Untangling The Web

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Abubakar Ba'asyir, leader of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council, denies any involvement in international terrorism

Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi's mother remembers the day she discovered that her first-born son had changed. Fathur, who was arrested in the Philippines two weeks ago for allegedly devising bombs to be used in terrorist attacks, was 13 years old and studying at an Islamic boarding school three hours from his village in east Java. "I brought him his favorite food," says Rukhanah, a 58-year-old wearing a traditional white Islamic headdress. "But he politely told me that he was fasting, even though it wasn't during the fasting month. I cried then, feeling proud but sad that my very young boy chose to live piously. How can you not be proud when your offspring takes to religion?"

Whether Rukhanah's son got true piety is uncertain, but he did pick up a deadly trade: a bombing spree he purportedly planned in Manila 13 months ago killed 22 people and injured 80. The school in the east Java town of Ngruki, near Solo, where Fathur got his brand of religion was founded by Abubakar Ba'asyir, a 64-year-old Islamic cleric. Police in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines believe Abubakar is the leader of a network of terrorist cells called Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian version of al-Qaeda with possible links to Osama bin Laden's group. Abubakar was not at the school while Fathur was studying there; he had fled to Malaysia after serving a three-year jail sentence for advocating the establishment of an Islamic state. But Fathur absorbed enough of Abubakar's radical ideology to choose a path that would eventually lead to him to the prison cell in Manila army headquarters where he now resides awaiting trial, a sentence of death hanging over him.

The notion of a coherent terrorist organization in Southeast Asia is a fresh one, uncovered by police in the region only in the wake of Sept. 11 and the rout of the Taliban and the recovery of al-Qaeda documents in Afghanistan. When five bombs were detonated across Manila on Dec. 30, 2000which the police now blame on Fathurno one knew who was responsible or what was the motive. One theory at the time held that the bombings were an attempted coup by the Philippine military. Now Southeast Asian leaders say an al-Qaeda-like organization has sprung up, with the vague but familiar goals of attacking American targets and pushing for further Islamicization of the regionperhaps with hopes of carving out an Islamic state from parts of the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. The central figure, they say, is Abubakar. Singapore claims he masterminded the bomb plots it uncovered last month, which led to the arrest of 13 members of Jemaah Islamiah. Since last August, Malaysia has detained 50 members of the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM), a group it says was directed by Abubakar.

Indonesia, unlike its neighbors, seems to be going easy on suspected terrorist organizations. Abubakar continues to live his normal life, teaching at the same school where Fathur studied in the 1980s. Last week, Indonesian police called the white-bearded cleric to Jakarta for questioning. After two days of what his lawyer described as "gentle" interrogation, Abubakar was allowed to return home. He denies he preaches terrorism and says he has no links with al-Qaeda, although he told reporters that he "praises the struggle of Osama bin Laden ... in fighting the arrogance of the terrorist United States." His lawyers say he may have taught some of the suspects being held in Malaysia, but bristle at the suggestion that he instructed them in the ways of jihad. "If every teacher had to be responsible for his students," says Ahmad Mihdan, Abubakar's head attorney, "no one would ever become a teacher."

Indonesian military sources say privately that they believe Abubakar is a key link in the network of regional terrorist cells that has come to light this year. And, although a direct tie to al-Qaeda has yet to be established, "we are very sure that he is not acting alone," says one military intelligence officer. In public, however, Indonesian police insist that the allegations against Abubakar in Singapore and Malaysia aren't substantive enough for detention or extradition. "We do not believe that he was recruiting or training anyone for a jihad operation," says national police spokesman Brigadier General Saleh Saaf. "So far we have no proof."

The kid glove treatment Abubakar is receiving, along with an apparent reluctance to pursue other possible suspects such as Abubakar deputy Hambali Nurjaman, can probably be explained by Indonesia's complicated and unstable politics. First, Indonesia has enough turmoil to deal with, from separatist movements to communal massacres. President Megawati Sukarnoputri rules atop an unwieldy coalition of interests, and the last thing she wants to be known for is a reckless crackdown on Islamic groups. "Megawati's government is afraid of arousing Muslim sentiment if anyone is taken in without enough proof," says Hamid Basyaib, a researcher at the Akasara Foundation think tank. And many of those Islamic groups have friends or even founders in high places in the government and the army.

The men in uniform have another reason not to go along with the U.S. in its war on terrorism. In 1999, responding to the Indonesian military's brutality in East Timor, the U.S. Congress passed a law that banned U.S. training and education for Indonesian soldiers, which officials complain has hamstrung the military's ability to service its fleet of U.S.-made warplanes.

If Indonesia continues to ignore a region-wide crackdown on terrorists, it could become an inviting haven for bad guys on the runand a launch site for future attacks. Evidence uncovered in the past few weeks proves that the groups have the means to cause terrible devastation. After interrogating Fathur, Philippine authorities were able to collect what National Police Chief Leandro Mendoza called the "biggest haul of explosives in the country's history." Police recovered more than a ton of TNTenough to level a city block, according to policeas well as 500 detonators and 17 M-16 rifles. Police say they are still tracking down friends and allies of Fathur.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, police say they are attempting to trace as many as 200 more members of KMM terrorist cells. That number could be low if you believe Abdul Rahman, a former KMM foot soldier, who quit the organization two years ago after disagreeing with its plans to wage a violent campaign to install an Islamic government in Malaysia. Short, muscular and terrified of arrest, Abdul Rahman smokes constantly as he describes how he was recruited through a martial arts group and later sent for six months' paramilitary training in Thailand. "There were 45 in my group alone, and there were many, many groups sent for training," he relates. "So if the police say there are 200 more KMM members out there I think they must mean only the leaders." Rahman advises that the world take the terrorists of Southeast Asia seriously. "They will not hesitate," he says, the strain of being on the run vibrating in his voice, "to kill or be killed for Islam."

That would be worrying anywhere, but it has a particular chill in Malaysia, where four tons of ammonium nitrate has gone missing. The fertilizer, which can be used to make truck bombs, was ordered by Yazid Sufaat, a former Malaysian army captain now under detention in Kuala Lumpur for alleged links to the al-Qaeda. (On Abubakar's orders, Malaysian police say, the 37-year-old allowed two of the hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11 to stay at his apartment in Kuala Lumpur in 2000.) Yazid, who was arrested in December on his return from fighting against the U.S. coalition in Afghanistan, had ordered the ammonium nitrate in late 2000 through a company he owned called Green Laboratory Medicine. Sources close to the investigation say someone accepted delivery of the fertilizer, though it's not clear exactly when. What happened after that remains a mystery. Malaysian police concede the ammonium nitrate disappeared but are also adamant it left the country. The haul totals four times the amount of ammonium nitrate used to destroy the federal office building in Oklahoma City, one foreign analyst points out. With such a huge stash of bomb-making material unaccounted for and hundreds of KMM members still at large, Yazid will be facing some pointed questions from his Malaysian interrogators.