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Singapore Cells' Aim Was Jihad

Probe: Islamists arrested last month planned to ignite a regional holy war, investigators say.

September 20, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Eighteen Muslim extremists arrested recently in Singapore had plotted to bomb the island nation's airport, Defense Ministry and water pipelines in the hope of igniting a holy war in Southeast Asia, Singaporean authorities said Thursday.

Providing their first detailed account of the August arrests, officials said they had uncovered seven highly organized secret cells, or fiahs, that began conducting surveillance of potential bombing targets in the mid-1990s. Targets included a U.S. naval vessel and a bar frequented by American military personnel.

The cells are part of Jemaah Islamiah, a group with strong roots in Indonesia that was discovered last year plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy and six other high-profile targets in Singapore using suicide truck bombs, authorities said. The group is linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and several of its members trained in camps in Afghanistan.

The newly released details on the suspected cells and their targets illustrate that the terror group had embedded itself more deeply into Singaporean society than previously thought.

Singaporean authorities also said their investigation uncovered evidence that Jemaah Islamiah is at the center of a regional alliance of extremist groups formed in 1999 to plan terror attacks. Their goal is to create an Islamic state that would include Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and southern parts of the Philippines and Thailand.

Singapore, operating under its strict Internal Security Act, has ordered 31 Muslim men held indefinitely without trial for their alleged role in the plots, including 18 of 21 suspects arrested last month. The three others were released. Thirteen men were detained in December in connection with the suspected plot against the U.S. Embassy and other targets.

Singapore's announcement came as the anti-terrorism campaign in Southeast Asia reached new heights. A series of arrests and disclosures in recent days has demonstrated the close cooperation among extremist Muslim groups in different countries. It also has revealed the wide range of targets they are believed to have plotted to attack:

* Omar Faruq, an Iraqi captured in Indonesia and quietly handed over to the United States, confessed that he was Al Qaeda's top operative in Southeast Asia and that he plotted to assassinate Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, according to a confidential U.S. summary of his interrogation. He admits being the mastermind of a series of deadly bombings in Indonesia carried out with the help of Jemaah Islamiah operatives.

* Seyam Reda, a German of Arab descent with alleged ties to Al Qaeda, was arrested in Indonesia and found to have video footage of armed civilians training in an area of conflict somewhere in Indonesia, police said Thursday.

* Uskar Makawata, an Indonesian suspected of belonging to Jemaah Islamiah, was arrested Saturday in the southern Philippines on suspicion of taking part in an April bombing near a department store that killed 15 and injured more than 50. One of his accomplices was allegedly a member of Abu Sayyaf, the rebel gang that kidnapped two American missionaries last year.

* Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, a Jemaah Islamiah member from Indonesia who has admitted carrying out deadly bombings in Manila, said in a confession submitted to a court in the Philippines on Thursday that he was ordered by leaders of the group to buy five to seven tons of explosives for use in Singapore. He said he carried out bombings with operatives from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another rebel group in the southern Philippines.

U.S. officials have for months said that they regard Southeast Asia as the "second front" in their worldwide campaign against terrorism because of the large number of Al Qaeda followers and an active network of cells. A precursor to the Sept. 11 plot in which terrorists first conceived of hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings was hatched in the Philippines seven years ago. Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers held planning meetings in Malaysia in 2000.

Singaporean authorities said leaders of several extremist groups formed their alliance three years ago to share resources for training, procuring arms and conducting terrorist operations. Authorities said the group was called the Moujahedeen Rabitatul, or Moujahedeen League, and included a central committee of leaders from militant Islamic organizations in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, among other countries.

"The objective was to unify the Islamic militant groups in the region, with the ultimate goal of realizing ... an Islamic state," said the Singaporean government statement. "Secrecy was very strictly maintained and only the invited senior members of these groups were allowed to participate."

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