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Analysts Debate Jemaah Islamiyah's Links to al-Qaida - 2002-09-19

The war on terrorism has lately focused on a radical Islamic group in Indonesia that U.S. officials say is tied to al-Qaeda.

U.S. officials describe Jemaah Islamiyah as a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda that had planned to attack Western diplomatic missions in Singapore before a number of its members were arrested in recent weeks.

Officials would not talk on the record about the matter. But David Wiencek, head of the International Security Group, a private security consulting firm, says he believes the U.S. government's allegations about Jamaah Islamiyah to be correct.

"I think the evidence increasingly points to a connection to al-Qaeda. And they are involved in these various terrorist networks throughout Southeast Asia," he said. "J.I. members have been connected with plots in Singapore and in Malaysia and have been connected with terrorist activities in the Philippines as well as various violent groups in Indonesia as well as terrorist trading cells in Indonesia."

U.S. officials also say Abu Bakar Bashir, a prominent Muslim cleric in Indonesia and the reputed leader of Jamaah Islamiyah, was involved in the terrorist plots. Mr. Bashir denies the charge.

Robert Hefner, a senior fellow at the Institute of Religion and World Affairs at Boston University, says Mr. Bashir espouses a radical Islamist ideology. But he says Mr. Bashir's terrorist links are unclear.

"The question of whether Abu Bakar Bashir is actually linked to al-Qaeda or not is, I think, still very much open," he said. "I would have to say that, based on incomplete evidence, that Abu Bakar Bashir is a staunchly anti-American Muslim activist. But my suspicion is that he is not al-Qaeda. There are elements in his profile that distinguish him too much from al-Qaeda. But at the same time, he himself has acknowledged, indeed, in public in interviews in Indonesian that some among his students do appear to have become involved in activities that if not directly al-Qaeda-linked, are broadly consistent with those of al-Qaeda."

Mr. Weincek, however, says he has no doubt about Mr. Bashir's links.

"Yes, he seems to be the leader, the overall leader of J.I., at least in Indonesia and perhaps throughout the entire region, or one of the co-leaders, spiritual leaders," he said. "He runs a school, an Islamic school, and has been in contact with various terrorists throughout Southeast Asia. So he has been a key figure in these whole difficulties."

Some reports suggest the U.S. State Department is planning to place Jemaah Islamiyah on its list of terrorist organizations. Officials would neither confirm nor deny this.