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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Singapore Says Terror Ring Planned Attacks on Americans

Asia: Group broken up last month had Al Qaeda training, officials allege. Video details plans.

January 12, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A terrorist network broken up in Singapore last month was closely linked to Al Qaeda and had planned to attack U.S. military and business targets in the island state, Singapore's government said Friday.

The clandestine organization, which called itself Jemaah Islamiah, had been operating in Singapore for years, the government said, and many of its members had traveled to Afghanistan for weapons training in camps run by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.

Although some connections to Al Qaeda have turned up in Southeast Asia as authorities investigate the terrorism network in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the arrests in Singapore provide the most comprehensive look yet at an alleged Al Qaeda plot in the region.

A detailed plan to attack U.S. service members traveling by shuttle bus in Singapore was found in Afghanistan on Dec. 14 in the rubble of an Al Qaeda leader's house, according to a Singaporean government statement.

Also found in Afghanistan was a videotape showing potential targets in Singapore and explaining the possible use of bicycles to deliver explosives. The tape was narrated by Hashim bin Abas, one of the suspects in custody in Singapore, and was broadcast Friday night on Singaporean television.

"These are the same type of boxes which we intend to use," Bin Abas says as boxes sitting on top of bicycles are shown. "It will not be suspicious to have a motorcycle or bicycle there."

The alleged leader of one cell was identified as Khalim bin Jaffar, a 39-year-old printer. He also was among the 13 people arrested. All have been ordered held without trial for at least two years under Singapore's strict Internal Security Act. Another suspected cell member who left Singapore in October was arrested in Afghanistan in November by anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces.

For the most part, the Jemaah Islamiah cells in Singapore were home-grown. All the alleged members attended Singaporean schools. Six had served in Singapore's armed forces. Most were quietly recruited through classes on Islam taught by one of the group's members.

The existence of a terrorist group in the prosperous nation of 4 million came as a shock to many, particularly because Singapore's government is one of the most authoritarian in the region. Singapore may be best known for banning chewing gum; it also limits free speech and political opposition.

Despite its rigid controls, Singapore would make a good staging area for an attack on U.S. interests. The two countries are close allies. The U.S. military has a significant presence in the country, and many U.S. companies also have offices in Singapore. About 15% of the population is Muslim, providing Islamic militants with a community in which to operate.

In Washington, U.S. officials praised Singapore's actions. "I think that the government of Singapore has acted with dispatch, and we're very pleased that they've been able to do what they've done," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the videotape seized in Afghanistan was not the first indication of threats against U.S. targets in Singapore.

Group Reportedly Part of Regional Network

It is not clear how police learned of the existence of Jemaah Islamiah. However, authorities say the group is part of a regional network with links to Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. All three are countries where Al Qaeda is reported to be active, and where there are Islamists who favor creating Muslim states.

Singaporean authorities said the overall leader of Jemaah Islamiah is an Indonesian religious teacher who goes by the name of Hambali. Malaysian authorities say he is wanted in that country on charges of heading a terrorist group known as the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia. Singaporean authorities said Hambali is also wanted in Indonesia.

Over the last seven months, authorities in Malaysia have arrested 38 suspected terrorists allegedly connected with the Kumpulan Militan Malaysia.

On Friday, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that about 50 Malaysians were part of organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, including those already arrested.

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

Singaporean authorities said Jemaah Islamiah had no apparent connection with local Muslim groups. The organization was divided into cells to keep its operations secret, and three cells have been discovered so far.

"The group appeared to have generally kept away from mainstream organizations and their activities," Singaporean authorities said. "They maintained tight operational secrecy, using code names and code words for communication."

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