Capture of Muslim Militia Leader Reveals Radical Groups' Links in Southeast Asia, Investigators Say
MANILA – Philippine and Western intelligence officials have identified an Indonesian man apprehended at Manila's international airport with bomb-making equipment as a leader of a Muslim extremist group that helped train al Qaeda operatives, sources familiar with the investigation said.
The arrest of Agus Dwikarna, a commander of the Laskar Jundullah militia, has provided intelligence officials with important new evidence about connections between Southeast Asian radical groups, particularly those in Indonesia, and al Qaeda, the sources said.
The intelligence officials say they believe that Laskar Jundullah, a small group that is part of a network of extremist organizations fighting to evict Christians from several central Indonesian islands, set up a secret paramilitary training camp on Sulawesi island, in central Indonesia, in late 2000.
The camp, located in dense jungle near the port city of Poso, attracted at least two dozen militants from the Philippines, several from Malaysia and scores from other parts of the world, including the Middle East, Europe and North Africa, a senior intelligence official involved in the case said.
The Filipinos were part of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest Muslim separatist group, the official said. He said they traveled to Indonesia after their main base was overrun by the Philippine military in 2000.
The Malaysians were members of the Malaysian Mujaheddin Group, which is affiliated with Jemaah Islamiah, an al Qaeda-linked organization that plotted to blow up several Western embassies in Singapore, the official said.
"Dwikarna was a very important player," the senior official said. "He helped bring together al Qaeda members from around the world to train in Indonesia."
A senior Western diplomat in Southeast Asia called the arrest of Dwikarna "a very key building block in trying to find out the terrorist networks and connections in the region."
Dwikarna, 36, a businessman who is active in several radical groups, was arrested at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in mid-March after security personnel discovered what they said were plastic explosives and detonation cable in his suitcase.
He denied any wrongdoing in a recent telephone interview with the Indonesian newsmagazine Tempo, asserting that he was set up by Indonesia's intelligence service. He and two traveling companions, who were also arrested, insisted they were on a business trip.
Indonesian police and military officials have disputed the existence of a training camp near Poso, saying their searches of the area have turned up nothing.
But a senior Indonesian intelligence official confirmed that a camp did exist, although it was a well-kept secret among Islamic radicals. He said the ramshackle facility, where recruits were taught how to use automatic weapons and make bombs, was dismantled shortly after Sept. 11.
The camp was an attractive training ground for terrorists from Europe and elsewhere because it offered the opportunity to participate in a jihad, or holy war, the official said.
He said many of the pupils joined in raids on Christian villages near Poso and in the nearby Moluccas islands.
The senior intelligence official said Dwikarna also provided alibis to several hundred foreigners traveling there. The official said Dwikarna gave documents to many of the foreigners written on the letterhead of a Muslim charity for which he worked, the Committee to Overcome Crisis, stating that they were humanitarian aid workers.
Indonesian officials said police officers in the Poso area briefly detained several non-Indonesians who were traveling to the camp in August and again in October, but released them after they produced letters from the charity signed by Dwikarna.
The senior official said Dwikarna likely worked with Parlindungan Siregar, an Indonesian living in Spain who is alleged by Spanish authorities to have helped arrange for several hundred al Qaeda operatives from Europe to travel to Indonesia for training.
Dwikarna is active in a host of hard-line Muslim groups in Indonesia, including the Indonesian Mujaheddin Council, which wants to turn the country into an Islamic state. The group is led by Abubakar Baasyir, a cleric who is accused by the governments of Singapore and Malaysia of being the ideological leader of Jemaah Islamiah.
Dwikarna's traveling companions were released last month because Philippine prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge them, a decision made after intense lobbying by Indonesia's Foreign Ministry and political leaders.
One of the two, Tamsil Linrung, served as the treasurer of one of Indonesia's largest Muslim political parties, which accused the government of orchestrating the arrests as a political attack. To defuse the allegations, officials close to President Megawati Sukarnoputri joined in calls for the pair's release.
Indonesian intelligence officials said the person in whom they are most interested is Dwikarna. But even though they have secretly shared information about him with their Philippine counterparts and have urged them to pursue their investigation, many Indonesian politicians and diplomats continue to push for his release.
"This is an individual with extremely questionable and troubling connections, many of which still need to be investigated," the senior Western diplomat said. "It would be a real travesty if that opportunity was forgone."www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A56274-2002May8.htmlE-mail this article