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LATimes: A Terror Network Unraveled in Singapore
By R. Paddock and B. Drogin

1/2/2002 11:48 pm Fri

[Kita siarkan rencana ini sebagai satu catatan rekod sahaja - bukan untuk dipercaya kerana ada banyak perkara yang tidak kena. Singapura telah menjadi satu pentas (launchpad) untuk Amerika memijak semua negara di rantau ini agar akur terhadap semua kemahuannya atau menerima akibatnya. - Editor]

January 20, 2002


A Terror Network Unraveled in Singapore

Asia: Suspect nabbed in Afghanistan revealed plot to bomb U.S. targets. Authorities are still searching for explosives.


SINGAPORE -- The tip-off to perhaps the most ambitious plot by Al Qaeda to kill Americans that investigators have discovered since Sept. 11 came, appropriately enough, in Afghanistan.

As war raged there in late November, Northern Alliance forces picked up Mohammed Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan, a Singaporean of Pakistani descent who had left Singapore on Oct. 4 to help the Taliban.

Under interrogation, Aslam began to spill details of an effort that included plans to bomb U.S. warships, airplanes, military personnel and major U.S. companies in Singapore. Other apparent targets included the American, Israeli, British and Australian embassies and government offices there. Those revelations, bolstered by the CIA's recovery in mid-December of a grainy videotape and hand-written Arabic notes in the rubble of an Al Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan, have stunned U.S. terror experts and are reverberating across Southeast Asia.

U.S. officials say the CIA and FBI have sent more agents and technicians to the region. U.S. intelligence has built what one official called "all kinds of new monitoring stations" to intercept electronic communications and other tactical intelligence.

Authorities have arrested 13 terror suspects in Singapore, 22 in neighboring Malaysia and four in the Philippines since early December. More arrests are expected. Officials have seized encrypted computer disks, surveillance photographs and videos, military maps, night-vision binoculars, bomb-making manuals, weapons caches and other equipment.

Still missing, along with several key suspects, are 4 tons of ammonium nitrate that authorities say one of the Singapore terror cells had acquired. Singapore's internal security police say the group was seeking to purchase 21 tons of the simple but powerful explosive to build a fleet of truck bombs. In comparison, Timothy J. McVeigh used 2 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, killing 168 people.

The unraveling of the terrorist network in Singapore, which is still underway, has raised concerns in Washington that Asia-based terrorists might be able to evade screening techniques used by U.S. security and immigration authorities. Those efforts have focused largely on Arabs and North Africans.

The case provides new evidence that Al Qaeda sought to launch more attacks: For example, police say two Al Qaeda operatives, one Arab and the other Indonesian or Filipino, flew into Singapore last October to advise cell members on building and detonating truck bombs.

"There's been a lot of good work involved, as well as a little bit of luck," a U.S. intelligence official said. "This is a significant case."

U.S. and Asian officials say Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian cells operated much like those that were secretly formed to skyjack and crash four U.S. passenger jets last September, as well as the cells that detonated deadly truck bombs at two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998.

Members of the Singapore cells had trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, the Singaporean government said. Al Qaeda commanders maintained close control when the cells were activated. At one point, they even vetoed a proposed attack.

And as in earlier cases, the cells had painstakingly studied potential targets over a period of years. Although it is unclear when they planned to strike, the groups clearly sought to hit multiple targets. U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships increasingly use Singapore for refueling and resupply, although no U.S. ships and only a few hundred American military personnel are based there.

Terror experts say Al Qaeda fund-raising and support cells were believed to be active in the predominantly Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia. But there was no previous evidence of a network in Singapore.

"This is new and different," said Kenneth B. Katzman, a specialist with the Congressional Research Service who has studied Al Qaeda for years. He and other officials said they were surprised by the existence of the network in Singapore because the island nation maintains powerful law enforcement and domestic intelligence services.

Singaporean officials say they unraveled the network without foreign assistance. U.S. intelligence informed Singapore on Dec. 14 of the videotape found in Afghanistan but did not provide a copy until Dec. 28, four days after Singapore had made the last arrests.

Resident in Singapore Tipped Off Police

The network was studying targets as early as 1997, Singaporean authorities said, but officials only learned of its existence shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks when they received a tip from a local resident.

Officials allege that all 13 members of the Singapore cells belong to a clandestine organization called the Jemaah Islamiah, or Islamic Group, which is tied to cells in Indonesia and Malaysia. All reported to a regional shura, or council, of Al Qaeda leaders in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian cell members were from a local extremist group called Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, or KMM, which appears to have at least an indirect tie to the Sept. 11 attacks and the October 2000 suicide bombing in Yemen of the U.S. destroyer Cole.

One of the Sept. 11 skyjackers, Khalid Almihdhar, was videotaped in January 2000 attending a meeting in Kuala Lumpur with a man later identified by the CIA as a suspect in the Cole attack. During his visit, officials said, Almihdhar stayed at an apartment outside the city. Nawaf Alhazmi, another Sept. 11 skyjacker who traveled with Almihdhar, also may have stayed there.

