The quest for SE Asia's Islamic 'super' state
1995 report forewarned of U.S. terror attacks
The plan is breathtaking -- to create one Islamic state from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore to parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar.
Intelligence officials say Osama bin Laden has turned terrorism into a franchise, focusing on Muslim separatist groups in Southeast Asia and offering them support if they merge their goals with his anti-American agenda.
According to Tony Tan, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network has long sought to extend its war against the West to the potentially fertile recruiting grounds of Southeast Asia.
"Al Qaeda has been able to coopt all these regional elements and give them focus and organization to strike against America and American interests throughout the world," said Tan.
It started in the early 1990s. Bin Laden's first messenger was his brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, who spread the dictum, or dream, of the singular Islamic state of Southeast Asia.
Khalifa funded Islamic charities in the Philippines and created ties with the largest and most organized separatist group in the region -- the MILF, or Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Intelligence officials say Khalifa worked with a terrorist cell busted in the Philippines in 1995.
Three members of that cell are serving life sentences in U.S. prisons: Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; Wali Khan Amin Shah, who fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and the third, Abdul Hakim Murad, the pilot who told authorities he was recruited for a suicide mission to crash commercial planes into buildings like the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
A Philippine intelligence document dated January 20, 1995 outlined their plans with chilling foresight.
"He will board any American commercial aircraft pretending to be an ordinary passenger. Then he will hijack said aircraft, control its cockpit and dive it at the CIA headquarters. There will be no bomb or any explosive that he will use in its execution. It is simply a suicidal mission that he is very much willing to execute," the document states.
Intelligence officials in the Philippines say they believe that 1995 plan was the blueprint for September 11 -- the finer details worked out by two cell members who had escaped arrest.
The main financier of the operation is alleged to have been Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, and now purported to be al Qaeda's main operative in Southeast Asia.
The other man is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Yousef's uncle, who helped in the first failed bombing attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993. Seven people were killed in the unsuccessful attempt to topple the towers.
But the attackers remained undeterred. By 2001, Mohammed had risen up al Qaeda's ranks to become a trusted bin Laden lieutenant.
U.S. officials say Mohammed was a key planner behind September 11.
"It's the same network, but it was expanded. It was modernized. It became sophisticated, and it attracted a lot of membership," said Philippine counter-terrorist expert Col. Rodolfo Mendoza.
Indonesians at helm
Today, al Qaeda's network in Southeast Asia is led by two Indonesian clerics.
One is Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, dubbed the Asian Osama bin Laden. He provides vision and sets policies.
Wanted by Singapore and Malaysia, the 63-year-old Ba'asyir operates freely in Indonesia, where he openly campaigns for an Islamic superstate.
Working with him is Hambali, financier from the 1995 plot now turned CEO and operations chief. Intelligence officials say the 36-year-old Afghan war veteran is responsible for the growth of sleeper cells across the region.
Andrea Domingo, Philippine Comissioner of Immigration, said the key to al Qaeda success in the region rested in generating loyalty among local recruits.
"They learned that when they organize in the region, it is a lot better and more effective to use locals to do their job. 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," said Domingo.
Through the mid to late 1990s, the MILF camp in the southern Philippines would begin training al Qaeda operators and Islamic militants from the region.
Confidential intelligence reports obtained by CNN show that in 2000, 15 members of armed Muslim groups in the region met at least three times in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, to plot terrorist attacks- - funded and inspired by al Qaeda.
The meetings were led by Ba'asyir and Hambali.
Among those who attended: the MILF from the Philippines, the Free Aceh movement from Indonesia, KMM from Malaysia, Laskar Jundullah from Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiya from Singapore and other groups from Thailand and Myanmar.
Their plots ranged from bombing the Philippine Ambassador's house in Jakarta to assassinating Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to bombing U.S. and Israeli interests in Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Wong Kan Seng, Singapore's Home Affairs Minister, said the groups maintained a level of autonomy that allowed them to adhere to both al Qaeda and local separatist agendas.
"Al Qaeda has been able to transmit the kind of sense of jihad to the local groups while enabling these groups to keep to their own agenda in causing problems in their own countries," said Wong.
One of the men who attended the Philippines meetings was Indonesian Agus Dwikarna - arrested in the Philippines in March and sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for possession of explosives.
Dwikarna says he was set up.
"I did nothing wrong. Those things in my bag don't belong to me," alleged terrorist Dwikarna said through an interpreter.
Ambon 'replacing Afghanistan'
Intelligence officials say Dwikarna commands Laskar Jundullah, an extremist group based in Poso, Indonesia with six batallions -- or a total of 2,000 men.
Intelligence documents obtained by CNN say Dwikarna set up an al Qaeda training camp that fuelled Muslim-Christian violence in Poso and nearby Ambon in the Maluku Islands of Indonesia. (Full story)
Nearly 10,000 people have died there since 1999 in sectarian violence.
After September 11, officials in the region say Ambon became the new Afghanistan for many Muslim fighters.
"They were initially inspired by the war in Afghanistan. Now without Afghanistan, they use Ambon in the Malukus as the new battleground," said Singapore's senior minister Lee Kuan Yew.
A senior Indonesian intelligence official said Dwikarna worked with an Indonesian living in Spain, Parlindungan Siregar.
Spanish authorities say Parlindungan arranged for several hundred al Qaeda operatives from Europe to travel to Indonesia for training.
Parlindungan is wanted for questioning by Spanish police. They say he was the right-hand man of Imad Eddin Barakat Yarbas, the leader of an al Qaeda cell in Spain connected to the September 11 hijackers.
High level connections
But Dwikarna's connections with al Qaeda in Europe are said to have gone to the highest levels.
Intelligence officials say in June 2000, Dwikarna acted as a guide for al Qaeda leaders who visited Indonesia, namely Osama Bin Laden's second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef, al Qaeda's former military chief.
This Philippine intelligence document obtained by CNN justifies the visit thus: "This visit was part of a wider strategy of shifting the base of Osama Bin Laden's terrorist operations from the Subcontinent to South East Asia."
Intelligence sources in the Philippines say the phone number of another al Qaeda official was found in Dwikarna's cellphone.
This number belonged to a Kuwaiti man named Omar al-Faruq.
U.S. sources confirm he was arrested by Indonesian authorities on June 5 and is now in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The Southeast Asian links continue.
USS Cole bombing
U.S. officials say the planning for the bombing of the USS Cole (in October 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors) and September 11 took place in this condominium complex on the outskirts of Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.
In January of 2000, about a dozen of Osama bin Laden's trusted followers met here.
The host was Hambali.
Among those who attended: Tawfiq bin Attash, a key suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole 9 months later; Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi, who nearly two years later crashed a plane into the Pentagon, and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Osama Bin Laden's lieutenant, a key planner, U.S. officials say, of September 11.
Eight months after that al Qaeda meeting, another guest would stay here -- Zacarias Moussaoui, now on trial in the United States for September 11 related charges.
What seems clear is that Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network has tapped and fuelled Muslim discontent in Southeast Asia to build a potent, homegrown terrorist network over the last decade.
Officials here say they believe the network here is replicated in other parts of the world, places like the Middle East, Kashmir and Chechnya where armed Muslim fighters have been coopted into a global terrorist network to substitute for the loss of Afghanistan.
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