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Evidence Emerging of Jemaah Islamiah's Links to Terrorism - 2002-10-18

One week after the bomb attacks in Bali, the Indonesian government prepares emergency measures to allow it to detain suspected terrorists. The development comes as authorities in Southeast Asia say there is increasing evidence that a regional group, Jemaah Islamiah, is a terrorist organization. Information on its terrorism plans first emerged in Singapore.

Security experts in the region say dozens of terrorist groups operate in Southeast Asia. But most have localized grievances, do not strike outside their communities and use unsophisticated weapons.

As a result, many experts were surprised when Singapore announced in January it had foiled a plot by a relatively unknown group, called Jemaah Islamiah. Singapore says the group planned to use tons of explosives in attacks against Western embassies and government installations in the city.

The Singaporeans got their first tip from a videotape discovered in Afghanistan. The tape showed potential targets in Singapore and military training by militants from various countries in the region.

Using this and other information, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines made scores of arrests. And from confessions by these detainees, the specter began to emerge of a region-wide organization with the funding and expertise to stage catastrophic attacks on Western and local facilities.

Singapore's Interior Minister Wong Kan Seng told VOA the investigation revealed that Jemaah Islamiah had evolved from a homegrown group into a major operation with links to global terrorism. "The link could well have been beginning in the 1990s or the late '80s. So we see now that the local networks are not just local, but have linked up with international networks like the al-Qaida," he said.

Singaporean authorities identify the leader of Jemaah Islamiah as Abu Bakar Bashir, the founder of a religious school in central Indonesia.

Experts say Jemaah Islamiah began as a group of devout Muslims decades ago. It became radicalized during a crackdown by the government of then-President Suharto, which caused Mr. Bashir and his followers to flee to Malaysia in the mid-1980s.

After Mr. Suharto fell in 1998, Mr. Bashir returned to Indonesia and resumed his teachings, which include calling for the creation of an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. He denies being the leader of Jemaah Islamiah but does not hide his opposition to U.S. policies in the Middle East and the war against terrorism.

Interior Minister Wong dismissed the cleric's claim of innocence. He said many detained members of Jemaah Islamiah have confessed their allegiance to Mr. Bashir. "In the case of Abu Bakar Bashir, his name surfaced rising from the investigation of the group detained by Singapore," he said. "They have called him the emir, which is the chief of their group, because he started the Jemaah Islamiah in Malaysia. From the information given it is clear that he is their leader."

There are reports that captured al-Qaida members have revealed that Jemaah Islamiah is allied with al-Qaida. They identified Indonesia as Jemaah Islamiah's main base and warned that it was planning major attacks across Southeast Asia.

The reports were met with skepticism, until the devastating attacks in Bali shattered the illusion that international terrorism had yet to reach the region. At least 180 people died October 12 when bombs tore apart a tourist area on Bali.

An expert on radical Islam and member of the Singaporean Parliament, Irene Ng, said Southeast Asia felt insulated from the violence. "But the Bali blast brought home to us that terrorists, using local operators, can cause great damage to a country," she said, "and they can infiltrate countries that are weak, that have weak governments with weak institutions, that are not able to act on them."

The author of a book on al-Qaida, Rohan Gunaratna sees the development in even more alarming terms. Professor Gunaratna said many terrorist groups that moved from the Middle East to Afghanistan during the 1980s have spread to Southeast Asia. He said the move was encouraged, in part, by the U.S.-led war on terrorism that ousted the hard-line Islamic government of Afghanistan. "Now we are seeing, with U.S. military action in Afghanistan, a diffusion of this threat to the Southeast Asian region," he added. "So we would expect an increase in terrorist support and operational activity in this region in the next one to two years."

Ms. Ng said the rise of international terrorism presents challenges to the region. She said governments here must be vigorous in confronting the violence. She warned that non-Muslims must resist the temptation to blame Islam because that will only radicalize moderate Muslims who, she said, also must address the issue.