THE WASHINGTON POST, Friday, January 11, 2002; Page A01
Al Qaeda Feared To Be Lurking In Indonesia
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post Foreign Service
JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In August last year, U.S. intelligence agents learned that
Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network had obtained a highly detailed,
hand-drawn map of the U.S. diplomatic compound here.
The discovery stoked immediate fears of a U.S. Embassy bombing akin to those in
Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But it also provided one of the first indications that al
Qaeda was focusing attention on Indonesia, the Southeast Asian country that is
home to more Muslims than any other nation.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, signs of al Qaeda activity
in Indonesia have multiplied. U.S. and Indonesian intelligence officials say they believe
that hundreds of foreigners who may be linked to al Qaeda and coming from as far
away as Europe visited a secret training camp last year in the jungles of Sulawesi, an
island in central Indonesia.
The leader of the country's largest and most-violent Muslim militia has acknowledged
to police that he was offered financial backing by a bin Laden aide. And intelligence
officials said they have identified links between bin Laden and a prominent Muslim
cleric who heads a paramilitary group.
U.S. officials also have become increasingly concerned that some al Qaeda members
may have established "sleeper cells" in Indonesia that could become operational now
that many of the group's leaders in Afghanistan have been forced into hiding, captured
But despite such clues, U.S. and Indonesian officials said they still are struggling to
ascertain the scope of al Qaeda's operations in Indonesia and the network's
connections with indigenous extremist groups. "We know they're here," a senior
Indonesian intelligence official said. "We just haven't found them."
The prospect of significant al Qaeda activity in Indonesia has prompted the Bush
administration to put Indonesia on a short list of nations to focus on as the U.S.-led
campaign against terrorism expands beyond Afghanistan. "Going after al Qaeda in
Indonesia," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said recently, "is not
something that should wait until after al Qaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan."
In many ways, Indonesia is an easy place for terrorist groups to operate. Composed
of more than 17,000 islands, it has some of the world's most porous borders. Law
enforcement and banking regulations are lax. Guns and explosives are easy to
Indonesia also is home to several radical Muslim groups, which want the officially
secular nation to adopt rigid Islamic laws. Although most Indonesians do not support
the local militants, the strength of the groups has mushroomed in recent years, fueled
in part by increasing poverty and a surging interest in fundamentalist Islamic theology.
The local groups "have created a very conducive host environment for foreign
terrorists," a U.S. official said. "There is already an infrastructure here for them to plug
A sectarian conflict in the Moluccas islands, where for three years Muslim militants
have been waging a jihad, or holy war, against Christian villagers, provides foreign
trainees exposure to fighting. "Indonesia offers practical jihad experience you can't get
in too many other places," a senior U.S. official said.
Indonesian police and military officials have publicly denied that foreign terrorist
groups have set up training camps in the country. But privately, intelligence and
government officials said they believe al Qaeda operatives ran a makeshift training
facility on Sulawesi last year. The camp, officials said, was located in dense jungle
near the port city of Poso, which has been riven by religious fighting.
The officials said the camp, a collection of ramshackle huts where recruits were
taught how to use automatic weapons and build bombs, was operated by al Qaeda
members with the assistance of local Muslim militants. Unlike other paramilitary
training facilities in Indonesia, a country where political groups often have armed
wings, this camp was a well-kept secret, officials said.
"This one was different," one official said. "It was by foreigners, for foreigners."
Indonesian intelligence officials estimated that over the past year several hundred
people, many of them from Europe, Pakistan and the Middle East, entered the
country posing as aid workers to reach the camp.
The officials said that in August and October, police officers briefly detained several
non-Indonesians traveling in the Poso area, but they were released after showing local
officials a letter from a Muslim charity based in southern Sulawesi stating they were
going to Poso to help rebuild mosques.
A senior Indonesian intelligence official said investigators subsequently discovered
that the charity, known as the Crisis Prevention Committee, had "connections to
Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda." Police have concluded the foreigners were probably
going to or from the camp when they were detained.
The senior official said intelligence agents began looking for the camp after authorities
in Spain passed along evidence that had been obtained in the investigation of eight
suspected al Qaeda members arrested in November. The evidence indicated that
hundreds of foreign fighters had traveled to the Poso area for training last year.
A Spanish court indictment identified a 34-year-old Indonesian man, Parlindungan
Siregar, who studied aeronautical engineering in Spain in the 1990s, as a key
organizer of the training missions. Spanish authorities have alleged that he is affiliated
with the Laskar Jihad, the Muslim militia leading the fight in the Moluccas and in Poso
to evict Christians and implement Islamic law.
The indictment called Siregar, whose phone number was found in address books
belonging to two of the eight suspects, a "leader of one of the camps in that country
in service to Osama bin Laden."
