Terror Group Filling The Void

A leadership vacuum left by the arrest of al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Asia has been quickly filled with a new operations chief and top bomb makers who are plotting deadly attacks on international hotels and other Western targets in the region, intelligence officials told The Associated Press.

Jemaah Islamiyah, a terror group fighting to establish a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, is in the middle of a recruitment drive and has appointed 48 people to carry out new attacks in three stages between December and April, a senior Indonesian intelligence adviser said.

The arrest of Hambali — Osama bin Laden's alleged point man in Asia — and the cracking of a terror ring blamed for bombings in Bali did temporarily disrupt the loose Jemaah Islamiyah network, officials say.

But the organization was able to regroup within three weeks of Hambali's Aug. 11 arrest in Thailand, the adviser said.

Authorities have detected plans to bomb a tourist hotel in one or all of the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan in December and January, said the adviser, a former government official who cited sources close to militants in the terror network.

Terrorists also have plans to target a U.S. bank in Indonesia in February or March, the adviser said, adding authorities have learned of a third stage of attacks in April but have been unable to identify targets.

In AP interviews, the adviser and other Asian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, identified the three top new Jemaah Islamiyah leaders as: Zulkarnaen, an Indonesian believed to have replaced Hambali as operations chief; Azahari bin Husin, a Malaysian academic and reputed top bomb maker; and Dulmatin, an Indonesian allegedly involved in the Bali blasts, which killed 202 people a year ago.

The three are believed to have been key players in the Aug. 5 bombing at Jakarta's J.W. Marriott hotel that killed 12 people.

The three men held a meeting in March on Sebatik — a small island off the coast of Borneo — to map out what they see as a holy war, according to the Indonesian intelligence adviser, who said it's unknown whether Hambali also attended. About 2,000 of Jemaah Islamiyah's estimated 3,000 members are believed to be in Indonesia.

Zulkarnaen leads an elite squad of militants called Laskar Khos, or special force, according to Lt. Gen. Erwin Mapasseng, Indonesia's chief of detectives. He said the group had been recruited from some 300 Indonesians who trained in the past in Afghanistan and the Philippines.

And Indonesian militants are in the middle of a recruiting drive — the third since 1998 — with radicals posing as food vendors and other merchants outside mosques to persuade people to join their jihad, the Indonesian adviser said. Jemaah is reorganizing in three main Indonesian regions — Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Sumatra.

The suspected terrorists, fearing infiltration, are avoiding cell phone conversations and conducting training outside the country, mostly in the southern jungles of the Philippines, Indonesian and Filipino officials told AP.

Cash believed to come from al Qaeda to finance attacks is hand carried to Indonesia via Malaysia and arms and explosives are entering Indonesia through the largely unpatrolled waterways between Mindanao island in the southern Philippines and Indonesia's Sulawesi island, two intelligence officials said. A typical bombing costs about $10,000, the intelligence adviser said.

Indonesian intelligence agents are growing beards, donning robes and attending prayer sessions and Quran readings to try to infiltrate the networks.

More than 200 Jemaah Islamiyah members have been arrested in five countries. Sidney Jones, a Jemaah Islamiyah expert who wrote a report on the organization for the International Crisis Group, said progress has been made in capturing and killing militants and stopping terror plots.

"The problem is the organization is simply larger and more sophisticated than anyone believed," Jones said.

Another problem is that cooperation with Washington is becoming a political liability in countries with large Muslim populations furious over U.S. policy in the Mideast.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and other national leaders don't publicly mention Jemaah Islamiyah by name in the country, which is home to more Muslims than any other nation, roughly 200 million.

And the government has not declared Jemaah Islamiyah a terrorist organization — making it impossible to prosecute membership in it as a crime — and has refused to shut down Islamic boarding schools associated with militants.

President Bush, heading to Asia on Friday, will stop in the Philippines and Indonesia — both considered the most likely terrorist targets in the region. His stays will be short because of security concerns.

Mr. Bush and 20 other leaders are holding a meeting of Pacific Rim nations in Bangkok, Thailand, on Monday and Tuesday. Security for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit — 20,000 troops and policemen, fighter jet escorts, mice to test food for poison — underscores the gravity of Asia's terrorism threat.

The State Department has long warned of a threat of more attacks in Indonesia. The most recent travel advisory on Indonesia, issued in August, warned of a potential for violence and terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests."

"The U.S. government believes extremist elements may be planning additional attacks targeting U.S. interests in Indonesia, particularly U.S. government officials and facilities," the warning read. "As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists will seek softer targets" like hotels schools and clubs.

The State Department warned Americans in the country to "keep a low profile, varying times and routes for all required travel, remaining acutely aware of their immediate environment."
By Steven Gutkin