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Al Qaeda pulls strings in Asian conflicts

Southeast Asian intelligence officials believe Hambali was a link between 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and September 11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar  

By Maria Ressa
CNN Correspondent

(CNN) -- Terrorist network al Qaeda has infiltrated and is funding violent local conflicts throughout Southeast Asia, according to senior intelligence officials in two southeast Asian countries.

Following the arrests of nearly 100 militants in the region with suspected links to al Qaeda, authorities say they are learning more about the network's complex structure.

The terror network has established an elaborate web of influence that is still in place today, the sources said, identifying groups in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia as the main cells.

Rebel movements -- from Muslim separatist movements in the southern Philippines, to militant Muslim groups in Indonesia, to a group aiming to topple Malaysia's prime minister and create an Islamic state -- can no longer be considered local conflicts.

All once thought to be domestic conflicts, intelligence sources say al Qaeda operatives have infiltrated these regional movements.


CNN's Maria Ressa has more on an intelligence report that says al Qaeda has infiltrated and funded local conflicts in the Philippines. (April 24)

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The infiltration strategy, according to the military sources in two southeast Asian countries, began in 1995 after a terrorist cell was busted in the Philippines.

Two key leaders -- pilot Abdul Hakim Murad and Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, are now in U.S. prisons.

But a man who helped fund that cell in 1995 met with two September 11 hijackers in 2001. He is Indonesian cleric Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali. Asia
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Authorities say with funding from Osama Bin Laden, Hambali helped create a more elaborate network that's still in place today.

"It's the same network, but it was expanded. It was modernized. It became sophisticated, and it attracted a lot of membership," said Col. Rodolfo Mendoza, a counter-terrorist expert with Philippine police .

The high-profile arrest of Yousef in 1995 pushed Bin Laden's network to find a new strategy.

"They learned that when they organize in the region, it is a lot better and more effective to use locals to do their job," said Andrea Domingo, Philippine Immigration Commissioner.

"But they have to be trained, and they have to be indoctrinated enough so that they themselves believe in the cause just like the originals did."

Already they have discovered that a spate of bombings in southeast Asia during 2000 may have been a prelude to the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York.

Al Qaeda corporation

Intelligence sources say there are three main cells in Southeast Asia, referred to as: Mantiqi 1, the leadership base in Malaysia, led by Hambali; Mantiqi 2 in Indonesia covering riot- torn areas in Solo, Poso and Ambon; and Mantiqi 3 in the southern Philippines, at the base camp of the MILF, the largest Muslim separatist group in the country.

Officials here compare al Qaeda in Southeast Asia to a corporation -- with long-term plans punctuated by short-term high-impact projects.

Their goal now is to dismantle the network and prevent further attacks. But that is not easy when authorities are searching for more than eight tons of missing explosives in the region.

Malaysian authorities are looking for four tons of explosives while Philippine police sources say they are looking for another 4. 6 tons of explosives.

The authorities have admitted it's a race to get to those explosives before the terrorists get a chance to use them.




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