The senior Indonesian intelligence official said agents have not yet found Siregar or
others allegedly involved in conducting the training, but they have identified the
location of the camp, which they said is no longer operational. "They probably closed
it down after the arrests in Spain," the official said. "We're keeping a watch on it. If
they come back, we will go in and arrest them."
A Laskar spokesman said the group has not trained non-Indonesian fighters, but he
acknowledged that some "foreign volunteers have helped with humanitarian work."
The leader of the Laskar Jihad, Jaffar Umar Thalib, has denied that his organization
has links to al Qaeda.
Jaffar has told police and local journalists that he met bin Laden in Pakistan in 1987
as they both were preparing to enter Afghanistan to fight against invading Soviet
forces. Jaffar said he was quickly turned off by bin Laden's wealth and what he
thought was bin Laden's poor grasp of Islam. Jaffar said he opposes bin Laden's use
of suicide bombers.
In July, bin Laden sent an emissary to the Moluccas to offer financial support to the
Laskar Jihad and to urge the group to join the al Qaeda network, Jaffar said. He said
The envoy, Jaffar said, was accompanied by members of another group, Laskar
Mujaheddin, which also is attacking Christian villagers in the Moluccas and on
Sulawesi. Indonesian intelligence officials said the leader of the Laskar Mujaheddin, a
prominent Muslim cleric named Abubakar Baasyir, has long-standing ties to bin
Officials said he sent a letter to dozens of hard-line Muslim clerics in Indonesia and
Malaysia in 1998, after the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, saying that bin Laden
wanted them "to prepare for a jihad against Americans." The letter concluded by
offering the clerics a chance to meet bin Laden "through the safest way."
Baasyir denies he has connections to bin Laden, but he does not condemn the
tactics the Saudi-born fugitive employs. "America has declared war on Islam," he said
during an interview at a large religious school that he runs on the main Indonesian
island of Java. "Planting bombs, suicide attacks, that's part of war."
U.S. and Indonesian officials said they suspect al Qaeda is associated with both
Laskar Jihad and Laskar Mujaheddin, but they lack evidence to make a conclusive
A U.S. official said it remains unclear whether significant numbers of al Qaeda
operatives remain in Indonesia. "We know they have come and gone, and it seems
clear they'll be back again," the official said. "But are they here now? Have they set
up sleeper cells here? We still are not sure."
Discovery of the hand-drawn map of the U.S. diplomatic compound was confirmed by
U.S. officials, who declined to give a full account of the incident, citing national
security concerns. After the map was found, already-tight security at the embassy
was increased and U.S. counterterrorism experts mounted an intense investigation
into who might be planning an attack, but their efforts yielded no definitive suspects,
The map's existence added to fears for the compound's security in October, after the
United States began its bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Thousands of protesters
besieged the embassy, causing the State Department to evacuate nonessential
diplomatic personnel from the country.
"The map really freaked people out," said a U.S. official. "It made people recognize,
for the first time, that al Qaeda was serious about Indonesia."
The lack of firm intelligence about al Qaeda is one of the key challenges facing the
United States as it attempts to broaden its campaign against terrorism.
For years, Western spy agencies paid little attention to Indonesia as a potential base
for international terrorists. The country's intelligence services also failed to collect
information, because they were distracted by separatist rebellions and almost four
years of political turmoil in the capital, Jakarta.
Indonesia's economic woes hampered what little intelligence-gathering was
attempted. The government cannot afford equipment that is standard in many
countries, including devices to tap mobile phones, the senior Indonesian intelligence
official said. "How can we pursue these guys if we can't even listen to their phone
calls?" the official said.
Even if details of al Qaeda's operations in Indonesia become clearer, pursuing
terrorists in this conflict-racked country of 220 million could prove vexing.
Unlike Somalia or Iraq, Indonesia has a friendly relationship with the United States,
making unilateral military action by Washington highly unlikely. Cooperating with local
forces, as the United States is doing in the Philippines, also is doubtful because of a
U.S. law, passed in the wake of the Indonesian army's human-rights abuses in East
Timor, that prevents military assistance to Indonesia.
U.S. military officials have said the law should be rescinded in the interest of the war
on terrorism. Efforts to overturn the amendment failed last month, but the Pentagon
did win the right to provide anti-terrorist training to the Indonesian military this year.
U.S. officials also have quietly expanded the scope of intelligence about
terrorist-related issues that is shared with Indonesia, with the hope that it might spur
police and military leaders to take more aggressive steps to crack down on extremist
groups. But the effort has received a mixed reception.
Although some officials in Jakarta want to rein in such groups as Laskar Jihad, many
others are reluctant, fearing a crackdown could spark retaliation by the groups and
alienate conservative Muslim political parties that are part of President Megawati
Sukarnoputri's ruling coalition.
"Our American friends need to understand that we are in a very difficult position," the
senior Indonesian intelligence official said. "These groups are our enemy. They are
hurting us and we want to hurt them back. But we need to take careful steps. If we
approach it the wrong way, our government can be toppled."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company