Officials said the owner of the apartment left for Pakistan last June. Police tapped his wife's telephone, and he was arrested when he tried to return home from Thailand on Dec. 9. His interrogation led to the arrests of 13 suspected Al Qaeda members in Malaysia.

Malaysian police are trying to determine whether the cell also had links to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent who was indicted in Virginia last month for his alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 plot. Moussaoui, who carried a phony letter of introduction from a Malaysian export company when he was arrested in Minnesota in August, visited Malaysia twice, in September and October 2000, officials said.

Most attention in Asia since Sept. 11 has focused not on Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia, but on the southern Philippines.

Washington announced last week that it would send 650 U.S. commandos and support troops to help the Philippine military crush Abu Sayyaf, a local Muslim bandit group that has kidnapped foreigners and Filipinos and beheaded some of their victims on the island of Mindanao. But terror cells operating elsewhere in Asia may pose a greater threat than the Abu Sayyaf.

Terrorism is hardly new to Southeast Asia. China provided arms, training and money to Communist insurgencies in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines through the 1960s, and radical home-grown movements have come and gone since.

Now China is quietly sharing intelligence with the CIA on Chinese Muslims in Afghanistan and is cooperating with U.S. efforts to freeze terror-linked financial accounts in Hong Kong.

"They have exchanged intelligence with us on Al Qaeda and terrorism," said James R. Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador and CIA station chief in Beijing. "They're working with us to stop money laundering from Hong Kong. It's been helpful."

Beijing also sent troops to seal its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan to prevent Al Qaeda members from fleeing, Lilley said.

Japan has sent ships to help patrol the Strait of Malacca, a crucial choke point between Indonesia and Malaysia for oil tankers and other regional shipping.

Experts say terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's anti-Western, pan-Islamic message began to take root in Asia in the early 1990s. Key to the shift was funding from Saudi Arabia for conservative religious schools, especially in Indonesia, where a tolerant form of Islam has long prevailed. The schools provided an outlet in a society in which political opposition was often brutally crushed.

"This has introduced the strict, militant Wahabi form of Islam into a Muslim environment that is historically very different," said Marvin C. Ott, a former CIA analyst on East Asia who teaches at the National War College in Washington. "This is, as far as I can determine, the result of external forces. And it's very dangerous."

Partly as a result, militant Muslims in the region have called for the creation of a strict Islamic state that would include Malaysia, Indonesia, the southern Philippines and perhaps Singapore. The foiled plot against U.S. targets, however, is the first that appears to link the disparate local groups to Bin Laden's global terror network.

The Singapore plot began to unravel, according to local officials, when a resident informed the government after Sept. 11 that Aslam, the Singaporean of Pakistani descent, had links to Al Qaeda.

As the investigation gathered steam, Aslam left suddenly for Pakistan, en route to Afghanistan. His capture and interrogation there provided the first real clues of the overall plot.

According to a Singaporean Embassy official in Washington, the island nation's domestic intelligence unit initially knew of only one alleged cell leader, a 51-year-old condominium manager named Ibrahim Maidin. The other cell members, the official said, "were relatively unknown and had to be positively identified."

Maidin, Singapore officials now say, went to Afghanistan for training in 1993. He later recruited the other cell members in his religious classes.

Attack Plans Were 'Ready for Activation'

According to a statement by Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs, the suspected terrorists had two "well-developed" plans and several others that appeared to be under consideration.

The first plan called for an attack on a shuttle bus used to carry U.S. sailors from the Sembawang wharf in northern Singapore to a nearby mass transit station.

"The plan was apparently developed and ready for activation," the ministry statement said. The alleged leader was a 39-year-old printer named Khalim bin Jaffar, who went to Afghanistan for training between August 1999 and April 2000. While there, he briefed Al Qaeda superiors on the proposal.

A videotape recovered in Afghanistan provides a chilling look at the plan. The images are shaky and amateurish, but the narrator, identified by Singaporean officials as Hashim bin Abas, a 40-year-old electrical engineer now in custody, coldly describes how a bomb can be hidden on the back of a bicycle or motorcycle.

"This is the place where U.S. military personnels will be dropped off from a shuttle bus and they will walk toward the MRT [subway] station," the narrator says as the video shows a busy intersection. "This is a temple with about a 1.5-meter-high wall. That is the entrance of the temple where many vehicles park, so it will not be suspicious to have a motorcycle or a bicycle there."

In the end, the Al Qaeda leaders "showed interest in the plan" but finally nixed it for reasons unknown, the ministry statement said. Officials speculated that the target was too small.

A second plan called for a bomb attack against U.S. warships along Singapore's northeastern coastline, between Changi on the island's eastern tip and the nearby island of Pulau Tekong Besar. A search of Khalim's possessions after his arrest turned up a Singaporean Defense Ministry map showing observation posts along the coast and a "kill zone" marked in the shipping channel.

