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FBI: Southeast Asia Potential al-Qaida Safe Haven - 2002-03-15

The head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation says Southeast Asia is a potential sanctuary for members of the al-Qaida network as the terrorist group flees Afghanistan.

Visiting FBI Director Robert Mueller warns Southeast Asia and the Middle East are fertile ground for the al-Qaida terrorist network to relocate after losing its sanctuary in Afghanistan.

Mr. Mueller was in Singapore Friday as part of an Asia-Pacific tour to drum up more support for anti-terror efforts. He said it is crucial to prevent terrorists from finding new safe havens and the FBI is placing a strong emphasis on training law enforcement officials in other countries.

The FBI chief acknowledged that little is known about terrorist networks in Southeast Asia so more intelligence gathering is needed in the region. Mr. Mueller did not, however, specify which countries the FBI is most concerned about.

Dozens of suspected militants have been arrested in the region for allegedly planning a series of attacks on U.S. and Western targets. Officials in Singapore say the men belong to a radical Muslim group, Jemaah Islamiah, which has been linked to al-Qaida. The suspects are believed to have planned to blow up the U.S. embassy and other targets in the city-state.

Mr. Mueller, speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce, praised Singapore and the efforts of law enforcement officials in Malaysia and the southern Philippines in the war on terrorism.

He noted Indonesia has special challenges in dealing with the problem and specifically mentioned a lack of resources, large population, a sprawling geography made up of thousands of islands and political distractions. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, has been criticized for not cracking down on Islamic militants with the same zeal as its neighbors.

Mr. Mueller said the FBI has been cooperating with Indonesia and it would be counterproductive for him to criticize the country. He said he will seek to establish rapport with authorities in Indonesia during his visit to Jakarta. He will head to the Philippines Sunday. Earlier this week, he visited Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.