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RESPONSE TO TERROR

A Terror Network Unraveled in Singapore

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

January 20, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

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