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FBI Probes Group That Vietnamese Call Terrorists

Orange County: U.S. looks at refugee organization after arrest of some members in connection with alleged bombing attempts at embassies in Asia.

November 15, 2001|MAI TRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FBI is examining the activities of an Orange County group of self-styled freedom fighters that has been branded a terrorist organization by the Vietnamese government.

Chanh Huu Nguyen, president of Government of Free Vietnam, said FBI agents visited the group's headquarters at a Garden Grove office complex twice over the last two weeks, spending hours asking about the organization's activities. An FBI source confirmed the meetings but declined to provide further details about the probe, which is in its early stages.

The Free Vietnam group attracted attention earlier this year when some members were arrested in Thailand, the Philippines and at Orange County's John Wayne Airport in connection with alleged bombing plots at Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok, Thailand, and Manila.

Until now, federal officials have focused primarily on one member of the organization, Van Duc Vo, 41. Prosecutors allege that Vo planted a bomb next to the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok this summer but it failed to go off. He was charged last month with use of a weapon of mass destruction by a U.S. citizen in a foreign country.

After the arrest, officials in Vietnam demanded that the U.S. take action against the group--especially given America's new war on terror begun in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Free Vietnam consists mostly of former South Vietnamese soldiers and bureaucrats living in the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asia. The group said it has established jungle training camps along the Thai-Laotian border near Vietnam.

According to Nguyen, the FBI agents came with a dossier of materials about the organization and quizzed him about what it does. They also presented Nguyen with a stack of newspaper clippings, asking whether quotes attributed to him about the group's activities were accurate, he said.

"I answered with the truth because I have nothing to hide," Nguyen said. "I am a freedom fighter for my country and I am ready to face any retribution, even if I will die."

Nguyen, a 52-year-old former contractor, said that Vo is a longtime member of the organization but that the attempted embassy bombing in Bangkok was done without the group's authorization.

It is illegal to raise money in the United States for overseas terror campaigns. Law enforcement efforts to stop it occur only sporadically, experts say.

Nguyen said that he's broken no American laws. "I didn't do anything wrong in the United States," he said. "The FBI does their job and asks me questions, and I do my job to fight for my country."

Nguyen is a controversial member of Orange County's large Vietnamese community, and information about his organization is difficult to verify.

He said the group has a budget of about $1 million a year, mostly donated by wealthy Vietnamese businessmen around the world. Membership estimates by the group have ranged from 2,000 to 200,000.

Right now, the only member of the group to face criminal charges is Vo, a naturalized American citizen.

He remains behind bars after being arrested at John Wayne Airport last month. He has pleaded not guilty to the weapons charges that could bring a life prison term if convicted. His trial is scheduled to begin next month.

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