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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Suspect May Be Southeast Asia's Link to Al Qaeda

January 27, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — Sometimes he calls himself Mike, sometimes Abu Saad. He speaks several languages and has traveled through much of the Islamic world. His specialty: blowing things up, especially public buildings crowded with people.

Now he sits in a concrete cell at the national police headquarters in Manila. Investigators suspect that he is linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. And on Saturday, authorities in Singapore said he was a man with a mission: to activate an underground terror network after Sept. 11 and initiate a wave of bomb attacks against Western targets, including the U.S. Embassy in Singapore.

They also confirmed that his real name is Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi.

Born in Indonesia, the 30-year-old Muslim was arrested Jan. 15 by Philippine immigration officials acting on a tip from Singapore. He could prove to be the common thread linking extremist Islamic groups operating in at least four countries: the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

During interrogation, Al-Ghozi admitted responsibility for five bombs that exploded 13 months ago in Manila, killing 22 people and injuring about 100. He also told investigators where to find a ton of buried TNT and a stash of automatic weapons that were to be used in upcoming attacks against U.S. facilities in the region.

"The timely arrest of Al-Ghozi and three other suspected terrorists and the seizure of their explosive and firearms cache thwarted plans of the extremist groups to conduct bombing activities in Metro Manila and abroad," Philippine police said in a statement after his arrest.

Al-Ghozi may well be the most important catch yet in the breakup of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network that has led to 13 arrests in Singapore, 23 in Malaysia and five in the Philippines during the last two months.

"According to our information, he had a mission to conduct terrorist attacks in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Singapore," said Gen. Crescencio Maralit, chief spokesman for the Philippine federal police.

For investigators, Al-Ghozi could help unravel the complex web of connections among terrorist groups in the region. For example:

* As a teenager in Indonesia, he attended an Islamic school in Central Java co-founded by Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is accused of heading the Jemaah Islamiah network.

* In the Philippines, police identify Al-Ghozi as a demolitions expert, bomb maker and explosives trainer for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group seeking to create an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

* In Singapore, besides confirming that he went by the code name "Mike," authorities said Saturday that he had brought orders in October for the Jemaah Islamiah terror cells to begin acquiring explosives for attacks on U.S. targets. He worked with a second foreign operative code-named "Sammy" who is believed to be linked with Al Qaeda.

The connections between these groups could have important ramifications for the United States.

Washington has begun deploying a force of 650 troops to the southern Philippines to help train Philippine soldiers to combat Abu Sayyaf, a rebel gang of Islamic kidnappers holding two American missionaries hostage there. Some officials suggest that there is a link between Al Qaeda and the brutal Abu Sayyaf, although the evidence is sketchy at best.

Until now, no connection has been established between Al Qaeda and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has an armed force of about 15,000 troops and is negotiating a peace agreement with the Philippine government after years of fighting. But if Al-Ghozi's arrest leads to evidence that Al Qaeda and the Moro rebels are allied, the United States could find itself facing a wider conflict in the region.

The eldest of four children, Al-Ghozi grew up in the East Java district of Madiun. When he was 12, his parents sent him to a boarding school called Al-Mukmin in the city of Solo, where he lived and studied for the next six years. His parents say they chose the school because it emphasized discipline and didn't cost too much.

The school itself has become controversial since the detention of suspected Jemaah Islamiah members in Singapore and Malaysia. Some of those arrested have identified Bashir, the network's co-founder, as the overall leader of Jemaah Islamiah.

Police in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, questioned the 63-year-old cleric for two days last week about his connection to Jemaah Islamiah, but he has not been arrested.

In an interview with The Times on Saturday, Bashir said he had never met Al-Ghozi.

"I heard about Al-Ghozi from the newspapers," Bashir said. "People say he studied in my school in 1987 or 1988, and at that time I was living in Malaysia. So I don't really know who he is."

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