The spores of al-Qaeda

  Authorities believe they have found the link between Osama bin Laden and terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia. Mark Baker reports.
  January 26, 2002
Sydney Morning Herald

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'Sleeper cells' in Singapore show al Qaeda's long reach
Terrorism threat still present despite arrests: Lee Jr

IN December 2000, two days after a bomb attack on a commuter train station in Manila killed 22 people and injured more than 100, an anonymous caller phoned police and a local newspaper claiming responsibility.

"Tell President Estrada this is our response," he said, referring to a recent military attack on a base in the south of the country held by separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels.

Police intelligence agents traced the calls to a Manila number being used by a suspected MILF leader identified by the alias of Randy Ali. Calls from the same number were found also to have been made to known MILF numbers in southern Mindanao and to several destinations in Indonesia.

At the time investigators were not aware how significant those connections would become. It was not until Philippines officers, acting on a tip-off from Singapore, arrested a fresh-faced young Indonesian in a flat in the Manila suburb of Quiapo late last week that the extent of the labyrinth was revealed.

The arrest of Fathur Rohman al Ghozi has, according to senior police, diplomats and intelligence officials, helped confirm the depth of the deadly reach of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network across Southeast Asia. Its hand has been revealed behind a series of fatal bombings over recent years and a conspiracy to launch more large-scale attacks against targets including Australian diplomats if the war in Afghanistan, and its intelligence windfall, had not intervened.

Law enforcement officials in the Philippines and Singapore are now convinced that the Indonesian-based Jemaah Islamiah movement - 13 of whose members were captured in Singapore last month - was a front organisation trained, funded and directed by the al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan to pursue its terrorist agenda across the region.

Fathur Rohman al Ghozi is now emerging as one of that network's most important figures, the suspected mastermind not only of the Manila station bombing but also an architect of the plot by Jemaah Islamiah members to attack US military staff and bomb several Western embassies in Singapore, including the Australian High Commission.

Western and Philippines intelligence sources said investigations were continuing into a likely link between al Ghozi and Jemaah Islamiah and several bombings in Indonesia in recent years, including an assassination attempt in 2000 against the Philippines ambassador to Jakarta, whose driver was killed when a bomb wrecked his Mercedes- Benz in the embassy grounds.

"He is the missing link between the Philippines terrorist group and the Singapore group. He is a key figure," the director of the Philippines National Police Intelligence Group, Chief Superintendent Robert Delfin, told the Herald.

Superintendent Delfin said Philippines investigators had now confirmed that al Ghozi is both Randy Ali, a principal member of the MILF's special operations group and the movement's explosives expert, and the Jemaah Islamiah leader codenamed "Mike". According to Singapore authorities, al Ghozi funded and directed the Singapore group, whose conspiracy was exposed by a videotape showing intended targets found in the wreckage of an al-Qaeda leader's house in Afghanistan in December.

Since his arrest on January 15 - just hours before he was due to catch a flight to Bangkok, a joint operation by Philippines police - armed forces and immigration authorities have rounded up four alleged Filipino accomplices and seized a tonne of TNT, 17 M-16 rifles, 300 detonators and other bomb-making apparatus in a house rented by al Ghozi in General Santos City in Mindanao. They say the explosives were to be smuggled to Singapore via Indonesia.

Lieutenant-General Jose Mabanta, spokesman for the Philippines armed forces, said one of the four Filipino accomplices, Mohamad Kiram, had given details confirming al Ghozi's role in planning and supporting the December 2000 station bombing in Manila.

"He was the one who gave the instructions and the money for these people to carry out those missions," said Chief Superintendent Delfin. "He obviously was getting instructions from someone higher than him."

He said Philippines authorities were continuing to search for two Indonesian-born accomplices of al Ghozi - including a Canadian codenamed "Sammy" - both of whom were still believed to be hiding in the country.

Singapore is seeking eight other Jemaah Islamiah members involved in the Singapore plot. Officials said eight of those already detained had been confirmed to have undergone training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

Thirty-year-old Fathur Rohman al Ghozi is reported to have studied for four years at an Islamic school in Java run by the 63-year-old cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, named by Singapore as the leader of Jemaah Islamiah. Al Ghozi attended an Islamic university in Lahore, Pakistan, where he is believed to have met prominent al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah agents.

Superintendent Delfin said al Ghozi had been based in the Philippines since late 1996, working actively with the MILF but also travelling extensively around the region, including a visit to Singapore last October during which he is believed to have briefed his Jemaah Islamiah associates on the planned attacks on Western military and diplomatic targets. He said the calls made by al Ghozi to Indonesia in December 2000 had now been confirmed to have been to prominent members of Jemaah Islamiah based there.

Singapore authorities have reported new evidence confirming al-Qaeda's involvement in the Singapore plot.

"The new finding shows a very direct link between the Jemaah Islamiah group detained here and al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan," Singapore's Home Affairs Minister, Wong Kan Seng, said on Thursday. "The cracking of this case shows that Singapore is on top of the situation."

Singapore authorities said they had recovered the master tape of the video

footage found in Afghanistan hidden in a secret compartment in the home of Mohamad Khalim bin Jaffar, one of the 13 men being held under the country's Internal Security Act.

They said they had also found a hard disk with erased files. Forensic investigators had later recovered a file titled "Security of an Organisation" which detailed how members of the movement could avoid detection and maintain secrecy.

The Home Affairs Ministry said investigators had confirmed that the videotape produced by Khalim had been handed over by another of the detainees, Malaysian Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana, to the al-Qaeda leader Abu Hafs, also known as Mohamad Atef, in Afghanistan. "It is understood that Abu Hafs was one of Osama bin Laden's lieutenants, and recent media reports have suggested that he may have died in Afghanistan," it said.

Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana has been named by the Philippines Immigration Commissioner, Andrea Domingo, as the man who recruited al Ghozi into Jemaah Islamiah while he was studying in Pakistan.

Singapore authorities also say he was responsible for stockpiling four tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a bomb-making ingredient, in southern Malaysia for use in the planned Singapore attacks. Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, said last week that the chemicals had now disappeared.

Malaysian officials this week said they were holding another 22 members of Jemaah Islamiah among a group of 47 arrested on internal security charges since last August. A Malaysian government source quoted by Reuters said authorities were also hunting for five university teachers in the southern state of Johor suspected of involvement with Jemaah Islamiah.

Mark Baker is the Herald correspondent in Manila.