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Top Al Qaeda Suspect Escapes

A suspected top al Qaeda operative who escaped from a U.S.-run detention facility in Afghanistan poses a serious threat to Southeast Asian security, anti-terror officials said Wednesday. Some said Washington failed to tell them Omar al-Farouq was free.

Al-Farouq, born in Kuwait to Iraqi parents, was considered one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants in Southeast Asia until Indonesian authorities captured him in 2002 and turned him over to the United States.

It was not clear how he and three other suspected Arab terrorists broke free from a heavily fortified detention facility in Bagram in July — though they reportedly claimed in a video broadcast earlier this month that they picked the lock of their cell.

Several razor-wire fences surround the base and areas outside the perimeter remain mined from Afghanistan's civil war and Soviet occupation. Military teams patrol constantly and the main entrance is a series of heavily guarded checkpoints.

Though the escape was widely reported at the time, al-Farouq was identified by another name.

The U.S. military only confirmed this week that the suspected terrorist — who lived in Indonesia for years, allegedly setting up terror training camps — was among the four.

Indonesian and Thai intelligence officials said Wednesday that Washington had not informed them of al-Farouq's escape — even though he had been planning terrorist strikes in the region, including their own countries.

"We know nothing about it," said Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, Indonesia's anti-terror chief. "If it's true, the U.S. government ... should have informed us. This man is dangerous and his escape increases the threat of terrorism in Indonesia."

"We need to coordinate security here as soon as possible to anticipate his return," Mbai added, noting that al-Farouq's wife and two children still live in a modest concrete home about an hour's drive from the capital, Jakarta.

Mbai said al-Farouq's escape "could energize a new generation of terrorists in Southeast Asia and the world."

The chief of Thailand's National Intelligence Agency also said he had not been told that al-Farouq was free.

"He hasn't escaped, has he?" Jumpol said by telephone in Bangkok. "We don't know anything about this."

Al-Farouq was recruited into al Qaeda in the early 1990s and went to the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan from 1992 and 1995, Ken Conboy, a Jakarta-based security consultant and terrorism expert, wrote in his book "Intel."

From there, he was sent to the Philippines, originally to enroll in a flight school so he could become proficient enough to commandeer a passenger plane on a suicide mission.

He failed to gain entry and instead went to a camp in the traditional Muslim homeland of Mindanao, where he trained in jungle warfare tactics along with members of the al Qaeda-linked militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, Conboy wrote.

Next, al-Farouq traveled by sea to neighboring Indonesia, where in 2000 he started setting up training camps for radicals engaged in sectarian clashes with the nation's Christian minority, the book says.

He was also reported to be planning a series of attacks on U.S. embassies and other Western interests throughout Southeast Asia, it says.

Al-Farouq's 27-year-old wife, Mira Agustina, said the United States never told her about her husband's arrest or his escape.

"I don't believe he's a terrorist," said Agustina, whose late father was also an alleged Jemaah Islamiyah operative. "He's an ordinary man who would cry when watching violent movies."

She said she had not heard from him, aside from a few letters he wrote while in Bagram.

"He's vanished, I don't think he's going to reappear," she said.

Conboy said he thought it was unlikely al-Farouq would risk returning to the region.

"He's Iraqi after all," Conboy said. "If he's not hiding out (in Afghanistan or Pakistan), he's probably headed to Iraq to join the fight there."

But a Philippine police intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said al-Farouq posed a danger to the region.

"His support groups are still in the region and that could provide an incentive for him to return," the officer said. "He's dangerous."

U.S. military officials have declined to elaborate on how al-Farouq and the three other Arab men escaped from Bagram.

Kabir Ahmed, the government leader in the area, said American investigators had found where the men fled through a field of wild grapevines.

"The soldiers found the escapees' footprints still in the mud," he said. "It was an amazing breakout. How they did it exactly I still don't know."

But on Oct. 18, the Arab satellite TV channel Al-Arabiya aired a videotape of the four militants describing their escape, according to two editors at the station.

They said they escaped on a Sunday when many of the Americans on the base were off duty, and one of the four, Muhammad Hassan, said to be Libyan, said he picked the lock of their cell.