. personnel congregate. There was also footage of a line of bicycles with carry-boxes strapped to them, which the narrator suggested could be used to carry explosives to a target. The tape provided the first direct link between the Jemaah Islamiah group and the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan. Hambali reportedly paid for the delivery of the tape to Atef, as well as training in Afghanistan for at least seven members of the Singapore cell.

Details link Singapore plot to regional network

The plot to bomb Western targets in Singapore dates back to 1993, when a local citizen named Ibrahim Maidin visited Afghanistan. On his return to Singapore he began recruiting like-minded Muslims to attend private classes on Islam. He also founded Jamaah Islamiah’s first Singapore cell, coordinating meetings with Hambali, who directed the organization’s regional operations from his base in Kuala Lumpur. In 1994, Maidin began sending recruits for religious and military training in Malaysia. There, Hambali chose some of the more promising trainees to be sent for further training at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. There they received training in the use of AK-47 assault rifles, mortars, and military tactics. An encrypted diskette recently seized by authorities showed a letter nominating two cell members for special training in ambush, assassination, sniper operations and field engineering.

By 1997, the Fiah Ayab cell, the first of four Singapore Jemaah Islamiah cells was ready for action. The cell had contacts, through Hambali, with the central al-Qaida leadership, but for reasons unknown, the attacks which the cell was to have carried out never materialized. Al-Qaida’s leadership was at the time busy with the final stages of the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa and this may have caused the Singapore plot to have been put on hold. Whatever the reason, it was not until 2001, that the network’s second cell, Fiah Musa, became operational. This cell was coordinated by Faiz bin Abu Bakar Bafana, a 39-year-old Singaporean businessman who served with Hambali on the Jemaah Islamiah’s regional operations council in Malaysia. It was Bafana who arranged for the two al-Qaida experts, al-Ghozi and Mansour, to visit Singapore.

Meanwhile, Hambali was arranging to procure the explosives needed by the group. He contacted Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian businessman and former military officer, and directed him to order four tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Sufaat placed the order through his company, Green Laboratory Medicine, and, according to Malaysian authorities, stashed the material at the port town of Muar on the West Coast of Malaysia.

Al-Ghozi had advised the members of the Singapore cell that they would need some 21 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to carry out the planned attacks, and instructed the cell members to acquire the material from local suppliers. It was this that proved their undoing; members of the cell placed an order for seventeen tonnes of ammonium nitrate with a local company, which immediately alerted Singapore’s security agency, the ISD.

The ISD launched an investigation, working on the assumption that foreign members of Jemaah Islamiah were seeking to infiltrate Singapore. However in November 2001, Mohammed Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan, a Singaporean of Pakistani descent—and believed to have links to al-Qaida—was captured in Afghanistan. It turned out that he had links to the local cell, whose existence the ISD had not hitherto suspected. Ali Khan’s arrest led the ISD directly to other cell members, and their interrogations eventually led to the capture of al-Ghozi and Mansour.

Yazid Sufaat, the Malaysian businessman who had procured the explosives for the cell, was arrested in December 2001, upon returning home from a visit to Afghanistan. Investigators soon connected him with two of the September 11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who had stayed with Sufaat while attending a crucial January 2001 planning meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Then, in August 2001, FBI agents raided the Minneapolis apartment of Zacarias Moussaoui, believed to be the “missing” 20th hijacker in the September 11 attacks. Among Moussaoui’s papers, the agents discovered letters from a Malaysian company called Infocus Tech. The letters, identifying Moussaoui as the company’s “marketing consultant” for the United States, Britain and Europe, were signed “Yazid Sufaat, Managing Director.” According to FBI sources quoted by Newsweek magazine, Sufaat had also agreed to pay Moussaoui $2,500 a month during his stay in the United States, along with a lump sum of $35,000 to get him started.

Sufaat told interrogators that he had made these arrangements on the orders of Hambali and of Jemaah Islamiah’s spiritual leader Abu Bakar Ba’yasir. Hambali, meanwhile, had once more managed to disappear without a trace. What’s more, so did the explosives stored at Muar

The blueprint for September 11

Hambali’s links to international terrorism did not start with the Singapore plot. He had in fact been involved in high-profile attacks against the United States long before anyone had heard of al-Qaida. Much of what is known of Hambali’s involvement in international terrorism has emerged since September 11, 2001. What is disquieting is how little was previously known; for nearly a decade, he had been a pivotal figure in Islamic extremist terrorism, and yet had managed to remain virtually unknown.

The picture that has emerged September 11 is of terrorist mastermind who has already served as coordinator for dozens of high-profile attacks. Police and security officials around the region suspect he may have set in motion other elaborate, and as yet undiscovered, terror plots before disappearing in January of 2001, apparently headed for Pakistan. As police investigations continue, each passing week uncovers more of what is now clearly an elaborate umbrella organization for al-Qaida linked terrorist activity in Southeast Asia, virtually all of which is coordinated by Hambali.

Hambali Riduan Issamudin, now 37 fought alongside thousands of other young Muslims from around the world in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. Upon his return from Afghanistan, he married a Chinese Malaysian woman and gave every impression of settling down to a modest life in Kuala Lumpur.

