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Powell Begins Push on War's 'Second Front'

July 30, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell began a six-nation tour of Southeast Asia on Monday, visiting countries with significant Muslim populations that have become a top priority--and a growing source of concern--in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Powell's mission is to press for tougher action and new cooperative pacts in the "second front" in the counter-terrorism campaign, U.S. officials say.

With Al Qaeda operatives and associates active in several Southeast Asian nations, the Bush administration fears that the region will be exploited by extremists looking for new recruits and new arenas in which to operate.

But U.S. officials also see hints of political change that could lead Southeast Asia--with encouragement and stronger American involvement--to emerge as a new model for the 50-plus nations of the Islamic world.

"Southeast Asia is one of the regions most vulnerable to terrorism," said an administration official traveling with Powell who requested anonymity. "But Southeast Asia could also be the hope of the future for Islam, because Islam in this region is not unitary or monolithic."

At his first stop, in Bangkok, Thailand, Powell told Thai television Monday that increasing U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia is a key goal of President Bush's foreign policy and that the U.S. would act as a "stabilizing presence" in collaboration with its regional friends.

Four countries--Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore--are now considered particularly important in the war on terrorism. Al Qaeda operatives or supporters have been found in each since Sept. 11. Powell is stopping in all four nations, as well as Thailand and Brunei, this week.

Underscoring U.S. concerns about extremism in the region, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization came out Sunday in support of suicide bombings as "a last resort, to fight for the truth or to further religious principles."

Nahdlatul Ulama, a traditionally moderate group with about 30 million members that was once headed by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, made the statement in reaction to Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. More militant groups in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, have long justified suicide attacks.

Since Sept. 11, regional intelligence agencies have also discovered a sophisticated extremist network in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Muslim areas of the southern Philippines that was plotting to blow up Western embassies and attack U.S. naval vessels.

The network's long-term goal was to oust secular governments and create a massive Islamic theocracy in Southeast Asia. Its members had close ties to Al Qaeda, including terrorist training in Afghanistan, authorities say.

The network, Jemaah Islamiah or Islamic Group, is a loosely organized movement with disparate cells. Launched in the mid-1990s, it has been based here in Malaysia, where Powell arrived late Monday. It has been directed by Indonesian cleric Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, according to members arrested this year in Malaysia.

Hambali, the subject of an international manhunt, allegedly hosted two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and had a follower provide housing for Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, who is facing trial in Virginia on charges of conspiring to commit terrorism.

Malaysia is particularly important, U.S. officials say, because it is one of two or three modern Muslim states struggling to become democracies while retaining a strong Islamic identity. That combination is rare in the vast Islamic world, stretching from Morocco in northwest Africa to Indonesia on the Pacific Ocean.

"Malaysia stands in a class with Turkey," said the administration official. "It is a flawed democracy with real issues, but people do have the ability to channel their aspirations through the ballot box."

If Malaysia is eventually successful in creating a modern Islamic democracy, "it will be one of the most important developments in the Muslim world," the official added. "If we had our way, this would be the future."

But Jemaah Islamiah reflects Southeast Asia's vulnerability to networks that can drift among countries struggling with internal problems, U.S. officials say.

"The geography is porous, so if conditions tighten up in one area, they can go to the next without much trouble," the Bush official said. "All have significant or majority-Muslim populations, many going through economic or political crises" that can be exploited.

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 13,500 islands, is led by a weak government struggling to make the transition to democracy and put down multiple separatist movements. The Philippines is fighting Muslim militants such as the Abu Sayyaf group. Malaysia has detained at least 60 alleged extremists under the country's internal security act since Sept. 11.

Even Thailand has been battling a Muslim insurgency in the southern province of Songkhla. And in December, orderly Singapore uncovered a plot by Jemaah Islamiah to drive bomb-laden trucks into the U.S., British, Australian and Israeli embassies. Thirteen alleged cell members were arrested.

Dozens of Jemaah Islamiah members have since been arrested in various Southeast Asian nations.

"The governments of Southeast Asia were clearly surprised by Singapore and Malaysia as well, at the extent of what some of the terrorist links were," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters traveling with Powell on Monday. "There is a new consciousness in Southeast Asia, and we want to try to help them encourage the implementation of that effort."

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