September 21, 2002
By Mark Baker
Singapore says militants sought discord with Malaysia
THE latest Singapore government revelations about a plot by local Muslim fundamentalists to launch a series of terrorist attacks give the distinct impression that the murderous reach of al Qaeda is flourishing in Southeast Asia.
Increasingly breathless media reports in recent days have fuelled suggestions that the region has narrowly escaped a ferocious onslaught and that the danger is far from over.
The truth is stranger, and tamer, than such fiction. Stripped of the emotive language of terrorist cells and jihads, of shadowy operatives and clandestine codes, the latest disclosures by the Singaporeans if anything reveal how amateurish and naive the alleged conspirators were - and how comprehensively their plotting has been exposed and defused.
In a statement released late on Thursday, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs said that 21 alleged Muslim militants arrested last month had been plotting attacks on the Defence Ministry, Changi International Airport and strategic facilities including water pipelines and communications installations.
The group was said to be affiliated with 15 other men arrested last December and accused of conspiring to attack US military targets in Singapore and Western embassies, including the Australian high commission.
Almost all of those now being detained without trial for two years under the Internal Security Act are claimed to be present or former members of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian-based Muslim movement the Singaporeans and the Americans insist is the regional front for al Qaeda.
So who are these latest villains? Among a motley crew of delivery drivers and tradesmen are a butcher, a used-car salesman and a part-time foot reflexologist (who may have been pulling the leg of the earnest officers from Singapore's intelligence agencies).
The evidence against them hardly smacks of a serious threat: a few photos of buildings and pipelines purported to be the result of surveillance operations, documents detailing a rough organisational structure and some shorthand pads with amateurish illustrations of military training. Not a weapon or an explosive device in sight.
Most improbable of all is the Singaporeans' headline-grabbing allegation that the group was conspiring to design attacks that would be blamed on Malaysia, would in turn destabilise relations between the two countries and eventually lead to sectarian violence that would trigger the fall of the Mahathir government.
"The aim was to create a situation in Malaysia and Singapore conducive to overthrowing the Malaysian government and making Malaysia an Islamic state," the Home Affairs Ministry reported, without a hint of incredulity.
The authorities also earnestly reported that three of the latest detainees had undergone weapons training at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. What was not spelled out was that that training took place in early 1990s when the US-backed mujahideen groups, including Osama bin Laden's, had been fighting a common Soviet enemy.
Another detainee is accused of spending time at a southern Philippines training camp of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - the main separatist group fighting for a Muslim homeland in Mindanao and a group the Philippines Government now recognises in peace talks.
Most of the incidents detailed by the Singapore authorities date back to 1999 and early 2000. No evidence has been produced that the accused militants were active in any serious way in the lead-up to September 11 last year or since.
In perhaps the most pertinent passage buried deep in the long account of alleged conspiracies released on Thursday, the authorities conceded: "None of these efforts is known to have led to a fully developed or finalised plan for attack." Independent defence analysts are sceptical about how serious a threat Osama bin Laden's alleged surrogates ever posed.