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The World

U.S. Embassies Were Targets, Suspect Says

Terrorism: Revelations by alleged Al Qaeda envoy to Asia spur closures of six facilities. Man has been handed over to U.S. by Indonesia.

September 13, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A key Al Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia arrested here three months ago has provided detailed information about bomb plots against U.S. embassies in Asia, prompting heightened security this week around the world, officials say.

Omar Faruq, who was quietly handed over by Indonesia to U.S. authorities in June, provided information about planned Al Qaeda bombings that helped persuade authorities to close at least six embassies and consulates since Tuesday, the officials said.

Faruq, who is believed to be from Iraq or Kuwait, also provided information about other terrorist activities, including surveillance of three U.S. Navy warships and a Coast Guard vessel that visited the Indonesian city of Surabaya in late May and early June. No attack on the ships was carried out.

Western officials and experts were willing to discuss the operative's disclosures but requested anonymity because of security concerns.

Officials said Faruq was a liaison between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, a regional terror group that planned to carry out seven suicide truck bombings against targets in Singapore, including the U.S. and Israeli embassies. Singapore uncovered the plot late last year and imprisoned 13 participants indefinitely under its strict internal security laws.

One Western security expert familiar with the investigation of Faruq said the operative has identified Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir as head of Jemaah Islamiah. The governments of Singapore and Malaysia earlier named Bashir as the group's ideological leader, but Indonesia has refused to take action against him, saying it has no hard evidence of illegal activity.

Bashir, 64, praises Osama bin Laden but denies any role in terrorist activity. Contacted by telephone Thursday, the cleric said he had no knowledge of Faruq.

"I have never heard of him," Bashir said. "I have never met him either. Who is he? What nationality is he? I don't know him."

Faruq, who is about 35 years old, was arrested on central Java island in early June after his telephone number was found in the cell phone memory of Agus Dwikarna, a convicted terrorist. Dwikarna, an Indonesian, was arrested in the Philippines in March for possessing explosives and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In Manila, aides to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said she had been advised by the United States on Tuesday that Al Qaeda was planning truck bomb attacks against U.S. embassies around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The presidential palace released copies of an "urgent and confidential" message to Arroyo from her ambassador to the United States, Albert del Rosario, in which he reported that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly had warned him of the plot.

"American intelligence evaluation indicates imminent threats to U.S. embassies," Del Rosario wrote. "Intelligence evaluation indicates that Al Qaeda operatives are prepared to launch truck bomb attacks and they are in possession of several tons of ammonium nitrate."

Authorities said the bomb plot was not tied to any particular date, but would be launched when U.S. security was lax.

The U.S. Embassy in the Philippines has remained open because officials there believe it is protected well enough. However, more vulnerable embassies and consulates remained closed Thursday here in Jakarta and in Surabaya; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Officials say Faruq played an important role in Al Qaeda as a fund-raiser and financier of terror plots in Southeast Asia. Typically in the Al Qaeda network, police say, the operative who controls the money is the one who calls the shots.

He reported directly to Abu Zubeida, a top Al Qaeda operative arrested this year in Pakistan. Zubeida also is providing information to authorities and has corroborated some of Faruq's statements.

After his arrest, Faruq was taken from Indonesia to an unspecified location.

Faruq, who authorities say was trained in Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan, was dispatched to Indonesia three or four years ago. He was active in two of Indonesia's hot spots: Ambon island in the Moluccas and Poso on Sulawesi island, where Muslims and Christians have been fighting a bitter religious war for more than two years.

He and Dwikarna were closely associated in southern Sulawesi, where they were involved in local Islamic charities. In 2000, the duo traveled with two top Al Qaeda leaders to Aceh, a rebellious Indonesian province in northern Sumatra, to meet with Islamic separatist leaders, officials said. There is no indication that the talks bore fruit.

Ayip Syafrudin, a spokesman for the Islamic extremist group Laskar Jihad, said he met Faruq once or twice in 2000 at Koran readings. He said Faruq was very knowledgeable about Islamic movements but did not inspire his trust.

"We suspected that he was an accomplice of the CIA, a planted agent," he said. "He said he was just an ordinary person. He just wanted to learn about the Koran."

Indonesian officials have repeatedly denied that terrorists connected to Al Qaeda are operating in their country. National police spokesman Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf said Thursday that he knew nothing about Faruq's arrest or his subsequent hand-over to U.S. agents. Indonesian intelligence officials, apparently involved in the arrest, could not be reached for comment.

*

Times staff writer Bob Drogin in Washington and special correspondent Sari Sudarsono of The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.

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