Terrorism's new frontline
Part three of a CNN special report on terrorism in Southeast Asia
By Maria Ressa
CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief
Al Qaeda leaders have pushed to make Indonesia a center for its activities
(CNN) -- For al Qaeda and its Southeast Asian allies, Jemaah Islamiyah, Indonesia is the perfect target.
It has a weak, fledgling democracy and a fragile economy combined with the world's largest Muslim population.
Their goal is to replace democracy with Islamic Shariah law.
The strategy: fuel conflicts, destabilize the government and target economic lifelines.
Indonesia was such a potential prize that al Qaeda's top leadership made a personal visit and pushed to make it a center of the group's activities.
Among videotapes found by CNN in Afghanistan and believed by experts to be part of an al Qaeda archive is one tape showing a militant training camp in Indonesia.
According to al Qaeda expert Rohan Gunaratna the camp was set up and managed by al Qaeda as part of its efforts to extend its reach into Southeast Asia.
"It is very likely the camp is the Poso, Sulawesi training camp that was run by Al-Qaeda," he says.
Reports of the Poso camp, first publicly surfaced in November 2001 in court documents from Spain following the arrest of an al Qaeda leader there.
His group, the documents say, allegedly sent hundreds of al Qaeda operatives from Europe to Indonesia for training.
According to intelligence documents the man who set it up was senior al Qaeda operative Omar al-Faruq, now in U.S. custody.
He first came to Southeast Asia via the Philippines in 1994.
Along with the leader of one of al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan, he traveled to Camp Abubakar, the sprawling complex of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF.
There, Al-Faruq set up the first al Qaeda training camp in Southeast Asia.
At least two more would follow -- one, according to telephone intercepts by a Western intelligence agency, after a direct request by Osama bin Laden to MILF chief Salamat Hashim.
In the late 90's, Indonesian intelligence sources tell CNN, Omar al-Faruq slipped into Indonesia.
There, he did the same work, recruiting members, setting up training camps.
According to the date on the videotape showing the camp in action, it was recorded around the same time as that visit by two senior al Qaeda leaders.
Intelligence documents from the region say Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's number two, and Mohammed Atef, al Qaeda's former military chief, visited Indonesia two years ago.
Further documents reveal why they were there.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's number two, visited Indonesia two years ago
"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," says one report.
According to regional intelligence officials, their guide during the visit was Omar al-Faruq.
So this is the way al Qaeda worked to extend its reach into Southeast Asia.
According to Indonesian intelligence reports, Al-Faruq was working closely with Hambali and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and the three were behind several attacks, including:
•Simultaneous bombing attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines in December 2000
•A plot to assassinate Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri
•And, working Kuwaiti-born al Qaeda operative Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, they planned suicide bombing attacks against U.S. and western interests in the region -- a threat that's still in place today, Al-Faruq told the CIA.
Al Qaeda's men in the region -- say intelligence officials -- have also been actively infiltrating home grown groups, like the MILF in the Philippines, the KMM in Malaysia, Laskar Jundullah in Indonesia and Jemaah Islamiyah -- using their members for al Qaeda's plots.
But that's still only part of the picture. Intelligence reports gathered from across Southeast Asia say authorities are still searching for at least 14 other Al-Qaeda operatives.
These operatives, working with homegrown groups, have stockpiled at least 12 tons of explosives in the region, intelligence sources tell CNN:
•4 tons in Malaysia
•4.6 tons in the Philippines
•and at least 4 tons in Indonesia.
Under interrogation by the CIA Al-Faruq revealed that a Saudi sheikh, using a pseudonym allegedly linked to Osama Bin Laden, wired $74,000 to Abu Bakar Ba'asyir to purchase up to four tons of explosives in Indonesia.
According to Gunaratna, that was destined for one particular target.
"It is very likely that a portion of the explosives was used to construct the device and the devices that were detonated in Bali," he says.
The Bali blasts followed two weeks of seemingly scattered terrorist attacks in Jakarta, the Philippines, Kuwait and Yemen -- as well as taped statements by al Qaeda's top two leaders specifically threatening attacks on "economic lifelines."
Terrorism experts say the attack on the French supertanker off the coast of Yemen and the explosions in Bali -- hitting tourism -- show al Qaeda has declared war on the global economy.
"It has started to shift its strategy towards economic targets," says David Claridge of Janusian Securities Ltd.
"This has come out in the rhetoric of bin Laden," he says, "and some of his close colleagues who are now calling on their followers to target, specifically, economic targets."
That is why intelligence officials are again warning of new attacks, and this time, government officials are listening.
The U.S., Australia, Britain have warned citizens of attacks in popular tourist sites -- Indonesia for its part has issued alerts for attacks on vital oil and gas installations.
The Malacca Straits are a key route for global shipping
Intelligence sources tell CNN they fear a maritime attack on ships and ports on the Malacca Straits, a highly strategic sea-lane that carries one third of the world's trade and 80 percent of Japan's oil.
An attack here, analysts say, would traumatize the world economy.
"Al-Qaeda has shown themselves to be able to learn from previous attacks," says Claridge.
"They've shown themselves to be able to deliver the same tactics time and time again. They have an interest in maritime terrorism. We know that, and I think it's inevitable that groups within the region will be thinking about maritime terrorism."
There have already been several attempts over the past two years.
Intelligence officials say the planners behind the USS Cole planned another attack on a U.S. ship visiting a Malaysian port in 2000.
Less than a year later, Malaysia's Special Branch foiled a plan to ambush another U.S. ship.
Singapore intelligence also disrupted another al Qaeda plot to attack a U.S. ship early this year.
In Indonesia, Al-Faruq told Indonesian intelligence of plans to attack an American naval ship in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest port.
But stopping attacks requires more than just a military response.
"What we are doing is catching as many as we can with our intelligence network -- it is not just a purely military thing," says Philippine immigration commissioner Andrew Domingo.
"There is a huge propaganda war that is being waged right now," he warns, "and I think that we are not really winning in that arena."
That is part of Indonesia's problem -- where radicals are using the U.S. and its actions in the Middle East to whip up anti-Western sentiment and win more support from the moderate majority.
But the Bali blasts have changed that.
Long in denial about al Qaeda's existence, the Indonesian government is finally taking action.
Still, governments in the region, including the U.S., Australia and Britain, are hampered by their own domestic concerns, which prevent effective intelligence sharing and quick action.
"Nation states have still not gotten beyond the conventional position of interest of state," says Ajaj Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management.
"Each country thinks that it is in some measure on its own in this ballgame. We talk about globalization, but I would like to emphasize that the only truly globalized enterprise today is terrorism."
Security experts say governments in the region need to work closely together to dismantle this existing network and find the missing explosives.
If they delay, analysts warn, it will only be a matter of time before the next attack takes place.