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TheAge: Doubts Mount Chemicals Dissappear - FEER: Qaeda Links Questionable
By Mark Baker

17/1/2002 2:45 pm Thu

Doubts mount over Malaysian claims of al Qaeda links

Thursday 17, January 2002

Malaysian authorities have admitted failure in their efforts to find a large stockpile of weapons chemicals amid growing scepticism about the extent of an alleged network of al Qaeda terrorist sympathisers operating in South-East Asia.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said four tonnes of ammonium nitrate - claimed to have been smuggled into Malaysia to build bombs by members of a militant group arrested in Singapore last week - had disappeared.

"The police know that the materials were brought into our country, but at this time the materials are not here. They have been sent out and we don't know where," Mr Abdullah said.

He also said it was not known where the chemicals had been stored while in Malaysia.

Singapore officials had claimed the chemicals had been stockpiled in southern Malaysia by Faiz Abu Bafana, one of 13 members of the clandestine group Jemaah Islamiah arrested in Singapore last week and accused of links with al Qaeda.

The officials said the group had been trying to procure 21 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to build truck bombs to attack the United States embassy and other American targets in Singapore. A videotape and documents detailing potential targets were recovered from the ruins of an al Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan last month.

Singaporean authorities claim Jemaah Islamiah is led by Indonesian Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir and has cells in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. But Indonesian officials say they have no evidence of an al Qaeda network operating in the country.

Malaysia has arrested about 40 people since August in a crackdown on alleged Islamic militants. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Friday that 50 Malaysians had been identified as having links with al Qaeda.

But Mr Abdullah's admission that the alleged stockpile has disappeared and the government's failure to detail its case against the arrested terrorist suspects have reinforced suspicions among diplomats and opposition leaders that the issue is being exaggerated for political purposes.

"A lot of sensational allegations are being made but so far there has been no evidence to substantiate any of it," one senior diplomat said in Kuala Lumpur.

Opposition Keadilan Party leader Wan Azizah said she believed many of the arrests were part of a scare campaign by the government before a crucial weekend byelection in the northern state of Perlis.

"The events of September 11 have been a tragedy for us. They have given Dr Mahathir the justification for further oppression and to stifle any dissenting voices. He now has the perfect excuse to take people under the ISA (Internal Security Act)," she said.

Police claim many of those detained without trial under the act are members of Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, a previously unknown group linked to bombings, robberies and the murder of a state MP.

"What we know is these people admitted they were trained in Afghanistan by the Taliban and by the group of Osama bin Laden. As far as we know, their intentions are very bad, namely to create trouble and to try and overthrow the government by terrorist means," Dr Mahathir said last week.

But he admitted the operations of KMM members had not been clearly established. "Whether they have become a cell in Malaysia or not, or whether they have been working independently, we don't know," he said.

One of the men recently arrested in Malaysia had met two of the September 11 plane hijackers less than a year beforehand, a source close to the investigation told Reuters last week.

Malaysian police have also said Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman charged with helping plan the September 11 attacks, had visited the country twice in late 2000.

Al Qaeda Link Not Clear-Cut

Despite evidence of contact between suspected Al Qaeda terrorists and local Islamic activists, the Malaysian government has yet to find a clear link between the so-called Kumpulan Militan Malaysia and Al Qaeda. But the Malaysian organization has clear ties to Afghan Islamic groups stretching all the way back to the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89.

"There might be a connection to Al Qaeda, but it's difficult to trace. But links to the Taliban are more obvious," says a ministerial aide. Some Malaysians, possibly hundreds according to government officials, fought against Soviet troops in the 1980s, while thousands of others are believed to have attended religious schools in the area. But whether or not some of them came together as a coherent group, which the government now refers to as the KMM, is questionable. The government has since December 9 arrested 15 alleged members of the KMM, which Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad claimed in early January planned to overthrow the government to form an Islamic state. The government, meanwhile, is looking for evidence that the leadership of the opposition Islamic Party, or Pas, was directly consulted by the militants, says the aide.