FBI chief: SE Asia may be next al Qaeda target
MANILA, Philippines -- The director of the FBI has wrapped up a tour of Southeast Asia warning key allies that the region has the potential to become a sanctuary for members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network following the collapse of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Speaking on his last stop in the Philippines Robert Mueller said it was clear al Qaeda had established a presence in Southeast Asia.
However, he said he was confident U.S. allies in the region would continue their strong support for the war on terror.
"Without question or doubt, we believe al Qaeda operatives are in this area," Mueller told a news conference in Manila Monday.
"We're working to put together all the pieces of the puzzle so we can have a fuller portrait of al Qaeda in the region," he said.
Speaking of his recent low-key sweep through the region -- taking in visits to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore -- he said he had held face to face meetings with law enforcement chiefs and was looking forward to closer cooperation in fighting the al Qaeda threat.
"In the wake of Sept. 11, we all understand there is no agency and no country that can address terrorism alone," he said.
Mueller was speaking after talks with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation during which, officials say, he pledged U.S. technical assistance in tracking terrorist funds as well as access to intelligence gathered in Afghanistan.
The U.S. currently has some 660 troops deployed in the southern Philippines training local soldiers to fight the extremist Abu Sayyaf group who have been linked to al Qaeda.
Later, speaking to reporters, the FBI chief singled out the militant Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group, as one he said was closely tied to bin Laden's network and operated in several Southeast Asian countries.
In recent weeks security forces in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have detained dozens of Islamic militants on suspicion of connections to JI.
In a brief speech before heading back to the United States Mueller reiterated that the U.S.-led war on terror was not a war on Islam or the Muslim community.
"To the contrary," he said, "we all understand that we are looking at individuals who commit terrorist acts against women and children."
Emphasizing the point he said that in the wake of the September 11 attacks the U.S. government had made it clear it would not tolerate harassment of American Muslims and would prosecute anyone found doing so.
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