However, in the background he organized classes for the teaching of Jihad, together with an Indonesian cleric named Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. This was a partnership that would last up to the present. Today, both men are instrumental in the running of Jemaah Islamiah, with Hambali providing the practical know-how and tactical experience and Abu Bakar serving as the organization’s ideologue. The fundamental doctrine of the group is “Daulah Islamiah Raya,” the ideal of creating Islamic state in SoutheAsia that would include Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Sultanate of Brunei, the South Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. Most of these countries now have terrorist and tribal groups all seeking the same objective, which greatly facilitated the formation of regional ties by Jemaah Islamiah.

But Hambali’s aspirations did not stop with Southeast Asia; he is now known to have been intimately involved in planning and carrying out attacks against American interests, including the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993. Together with Wali Khan Amin Shah, one of those eventually jailed in the bombing, Hambali established a company called Konsojaya. The company’s ostensible business was exporting palm oil from Malaysia to Afghanistan; however, it also served as a conduit for the funding of Jihad. After the World Trade Center bombing, Hambali used the company to supply Wali Kahn and Ramzi Yousef with cash to escape to the Philippines.

Hambali has also been implicated in Operation “Bojinka” a plot to blow up twelve American airliners over the Pacific. Wali Khan was eventually jailed for the bombing of a Philippine Airlines plane in December 1994 that killed a Japanese businessman. The bombing is believed to have been a dry run for Operation Bojinka. This operation too, is believed to have been the brainchild of Hambali. The Philippines cell that was to have carried it out was funded by Hambali’s company Konsojaya. Hambali is also thought to have raised funds, bought arms and recruited fighters for a jihad against Indonesian and Filipino Christians.

An investigation into the company provided investigators with the first clear indications of Hambali’s links to al-Qaida’s Afghanistan-based leadership. Phone taps by Philippine police showed that frequent calls were made from the Konsojaya offices in Malaysia to the Manila offices of Mohammed Khalifa, bin Laden’s brother-in-law, who runs a charity organization for al-Qaida.

In addition to coordinating Jemaah Islamiah’s local groups, Hambali is the chief Southeast Asian representative and logistical coordinator for al-Qaida. He organized travel itineraries, accommodation and welcome dinners for hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and a suspect in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and met with Zacarias Moussaoui. Intelligence officials in the region say they believe that Hambali was instrumental is setting up the meeting in Kuala Lumpur during which plans for the September 11 attacks were finalized. Some even believe that Hambali was one of the chief architects of the attacks, perhaps using the 1995 plot as a blueprint.

Hambali’s whereabouts today are unknown. He reportedly left Malaysia on February 23 of this year for Indonesia. Two days later, he left Indonesia for an unknown location.

The Lessons of Bali

While the whereabouts of Hambali are unknown, the location of his partner in the Jemaah Islamiah leadership, Abu Bakar Ba’aysir, has never been in doubt; he still lives and teaches quite openly on the Indonesian island of Java. An Islamic cleric of Yemeni origin, Abu Bakar, now 64, heads the Mujahidin Council of Indonesia. He is also believed to be a key figure in the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM), an Islamic militant group that advocates the overthrow of the Malaysian government. Since last August, Malaysia has detained dozens members of the KMM.

More importantly, Abu Bakar has been identified as the “amir,” or supreme leader of Jemaah Islamiah by several members of the group’s Singapore cells.

Both Singapore and Malaysia have urged Indonesia to arrest Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, saying that his continued freedom of action undermines peace in the region. However, Indonesian officials say that there is insufficient evidence against him; after all, he has not broken any Indonesian laws. Singapore countered by offering to allow Indonesian authorities access to imprisoned members of Jemaah Islamiah. The offer was made after Indonesia sent a letter to Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew demanding he clarify his controversial statement that leaders of extremist cells were at large in Indonesia. Indonesia denounced Lee’s claim as provocative and unsubstantiated, but the Singapore foreign ministry said that proof could easily be provided.

Indonesia’s reluctance to act against Abu Bakar and other militant preachers is part and parcel of the country’s unstable political situation. Ba’asyir is an unapologetic admirer of Osama bin Laden, and openly expresses a loathing of American leaders and Jews. But he has steadfastly denied that he is involved in any terrorist activities. However, the recent interrogation of an al-Qaida militant have begun to provide what American officials say as conclusive evidence that Ba’asyir is more than just a rabble-rouser. The prisoner, Omar al-Farouq, served as a liaison between Jemaah Islamiah and al-Qaida’s senior leadership. His interrogation has provided a clearer picture of Jemaah Islamiyah. Al-Farouq said Ba’asyir had provided resources and logistical support for the planned attack on the American Embassy.

The evidence provided by al-Farouq has led Washington to increase its pressure on Indonesia to arrest Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. Yet the Indonesian government, wary of a backlash by the country’s religious Muslims, has done little more than call Abu Bakar in for questioning. Some Indonesian Muslims see Abu Bakar as a legitimate Islamic cleric, albeit one with militant views, and America’s war on terrorism as a war on Islam. Meanwhile, Abu Bakar continues to live his normal life, teaching at the same school.

