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Australia Hunts for Terror Cells

Authorities focus on two Muslim clerics who arrived from Malaysia. The homes of more than a dozen Indonesians have been raided.

November 17, 2002|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SYDNEY, Australia — When two traveling Muslim preachers came here in the 1990s, Muchsen Thalib met them at the airport, drove them around and let them stay in his spare room for weeks at a time.

The holy men used the names Abdus Samad and Abdul Halim, but their host knew their true identities: Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar. They were militant clerics who had fled Indonesia in 1985 for Malaysia to avoid subversion charges.

This month, more than a dozen heavily armed Australian police and intelligence agents raided Thalib's house and questioned him for hours about his ties to the two religious teachers. The officers carted away three computers, a mobile phone, a fax machine, stacks of documents and 15 videotapes that Thalib had made of the clerics' lectures. They also took his passport.

"They consider me a terror suspect," said the clothing shop owner. "They came with their guns and everything. They miscalculated about me. I would not support anyone who was involved in any type of crime."

The preachers' visits are the focus of an intensive investigation into whether the pair established "sleeper" terror cells in Australia, which until recently seemed far removed from the turmoil of the outside world.

Authorities here say Bashir visited Australia at least 11 times, often staying for weeks and traveling from city to city. Intelligence officers have raided the homes of more than a dozen Indonesian immigrants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth -- sometimes breaking down the doors -- in their search for evidence of terrorists.

The Singapore and Malaysia governments say Bashir heads Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian terror network affiliated with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. Jemaah Islamiah has been blamed for dozens of attacks that killed more than 40 people.

Indonesian police arrested Bashir last month on charges that he was behind a series of church bombings, a mosque bombing and a plot to kill Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. They suspect he also was behind the Oct. 12 bombing in Bali that killed 191 people, nearly half of them Australians.

Bashir has repeatedly denied involvement in terrorism but advocates the creation of a worldwide Islamic state. He says church bombings are justified in defense of Islam, and he praises Bin Laden as a true Muslim warrior.

The Bali blast killed more Australians overseas than any other event since World War II and has badly shaken this country of 19 million people. Many victims were young men and women enjoying an evening at a nightclub when the attack occurred. For weeks, there were funerals almost daily as the badly burned bodies of the victims were identified and returned home.

Australia has long been wary of neighboring Indonesia, a nation of 228 million and the world's most populous Muslim country. Officials fear that the extremist Islamic ideology that inspires terror attacks elsewhere has spread to Australia's community of 500,000 Muslims.

Two Australians seized overseas, Muslim convert David Hicks and Egyptian-born immigrant Mamdouh Habib, are locked up at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on charges that they are associated with Al Qaeda.

One Singaporean Jemaah Islamiah member, Hashim bin Abas, traveled frequently to Australia on business before he was arrested in December for his alleged involvement in a plot to blow up the U.S. and Australian embassies in Singapore, among other targets.

In a videotape made last year and recently aired in the West, Bin Laden said Australia deserved to be attacked because it had helped predominantly Christian East Timor, a former Indonesian province, become independent. He asserted that the onetime Portuguese colony was "part of the Islamic world." In an audiotape released last week, a voice identified as Bin Laden's said Australia "ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali."

"We know that there are sympathizers of overseas terrorist organizations in Australia," said Atty. Gen. Daryl Williams. "We know that there are people in Australia who trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

In Perth, police raided the homes of Abdur Rahman Ayub, who reportedly fought for five years against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and his brother, Abdul Rahim Ayub, who worked at an Islamic school in Australia.

No one has been arrested on terror charges as a result of the raids, although five people were picked up for immigration violations. Islamic leaders contend that the police tactics were an overreaction by a conservative government hostile to Muslim immigrants.

"We don't think that any of the people have been involved in any kind of activity that could be classified as terrorism," said Amjad Ali Mehboob, chief executive of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

The Bali bombing triggered numerous attacks against Muslims living in Australia, Islamic leaders say, and the police raids have fed fear and anger among Australians.

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