Also found in Khalim's possession was a list of more than 200 U.S. companies, including three highlighted as potential targets apparently because their executives were regarded as "fairly prominent members of the American community in Singapore." The companies and the individuals have not been publicly identified.

Another cell used a Singaporean named Andrew Gerard, a 34-year-old technician at a Singaporean aerospace company, according to local officials. Gerard, who was born a Roman Catholic but converted to Islam in 1988, allegedly shot more than 50 digital photographs of U.S. warplanes at Singapore's Paya Lebar military air base.

The group stepped up its activities after Sept. 11.

Singapore officials say an Arab using the code name "Sammy" and a Filipino or Indonesian code named "Mike" arrived within weeks to help cell members conduct surveillance of the U.S., Israeli, British and Australian embassies and government offices, commercial buildings housing U.S. companies, and Singapore's military headquarters, known as Bukit Gombak. A videotape of the surveillance was later recovered.

It was Sammy and Mike, Singaporean officials say, who advised the Singapore cell members that they needed 21 tons of ammonium nitrate and urged them to "locate suitable warehouses for a secure site to construct truck bombs."

Four tons apparently were obtained in Malaysia, but cell members seeking to buy 17 more tons from a local company were arrested before they could complete the transaction. Neither Sammy nor Mike has been identified or captured.

A third operations cell was formed after Sept. 11. "They conducted some preliminary surveillance and observation of a few targets, including U.S. companies, but stopped" when the first arrests were made Dec. 9, the ministry statement said.

Singaporean police arrested six people in that first wave and searched their homes and offices. Nine other men were picked up by Dec. 24, although two subsequently were released. The 13 being held have been ordered detained for at least two years under Singapore's internal security laws.

Officials say the cell members fit seamlessly into Singaporean society. All had attended national schools, six were military reservists, and all but one lived in the state-supported high-rise public housing units that cover the tropical island nation.

Malaysian officials first uncovered evidence of their Al Qaeda cell May 18 when two alleged terrorists were killed and a third was wounded during a bungled bank robbery.

An investigation led to the arrest in Malaysia a month later of Mohamad Iqbal B.A. Rahman, an Indonesian cleric who is now alleged to be a leader of the Al Qaeda network. He has been ordered detained for at least two years.

Botched Bombing Gave Police a Break

Authorities got another break Aug. 1, when Taufik Abdul Halim, a 26-year-old Malaysian, botched the bombing of a shopping mall in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, blew off his leg and was arrested. Investigators traced him back to Malaysia, and a second round of arrests of KMM members followed.

"After the Jakarta bombing, a lot of information came out," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

Hamid said that the organization was planning to attack a U.S. naval vessel during a rest stop in Malaysia but that the plot was broken up before Sept. 11.

"With our exchange of information with Indonesia and looking at the groups operating in the Philippines, we see that there is a networking," Hamid said. "Some of the people we have arrested have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

A third wave of 15 arrests of alleged KMM members in Malaysia took place in December and early January in the wake of the Singaporean roundup. The Malaysian government says it has arrested a total of 47 people linked to the KMM and believes that more remain at large.

A tip from Singaporean authorities also led to the seizure of a ton of explosives and the arrests of four men allegedly linked to Jemaah Islamiah in the Philippines last week. One of those arrested, a 30-year-old Indonesian, reportedly told police that he was collecting the explosives for use in other Southeast Asian nations.

Though Indonesians appear to be at the center of the regional terror network, the government in Jakarta has been slow to act.

Other than the mall bomber and his accomplice, Indonesia has made no known arrests of suspected Al Qaeda members. Abu Bakar Bashir, who has been identified by Singapore as the top leader of Jemaah Islamiah, openly lives and teaches at a Muslim school in Solo on the Indonesian island of Java.

"We've had virtually no success in convincing the Megawati government in cooperating with the war on terrorism," a U.S. official in Washington said, referring to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Top Indonesian officials have given contradictory public statements about whether Al Qaeda is operating there.

"The Al Qaeda network [in Indonesia] is more talk than reality," Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayudha told reporters Thursday.

Al Qaeda operatives allegedly ran a training camp for hundreds of foreigners on the island of Sulawesi. Indonesian officials have located the site where such a camp could have been, but they say there is no evidence that it was used for this purpose. Wirayudha also noted that Indonesia repealed its anti-subversion law after the fall of its longtime strongman and president, Suharto, in 1998.

"Because Malaysia and Singapore have internal security acts, people who just yawn about terrorism can be investigated," he said. "Here, with the revocation of the anti-subversion laws, it's not easy to call and question people who dream about terrorism."

Western diplomats say they believe that Al Qaeda members have visited Indonesia at least half a dozen times in the last two years. They fear that the vast archipelago, which has porous borders and millions of disaffected youths, may be a prime breeding ground for potential terrorists.

"We know that people linked to Al Qaeda have been here, have scoped things out and made contacts," said a Western diplomat in Jakarta. "Our intellect tells us this would be an ideal place. God knows, if they are active in a place like Singapore, what on Earth must be happening here?"


Paddock reported from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Drogin reported from Washington.