However, Indonesian military sources quoted by TIME magazine said privately that they believed Abu Bakar to be a key link in the network of regional terrorist cells.

Nor is Abu Bakar and his ilk Indonesia’s only terrorist problem. Indonesian has been plagued by a sectarian conflict in the Moluccas islands, where for three years Muslim militants have been waging a jihad against Christian villagers. The jihad groups have kept the fires of sectarian violence raging in the Moluccas, and are vocal in their calls to eradicate Christianity from the Islands.

This conflict has drawn Islamic militants from all over the region to take part, playing much the same role in Southeast Asia that the Afghan conflict did a generation earlier. Foreign trainees have flocked to the Islands, bringing with them arms and explosives. They leave with a stronger connection to militant Islam, as well as valuable fighting experience.

The central government has thus far been either unable or unwilling to come to grips with the problem, even as evidence mounts that foreign terrorist groups are exploiting the conflict to gain a foothold in Indonesia. Those efforts that have been made have been hampered by sympathy for the militant groups on the part of some elements of the Indonesian military.

Indonesian police and military officials have publicly denied that foreign terrorist groups have set up training camps in the country. However, members of an al-Qaida cell arrested in Spain last year told investigators that they had trained in a makeshift training facility on the island of Sulawesi. The camp, officials said, was located in dense jungle near the port city of Poso. Sulawesi has been the scene of some of the area’s most intense fighting between Muslims and Christians which has claimed more than 1,000 lives to date. Indonesian military sources have hinted that al-Qaida militants may have been behind some of the fighting. The officials said the Poso camp was operated by al-Qaida members with the assistance of local Muslim militants. Unlike other paramilitary training facilities in Indonesia, a country where political groups often have armed wings, this camp was a well-kept secret. Indonesian intelligence officials estimated that over the past year several hundred people, many of them from Europe, Pakistan and the Middle East, entered the country posing as aid workers to reach the camp.

The officials said that in August and October of 2000, police briefly detained several non-Indonesians traveling in the Poso area. They were released after showing local officials a letter from a Muslim charity based in southern Sulawesi stating that they were going to Poso to help rebuild mosques. A senior Indonesian intelligence official said investigators subsequently discovered that the charity, known as the “Crisis Prevention Committee,” had connections to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. Police have concluded the foreigners were probably going to or from the camp when they were detained.


In many ways, Indonesia is an easy place for terrorist groups to operate. With more than 17,000 islands, it has some of the world’s most porous borders. Law enforcement and banking regulations are lax, and weapons and explosives are easy to acquire and unregulated. Indonesia is home to a number of radical Muslim groups, many of which share al-Qaida’s ideology of global Jihad. Although most Indonesians do not support these militants, the popularity of extremist Islamist groups has risen steadily in recent years, fueled in part by increasing poverty and a surging interest in fundamentalist Islamic theology.

The ongoing conflict between Christians and Muslims, together with the support al-Qaida has offered to local fundamentalist clerics, has helped al-Qaida and its satellite groups to gain strength in Indonesia. The refusal of President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government to arrest the key figures behind Islamist violence has encouraged al-Qaida militants to see Indonesia as an inviting safe haven.

The Bali attack has shown the folly of the government’s continued refusal to deal with this trend; Indonesia now has no choice but to crack down on Islamist terrorists. But this will not be easy, as the country has still not fully recovered economically or politically from the harsh Suharto regime. Most Indonesians are loath to return to the years when even peaceful Islamic political activists were routinely jailed.

At the same time, the country’s military and law enforcement agencies are not equipped to deal with the challenges of battling al-Qaida. For years Indonesia’s intelligence services, distracted by separatist rebellions and almost four years of political turmoil in the capital, had their hands too full to collect information on Islamist groups. What little intelligence gathering they attempted was hampered by chronic lack of funds; equipment that is standard in many countries, including devices to monitor cellular phones, are a luxury to Indonesia’s intelligence services.

Nor will the Indonesian government be able, even if it is willing, to seek immediate help from the United States. A U.S. law, passed in the wake of the Indonesian army’s human-rights abuses in East Timor, prohibits American military assistance to Indonesia. This law may soon be rescinded, as the war on terrorism overshadows human-rights issues. Meanwhile, Washington has quietly expanded the scope of intelligence cooperation with Indonesia on terrorist-related issues, in the hope that this could spur law enforcement agencies to take more aggressive steps against extremist groups. But the effort has so far received a mixed reception.

Ironically, the Indonesian government’s attempts to avoid offending the country’s moderate Muslims may well have created the need for an unprecedented and harsh crackdown on Islamist groups. There is no question that if Indonesia continues to ignore the presence of international terrorists in its territory, it will face serious risks: not only the likelihood of further attacks, but also escalating conflict with its neighbors, including Malaysia and Singapore, and now Australia as well. These countries have problems of their own, and are unlikely to tolerate the risk of the epidemic of global jihad spreading from Indonesia to their own territories.