By RAYMOND BONNER with SETH MYDANS,
Financial Times, London
Terrorism threat still present despite arrests: Lee Jr
SHORTLY after the United States began bombing Afghanistan on Oct 7, a 30-year- old Indonesian traveling on a false Filipino passport slipped into this tightly controlled city-state carrying a plan to strike back at America.
His mission, investigators say, was to activate a "sleeper cell" of Islamic militants who had long been waiting for a call from Al Qaeda's leaders in Afghanistan. This group, which had been loosely organized for eight years, began planning to blow up the embassies of the United States, Israel, Australia and Britain, the investigators say.
The plot was foiled when 13 members were arrested. During questioning, officials say, they described a well-organized network stretching across Southeast Asia and perhaps into Australia. The early glimpses uncovered by authorities in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore suggest that the network rivaled in reach and sophistication the one formed by Osama bin Laden's lieutenants in Europe.
Just last week, the Philippines seized a cache of rifles, explosives and bomb-making equipment believed to have been part of the plot. Investigators are continuing to examine the Singapore group's links to Islamic militants in Malaysia, who investigators say served as the regional organizers for Al Qaeda.
Local officials and Western business executives were taken aback by the ability of Al Qaeda to plant operatives in Singapore, one of the most tightly controlled societies.
Leading outwardly normal lives that gave no cause for suspicion, members of the "sleeper cell" succeeded in concealing its existence. Investigators say at least eight were trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They avoided contact with well- known Islamic organizations and were not even known to be active members of local mosques. They communicated with code words, according to a statement by the government of Singapore.
The group was ready to act when two foreigners, the Indonesian and a Kuwaiti traveling on a false Canadian passport, arrived with orders. "The switch was thrown," said one Western diplomat.
The cell members moved quickly. They guided the visitors, whom they knew as Mike and Sammy, to the American Embassy, a chunky gray fortress on a wooded plot. They videotaped it and the abutting Australian Embassy, zooming in for close-ups. They set about procuring explosives - they wanted 21 tons - plus trucks to pack them in and the chemicals needed to set off a devastating blast.
The questioning of the group's members is continuing and further arrests are possible. Last week authorities in the Philippines arrested Mike, whom they identified as Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian who had three Philippine passports and an Indonesian one, a Philippine intelligence official said.
Crucial aspects of the plot remain unknown. It is not clear, for example, whether Mr al-Ghozi was conveying direct orders from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The man identified as Sammy remains at large, as do five others suspected of belonging to the Singapore cell, which like similar cells around the world called itself Gamaa Islamiyah, or Islamic Group.
"These guys were not a rogue group," a Western diplomat said. "There was a management hierarchy and a functional breakdown. It was like a K.G.B. cell." The question, he said, is "what relationship did the cell have to the K.G.B." - that is, Al Qaeda.
According to the government statement, the first hints about the group came to light after Sept. 11 when a local source told the Internal Security Department about a Singaporean of Pakistani descent who had ties to Al Qaeda.
The man, Muhammad Aslam Yar Ali Khan, was placed under surveillance but he abruptly left Singapore for Pakistan on Oct 4. He was later seized by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, leading investigators to focus on his associates in Singapore.
The arrests began on Dec 9, and a few days later, a videotape was found in an abandoned house in Kabul, Afghanistan, on which a narrator described where in Singapore bombs could be hidden to attack Americans. Investigators here searched the homes of those detained and found an identical videotape.
"The new finding shows a very direct link between the Gamaa Islamiyah group detained here and Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan," the home affairs minister, Wong Kan Seng, said in a statement this week.
An organizational chart prepared by the Singaporean investigators says the group is led by Abdus Samad, a pseudonym for Abu Bakar Baasyir, a hard-line Islamic teacher in Indonesia who said in a statement this week that he admired Mr bin Laden but was not a terrorist.
Many of the Singaporeans arrested were "intimately intertwined" with Mr Baasyir at various points, a Western official said. Mr al-Ghozi, for example, studied at his religious school in Indonesia for six years.
Below Mr Baasyir is a regional shura, or council, which was based in Malaysia, and below that are cells that operated in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, according to the outline prepared by investigators. Malaysia, which does not require visas for citizens of Muslim countries, appears to have been the hub.
For example, two hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, met with a member of the regional council there in early 2000, and Zacarias Moussaoui, an Algerian charged in the United States in connection with the Sept 11 attacks, made at least two trips to Malaysia in 2000.
One task of the Islamic Group's cell in Malaysia was to arrange for recruits from Singapore to reach Afghanistan for military training, investigators here say.
The men were given documents from a religious school in Pakistan saying they were enrolled there. They used those papers to explain to their families and employers why they would be away. Then they went to Malaysia by road and flew to Karachi, Pakistan, where they were kept in safe houses before moving on to Afghanistan.
The Singapore group, investigators say, took root as early as 1993. It was eventually organized into cells, at least three groups of four or five men each devoted to planning attacks.
The first such planning known dates to 1997. The possible targets included the Yishun subway stop, in a residential neighborhood of pastel- colored apartments. From that station, American troops frequently board a shuttle bus for a short ride to an American base where their families could play baseball or tennis at the Terror Club (its name when the base belonged to the British, which still appears on the awning at the swimming pool).
A member of the Singapore cell traveled to Afghanistan, told Al Qaeda's leaders of the plan and underwent nine months' military training, according to investigators. Ultimately, Al Qaeda rejected the plan; the reasons remain unknown.
Last April, members of second cell were carrying out their own surveillance. One member, who worked at the government-owned Singapore Technologies Aerospace, took digital photographs of American military aircraft and personnel at Paya Lebar Airbase. These were given to other cell members.
It was this cell that was activated after Sept 11, when Sammy and Mike (Mr al-Ghozi) arrived.
The oldest of four children, Mr al- Ghozi left home when he was 12 to attend the Islamic school where Mr Baasyir now teaches. After graduating he left Indonesia, telling his parents he was going to study in Pakistan, his mother, Rukana, said.
"For the six years he was studying in Pakistan, I did not hear a word from him," she said. The family did not see him again until last year, when he came home after he married a Malaysian woman, she added.