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MGG: Did Dr Mahathir jump into his own terrorist snare? [Must Read]
By M.G.G. Pillai

6/2/2002 9:47 pm Wed

15-28 February 2002

Did Dr Mahathir jump into his own terrorist snare?

By M.G.G. Pillai

The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, is horrified at claims that al-Qaeda planned in part the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Malaysia, a former army captain a key figure. "Malaysia had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks," he insists. That may or may not be. But a statement like this is enough for my old friend (at least, I think he still is!), Dato' Seri Rais Yatim, to shoot himself in the foot. He does this so regularly that I wonder if he has skin left on his feet for another bullet!

So, when Newsweek wrote of Malaysia's involvement in the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, it was to Dato' Seri Rais as a red rag to a bull. He threatened to sue Newsweek for besmirching Malaysia's fair name. Why did he stop at Newsweek? Why not USA Today? The New York Times? The Washington Post, which quotes the FBI director in Washington linking it more firmly than anyone so far has of Malaysia and the terrorist attacks. The FBI director himself? The newspapers around the world which carried this allegation?

And not forget Pravda, which accuses Malaysia of harbouring the family of Chechnya's leader, Mr Aslan Maskhadov, and several others? It alleges Mr Maskhadov himself comes here on occasion. It has, for Dr Mahathir, an unintended consequence: He was due to visit Russia, after his current tour of the United States (where he would not meet President Bush, who would be in East Asia then), Argentina (to holiday at his ranch there), Antartica, Poland and Germany. He would return from Antartica, rest, than go on to Poland and Germany. Russia is not keen on his visit. He is due to return in time for the F-1 motor championship which ends on 18 March.

Moscow is annoyed with Kuala Lumpur's continuing and active support for the Chechen rebels. Malaysia has over the years backed numerous Muslim separatist groups, helped actively the Muslim Mindanao rebels fighting for their home state from the Philippines. All of this is not officially revealed, and come to light when Malaysian cabinet ministers and UMNO officials reveal them to score points or to make themself more important than they are. His on-the-tun policy on terrorism gets too complicated even for him, and he now faces pressure from all sides. His most pressing concern though is the Malaysian hand in the 11 September attacks.

A further doubt: Did the Malaysian police give the FBI and CIA the information that Dato' Seri Rais now threatens foreign publications for mentioning it? Dr Mahathir is still miffed he has yet to meet President Bush in the White House. The United States is still angry at how he destroyed his heir apparent and former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Malaysia has engaged a lobbyist and a public relations firm to smoothen the ruffled feathers in Washington. That did work. Dr Mahathir would call on President Bush later in the year.

Dr Mahathir jumped on the Bush crusade on terror to hit his political opponents. Quickly, several bodies were identified, all linked to opposition parties like PAS. It does strain credulity to learn that all the terrorist supporters are from the Opposition and none from the National Front, especially when the only political battle in Malaysia now is the primacy of PAS Islam or UMNO Islam. Never mind. Some 50 people have so far been arrested. Among them is a 37-year-old former army capitan and now a businessman, Yazid Sufaat, whom the FBI alleges was a link with the plotters of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. He had been arrested earlier and released. He was re-arrested early in December, and is now sent to the Kamunting detention camp to be held without trial for two years without trial.

Malaysia is in a dilemma. How did Washington hear of him? On their investigations and interrogations of the suspects in their custody or on a plate from Bukit Aman? If he is handed over, and put on trial, whatever the information he provides or if his involvement turns out to be one of false representation, Dr Mahathir would be left to face the flak. Besides, could he survive politically if he allows a Malay to be extradited to almost certain imprisonment or death in the United States?

So when he left on the night of 01 February 2002 for the World Economic Forum in New York, a worried man he certainly was. Could he meet President Bush later this year, and be taciturn about these allegations? Would President Bush meet him if he would not discuss them? As if it is not enough, the US ambassador here, Mrs Marie T. Huhtala, puts a spanner in the works: she said the US was dissatisfied with the two trials his nemesis, former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, faced, but she is hopeful the "appeal process" would rectify that. In other words, the United States expects an acquittal, no less.

It is as indirect a threat a plenipotentiary could make on a leader of a country he or she is accredited to without complicating bilateral ties. He has nightmares over rumours of a move to nominate Dato' Seri Anwar for the Nobel Peace Prize. When Lisbon stonewalled international pressure to give East Timor her independence, she was forced to relent when Mr Ramos Horta and Bishop Bello got the Nobel Prize. UMNO politicians now tell their flock to be unconcerned about these rumours, even if they are true, and he is awarded it. If it does happen, another of Dr Mahathir's dream would come true: a Nobel Prize for a Malaysian! And much early than 2020, his target date! He would no doubt be eternally thanked for bringing it about! His complaint that the Nobel Peace Prize is a political prize anyway is neither here nor there. Would he not like to be awarded it even if it was political?

Like President Bush's war on terror, Dr Mahathir's runs out of steam. And not him alone. Every autocratic leader around the world espoused it so he could rein in his opponents at home. But in most cases, it could not be sustained. For Dr Mahathir, the old skeletons in the cupboard creep out to show him as gullible and involved as his opponents. Malaysia played host over the years to several Muslim revolutionaries and, to not make a fine point about it, terrorists. A few of these groups are still about.

The late chief minister of Sabah, Tun Mustapha bin Datu Harun, was a key figure in the Mindanao rebellion, with Kuala Lumpur closing its blind eye to it. The Philippines had laid claim to Sabah, and this was Kuala Lumpur's response. The second Malaysian prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, had provided Malaysian bases to train the rebels, and some of these continue to exist to this day. His successor, Tun Hussein Onn, however, closed down several of these, only to be revived under the fourth, Dr Mahathir. When Mr Nur Misuari, who for years enjoyed Malaysia's patronage and protection while he waged his war from his stronghold in the south against Manila, was arrested recently on a Malaysian island and sent back, Kuala Lumpur took a black eye for it from its Malay nationalists opposed to it. If this war on terror goes on for much longer, it could be, for Dr Mahathir, the biter bit.

M.G.G. Pillai